JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday declared Guenter Grass persona non grata, deepening a spat with the Nobel-winning author over a poem that deeply criticized the Jewish state and suggested it was as much a danger as Iran.
The dispute with Grass, who only late in life admitted to a Nazi past, has drawn new attention to strains in Germany's complicated relationship with the Jewish state – and also focused unwelcome light on Israel's own secretive nuclear program.
In a poem called "What Must Be Said" published last Wednesday, Grass, 84, criticized what he described as Western hypocrisy over Israel's nuclear program and labeled the country a threat to "already fragile world peace" over its belligerent stance on Iran.
The poem has touched a raw nerve in Israel, where officials have rejected any moral equivalence with Iran and been quick to note that Grass admitted only in a 2006 autobiography that he was drafted into the Waffen-SS Nazi paramilitary organization at age 17 in the final months of World War II.
Grass' subsequent clarification that his criticism was directed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not the country as a whole, did little to calm the outcry.
On Sunday, Israel's interior minister, Eli Yishai, announced that Grass would be barred from Israel, citing an Israeli law that allows him to prevent entry to ex-Nazis. But Yishai made clear the decision was related more to the recent poem than Grass' actions nearly 70 years ago.
"If Guenter wants to spread his twisted and lying works, I suggest he does this from Iran, where he can find a supportive audience," Yishai said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Grass of anti-Semitism.
The uproar has touched upon some of the most sensitive issues in modern-day Israel: the Holocaust, Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and Israel's own illicit nuclear program that is widely believed to have produced an arsenal of bombs.
It also has unleashed a debate in Germany, where criticism of Israel is largely muffled because of the country's Nazi past. Grass' most famous book, The Tin Drum, is about the rise of the Nazis and World War II as told through the lives of ordinary people. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.
According to a biography from his museum in Germany, Grass has been in Israel at least once – notably accompanying Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1973 on the first official state visit of a German chancellor to Israel.
Israel gained independence in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust and became a refuge for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the World War II Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews. Some 200,000 aging survivors still live in Israel.
The scars of the Holocaust have deeply influenced Israeli thinking over the years. Israel marks a Holocaust memorial day every year with a siren that brings the country to a standstill for two minutes. Israel's drive to maintain a powerful military has been shaped by the thought that its enemies want to repeat what the Nazis tried to do.
More recently, Netanyahu has turned to Holocaust imagery in warning the world of the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. In a speech last month to American Jewish leaders, Netanyahu said, "Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again."
Israel, along with much of the international community, believes that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. The Israelis fear a nuclear Iran would threaten its existence, given repeated Iranian calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and have threatened to attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail. A new round of talks between the West and Iran are set to begin this week in Turkey.
Rarely mentioned in the debate – except by Iran – is that Israel itself is widely believed to possess its own undeclared arsenal of nuclear bombs. That assessment, by foreign experts, is in part based on photos that were taken by a rogue technician at an Israeli nuclear facility in 1986.
Israel neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons and has refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would subject it to international inspections.
Grass' poem took exception with Israel's alleged program, and alluded to Germany's sale to Israel of submarines capable of firing "all-destroying" nuclear missiles into Iran.
He further outraged Israelis by referring to their "alleged right to the first strike that could annihilate the Iranian people" – even though Israel has not threatened the entire country, only its nuclear installations.
Tom Segev, an Israeli Holocaust historian, said he found Grass' allegations against Israel to be "absurd" but nonetheless felt the Israel response was exaggerated and reflected a troubling lack of tolerance for criticism. Israel has barred a handful of critics, including American linguist Noam Chomsky, from entering the country.
"The need to delegitimize criticism is a very dangerous, autocratic tendency which has increased in recent years. It's very demagogic. Netanyahu and Leiberman are experts in doing that. Every word of criticism will immediately be presented as a sign of anti-Semitism," Segev said.
"If we are really distributing entry permits to Israel according to people's political views, then we really are putting ourselves in the company of countries like Iran, and Syria," he added.
Grass' poem has also opened up some delicate issues in Germany. As a result of the country's Nazi past, German governments have made staunch support for Israel a cornerstone of their foreign policy, making the country one of Israel's most trusted allies in the EU.
For decades, criticism of Israel was largely taboo, though that has begun to loosen in recent years, particularly when discussing Netanyahu's hawkish stance on peace talks with the Palestinians.
The government, however, has resoundingly criticized Grass' poem. Politicans, leaders of Jewish groups and newspaper editorials have all accused Grass of turning reality upside-down by labeling Israel the aggressor and Iran the presumed victim. The author was also openly accused of being anti-Semitic, not least by the country's conservative mass-circulation tabloid Bild.
Writing in the newspaper Sunday, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Sunday became the first Cabinet member to react publicly to the controversy. "To put Israel and Iran morally on the same level is not intelligent, it is absurd," Westerwelle wrote.
A few voices have come forward to welcome Grass' comments as a valuable contribution to public debate, by dragging Israel's nuclear arsenal into the spotlight and outlining the danger of a military confrontation with Iran – which could cause global economic and military mayhem.
"It is a war that could plunge the entire world into the abyss," editorialist Jakob Augstein wrote in Germany's top-rated news website Spiegel Online.
Germany's main opposition party – the center-left Social Democrats, whom Grass has often backed in election campaigns – said the Israeli travel ban was excessive.
"A democratic and pluralistic country such as Israel can also bear controversial opinions, especially because Guenter Grass' views are not anti-Semitic," the party's top lawmaker on foreign policy, Rolf Muetzenich, told the daily Handelsblatt. He called the Israeli decision "a sign of hopelessness."
Juergen Baetz contributed to this report from Berlin.