Israel is a country that is used to living by its wits—an excellent substitute, in a nation riddled with problems, for the more tangible assets of great wealth or great numbers of citizens or great neighbors.
Why then has Israel suddenly turned witless? I am referring of course to the recent decision by Interior Minister Eli Yishai to declare the once great German novelist Günter Grass “persona non grata,” which means that Grass, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in for The Tin Drum in 1999, isn’t allowed to go to Israel. Not that the author seems to show any inclination to do so these days. In a lousy poem, titled “What Must Be Said,” Grass, now 84, writes: “Why do I say only now, / Aged and with my last drop of ink, / That the nuclear power Israel endangers / The already fragile world peace?” Then he answers his own question: “It is the alleged right to first strike / That could annihilate the Iranian people— / Enslaved by a loud-mouth …”
This so-called poem, as you can imagine, did not go down well with lots of people everywhere, not only Israelis. On the other hand, it was extremely well received by Iran’s Press TV, which is controlled by the loudmouth. The loudmouth, it turns out, is far less sensitive to criticism than certain Israeli officials who couldn’t stop fuming.
“If Günter Grass wants to continue to spread his distorted and false works I suggest he do it in Iran, where a receptive audience awaits him,” said Interior Minister Yishai. Not to be outdone, on Monday Israeli foreign minister, the always irrepressible Avigdor Lieberman, told Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti (who has millions of other things on his mind right now, owing to Italy’s disastrous economy) that the elderly Grass was (a) simply trying to sell books and (b) such a threat to worldwide Jewish existence that his latest oeuvre should be censored just about everywhere.
“We expect the leaders in Europe to move decisively against such expressions by influential opinion makers,” Lieberman told Monti, “and not to allow them to continue to enjoy mainstream respectability.”
One can only hope Monti, a famous technocrat, was too busy mulling over depreciating 10-year bonds to lend an ear. Italy, like much of Europe, is ripe territory for censorship—actually, even riper than most of its sister nations. It has for the last eight years considered defamation a serious crime: and a crime, moreover, that is not only poorly defined, but can get the defamer—i.e., any critic—up to 18 months in jail and a 100,000 euro fine.
So what exactly should Israel’s official reaction to Grass’s poem have been? There are many, many topics one could suggest. Among them: Its top officials could have reminded everyone that Grass’s service during World War II in the Waffen SS unit was an interlude he never bothered to mention until 2006; that, had his service to The Führer been widely known, he would certainly never have received the Nobel Prize for literature (or anything else); that the latest Grass poem was published, in an amazing example of timing, right before the Jewish holiday of Passover; that the appearance of the Grass poem in a newspaper published in, of all places, Munich (with a Nazi history even more imperfect than Grass’s) might be considered a tad … insensitive.
Or, finally and most convincing of all, Israel could have—should have—indicated that even the once talented and brilliant are not immune to deterioration. That, in short, at 84, Grass may not now have, as his latest poetry suggests, all his marbles. That kind of suggestion could get you lots of jail time in Italy. But it is a far, far better riposte to bad poetry and dull rhetoric than either pleading for censorship or issuing travel bans.