BERLIN — Nobel Literature Laureate Guenter Grass was to recite part of a controversial political poem criticizing Israel on Thursday evening and defend it during a German television broadcast.
Publication of the free-verse poem on Wednesday caused an international storm. The leftist author, 84, claimed Israel was preparing a first strike to “wipe out the Iranian people” and wrote he was “fed up with the hypocrisy of the West.”
Public broadcaster NDR, which recorded the interview with Grass, said Grass felt misunderstood and ganged up on by the reaction.
“The attitude across the board has been not to discuss the content of the poem, but to mount a campaign against me and claim my reputation has been trashed for all time,” NDR quoted him saying.
“The old cliches have been reused. Some of it is very wounding. The term anti-Semitism was immediately employed, which was expectable,” he said.
The leftist writer, who has repeatedly criticized his fellow Germans and U.S. foreign policy over half a century and has been termed sanctimonious by his numerous opponents, contended that “the nuclear power Israel is endangering world peace.”
Publication of the poem, “What Must Be Said,” caused controversy both in Israel and Germany. That controversy was only heightened by Grass’ backstory. A liberal literary icon, he admitted in 2006 that he volunteered to become a soldier in the Waffen SS, the Nazi Party army, at age 17 in 1944.
Grass won the Nobel in 1999. His 1958 novel, “The Tin Drum,” was an indictment of the German mindset in the Nazi era.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Grass’ shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel, says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass.”
“For six decades, Mr. Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen SS. So, for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising,” a statement released by Netanyahu’s office said.
Noting that Iran “stones women, hangs gays and brutally represses tens of millions of its own citizens,” “supports the Syrian regime’s massacre of its own peoples” and supports organizations which fire rockets on civilians, the statement called on “decent people everywhere” to condemn Grass’ “ignorant and reprehensible statements.”
Speculation has been growing in recent months that Israel intends to launch a military strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, to end, or at least retard significantly, the country’s nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Nobel Peace Laureate Eli Wiesel said Thursday the Grass poem worried him.
“Iran is ruled by a cruel dictator, who has repeatedly announced his intention to destroy Israel. So how does Grass decide that Israel is the threat to world peace, and not Iran?” Wiesel asked in a column published in the Yediot Aharanot daily.
“I simply do not understand it and do not grasp it. What happened here? Has the ‘old German’ suddenly returned and raised his head?” he asked.
Wiesel, a Jewish-American author of 57 books, and Holocaust survivor, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, with the Nobel Committee calling him a “messenger to mankind.”
“I understand that Mr. Grass suddenly thinks he has acquired deep expertise in the nuclear field, but what did he hope to achieve with it?” Wiesel went on.
Grass’ poem also evoked scorn from Israeli historian Tom Segev.
“Unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently confided in him, his opinion is vacuous,” Segev said in the Ha’aretz daily Thursday.
Wiesel said he had always held “a deep appreciation” of Grass’ “important” works as an author.
But, he wrote, “this was before we discovered his past as an SS soldier. And this is perhaps the most infuriating thing about his ‘poem’: I would expect that Grass, with his loaded and problematic past, would display a little more caution and modesty.”
Israel regards Iran as its prime threat, because of Tehran’s nuclear program, coupled with repeated statements by President Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders to wipe the Jewish state off the map.