In an era in which the lifespan of news items is measured in hours rather than days, the poem “What Must Be Said” by playwright and poet Günter Grass managed to remain in German headlines for more than a week. Why was the criticism of the contents of the poem (which earned the description “disgusting” by one literary critic) as widespread as it was? What raw nerve did Grass touch that set off the controversy? Was there anything new, really, in the poem’s motifs? What may be concluded about the relationship between the two nations from the debate that flared up, or can nothing be learned about Germany’s conduct on the issue Grass used so cynically, i.e., Germany’s response to the possibility of an Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities?
In an attempt to understand Grass’s motives to publish the poem, many commentators are driven to explore the poet himself, i.e., his advanced age and the narcissistic tendencies that he and other elderly notables, who find it hard to make peace with sinking into public obscurity, develop to cope with their situation, and who know that there is nothing better for reminding everyone of their existence than using loaded subjects such as Israel and Jews. The chance that statements such as the ones made by Grass would pass unnoticed was zero. In this sense, Grass was wildly successful, though his success was twinned with the question of his anti-Semitism. Most critics opined that he is not an anti-Semite even if he, according to most critics, made use of anti-Semitic clichés in his critique of Israel.
In studying the poem’s main themes one finds nothing new; these have accompanied Israel-Germany relations for a long time. Grass’s statement that Israel (as a nuclear nation) jeopardizes world peace is not new. Those who follow Israel’s image in German public opinion in particular, and European public opinion in general, remember an opinion poll undertaken by the EU at the height of the second Intifada (October 2003) among fifteen EU members. One of the questions referred to the nations representing a threat to world peace; 59 percent of respondents ranked Israel first, ahead of the United States, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the use Grass makes of words (the elimination of the Iranian people, or Germany’s partnership in the crime Israel is going to commit) with their clear echoes to the Nazi era is also not new. During Israel’s battle against Palestinian terrorism all through the years of the second Intifada, media coverage included reporting that used Nazi terminology to describe Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians (this is not the place to expand on the issue of how German society confronts its sense of guilt; suffice it to say that the ability to point to the victim, in this case Israel, as currently representing the collective Jew as a victim that has, through its own conduct, become a murderer, helps it cope with its unique sense of responsibility).