Tel Aviv's decision to bar Nobel Prize-winning German author Günter Grass from entering Israel is blinkered and lacking in all good sense. By reacting in this manner to his recent poem — which warned Germany against selling submarines to Israel, whose “atomic power endangers an already fragile world peace” — Benjamin Netanyahu's government has raised another question on its commitment to freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent. For a country that likes to project itself as an island of democracy in a region surrounded by illiberal theocracies, the reflexive ban on Mr. Grass is counter-productive for at least two reasons. It has drawn more attention to his poem, ‘What Must Be Said,' than it would have otherwise received. And it has shown up Israel as small-minded, a nation that feels threatened by a mere poem. Irrespective of whether one agrees with him or not, Mr. Netanyahu was within his rights to rail against the poem, which he maintained had made a “shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran.” The Israeli Prime Minister went on to draw his own ‘equivalence' — between the fact that Mr. Grass was once a (conscripted) member of the Waffen SS and his poem's message that Israel is a threat to world peace. The worst that one can say of such a personal attack is that it was in extremely bad taste. But by barring Mr. Grass, his government has signalled Israel's disinclination to even engage with those who differ with it in the marketplace of ideas.
Mr. Grass's overtly political poem has been the subject of much debate, even criticism, in his own country, both for its literary merit and for its strategic vision. If the first is difficult to assess in translation, the second must be assessed against Germany's Nazi past, which has created a climate of guilt and fostered an intellectual environment in which attacking Israel is equated with anti-semitism. Grass himself hints at this in the poem: “But why have I kept silent until now? Because I thought my own origins, Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed…” The writer's brief association with the SS as a 17-year-old was not unusual in a period when youth were forcibly conscripted into what was the armed wing of the Nazi Party. His fault lay in not disclosing this until 2006. More than one of his novels, most notably The Tin Drum, that classic of post-World War II literature, were fierce and savagely funny attacks on Nazism. The Israeli establishment's attempt to paint him as a closet Nazi is detestable and will find hardly any takers. It is one thing to dislike or disagree with his poem; but as Salman Rushdie tweeted, “to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be words.”