Israel’s travel ban on Gunter Grass is a strike against free speech

Written by The Indian Express | Published: April 10, 2012 2:36 am

Israel’s travel ban on Gunter Grass is a strike against free speech

Germany’s most famous living author and Nobel laureate Gunter Grass stirred up a controversy that spread across Europe and Israel with a poem that,among other things,took Israel to task over its threats to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. In retaliation,Israel has barred him from entering the country,a step that is unlikely to have any effect on the 84-year-old Grass. Instead,Israel once again looks like a nation that cannot bear any criticism of itself without invoking a cry of anti-Semitism.

Grass predicted the charges of anti-Semitism that have followed the publication of his poem “What Must Be Said”,especially as it raised,once again,the spectre of his 2006 revelation that he had been inducted in the Waffen SS at the age of 17. That admission had shaken Germany’s belief in the public figure widely considered to be its moral conscience; the writer whose work helped shape post-war Germany’s political and ethical vision of itself. Although Grass’s legacy survived that brush with infamy,the outcry over this poem in Germany and Israel suggests the wounds have not healed.

Whatever be the merits of the argument in the poem — Grass has been accused of false equivalence in placing Israel and Iran on the same moral plane — the automatic equation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is a false bogey,and should be recognised as such. It must be possible to be critical of Israel’s policies without charges of anti-Semitism being misused to shield Israel from disapproval. An unpopular opinion by an artist or a writer shouldn’t be an excuse for political action amounting to censorship. Israel prides itself,justifiably,on its democratic credentials in a region where these are in short supply. The ban on Grass is a shame.

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