BERLIN – Guenter Grass says Israel's decision to bar him from visiting the country because of his poem criticizing the Jewish state reminds him of similar steps that dictatorial governments have taken against him.
Previously the German literature Nobel laureate has only been barred from entering a nation by then Communist-ruled East Germany and the military junta in Myanmar about 25 years ago, Grass said in a reaction piece published by German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday.
Grass, 84, said the tone of Israel's announcement on Sunday reminded him of the reasoning then given by spy minister Erich Mielke of East Germany, or GDR.
"The GDR has ceased to exist. Israel's government, however, as a nuclear power of uncontrolled scope, considers itself powerful on its own and is so far not open for admonitions. In Myanmar alone, there are seeds of hope," he wrote, referring to the Southeast Asian nation's recent political thaw.
In his poem "What Must Be Said," published by Sueddeutsche Zeitung and other dailies across Europe on April 4, Grass criticized what he called Western hypocrisy over Israel's nuclear program and labeled the country a threat to "already fragile world peace" over its belligerent stance regarding Iran.
On Sunday, Israel's interior minister, Eli Yishai, announced that Grass — who only late in his life admitted to a Nazi past — would be barred from Israel, citing an Israeli law that allows it 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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sharply rejected Grass' poem, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Grass of anti-Semitism.
In his poem, Grass called for "unhindered and permanent control of Israel's nuclear capability and Iran's atomic facilities through an international body." Also, he specifically criticized Israel's "claim to the right of a first strike" against Iran.
Grass on Wednesday stressed that the travel ban won't hinder him from keeping the memories of his past trips to Israel alive. "I still see myself bound to Israel forever," he said.
In Israel, Grass' poem has touched a raw nerve, 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 Netanyahu's government, not the country as a whole, did little to calm the outcry.
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.
Rarely mentioned in the debate — except by Iran — is that Israel itself is widely believed to possess its own undeclared arsenal of nuclear bombs.
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.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jbaetz