I thought the Günter Grass issue was behind us yesterday, but it isn’t letting up. After Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced that Grass would be persona non grata in Israel (on the basis of a law that, understandably, bars former Nazis), a number of voices were raised against the ban, while agreeing that Grass’ poem was obnoxious.
For example, Alan Dershowitz said,
Grass should be debated and defeated in the marketplace of ideas rather than banned from participating in face to face dialogue with Israeli intellectuals and political figures, who are perfectly capable of confronting him in the public arena of debate and dialogue, and even of literature. Israel need not fear poets or polemicists. It should certainly not use its security apparatus, which includes control over its borders, to exclude has-been octogenarian writers with whom it disagrees.
Salman Rushdie, the author with an Iranian death fatwa on his head, tweeted,
OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique, the answer to words must always be other words.
With the decision to ban Grass, Israel changed the subject from his feculent poem … to a question of whether the Israeli government is opposed to the free exchange of ideas.
…by overreacting to Grass’ criticism, Israeli officials are acting like, well, Iranians.
All are missing the point. His freedom of expression is not being limited by the ban — he can say whatever he wants in Germany, or even Iran, or any other place — just not in Israel. And really, do we need “a free exchange of ideas” like these? Sometimes an accusation is so absurd that even refuting it gives it a status it doesn’t deserve.
Rather than pique, the decision — which as far as I know is purely symbolic, with Grass showing no desire to visit Israel — is an expression of a more important principle, that of Jewish sovereignty.
By shutting the door in Grass’ face, Israel is saying something like this:
We can’t prevent people like Grass from making vicious and hateful statements, but we don’t have to let them in our house.
Jews have been forced to listen to vicious libels and demonization from the mouths of those that hate them for hundreds of years, often trembling in fear at what they portend. Now we have our own house. Here we have the right — and the power — to demand respect.
We don’t have to take abuse, to pretend that disputation with antisemites is simply an “exchange of ideas.” We don’t have to defer to idiots like Grass, nor do we have to beg our powerful enemies to let us live.
Maybe we are a little touchy sometimes, but given our history it is understandable.