*Günter Grass and the anti-Semitism Canard

Günter Grass, some say, invites controversy.  For many years, he excoriated his fellow Germans to come clean about their past and confront the brute facts that might help explain how Germany became the seat of most terrifying machinery of human extermination that the world had ever witnessed.  However, not until Grass was nearly 80 years old did he confess that, as a 17-year old at end of the war, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS, a paramilitary force attached to the Nazi party.  Grass is in the eye of the storm again, this time with a poem, published in several European newspapers on April 4th and rendered in English as ‘What Must Be Said’, that warns the world that ‘Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace’.    Declaring himself sick of ‘the West’s hypocrisy’, Grass hopes that with his poem

many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

Israel has, in consequence, declared Günter Grass persona non-grata.  A once eminently diasporic people, formerly scattered to the ends of the earth and living their lives in exile until they could claim Palestine as their homeland, have apparently surmised that the banishment of Grass from Israel represents the most fitting punishment for the aged but unrepentant poet.

Just what, we must surely ask, was Grass’s sin?   The fury whipped up in Israel, and among Israel’s supporters in the West, points to several considerations.  Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed outrage that Grass should have had the audacity to compare Israel to Iran.  Netanyahu described the comparison as shameful, offensive, shall we say, to the dignity of every civilized person:  ‘In Iran there is a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel.  This comparison says very little about Israel and a great deal about Mr. Grass. It is Iran, not Israel, which poses a threat to world peace. It is Iran, not Israel, which threatens to destroy other countries.  It is Iran, not Israel, which supports terror organizations that fire missiles on innocent civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which supports the massacre that the Syrian regime is carrying out on its civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which stones women, hangs gay people, and ruthlessly suppresses the tens of millions of citizens in its country.’  No doubt, the present regime in Iran cannot be viewed as other than highly authoritarian, though there is no reason to suppose that the suppression of some freedoms has stifled all dissent, or creativity in art, music, cinema, and literature.  It has not helped Iran that its most public face is provided by Mahmud Ahmedinejad, succinctly and not inaccurately described in Grass’s poem as a ‘loudmouth’ who earned undying notoriety in the West when he described the Holocaust as a fiction.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to resist the view that Netanyahu protests too much.   However enormous the misgivings one may have about Iran’s political regime, Iran has never posed a threat to any other country, nor has it launched an attack on another nation.  Netanyahu is no less boorish than Ahmedinejad, and it is idle for him, or indeed for any other Zionist, to pretend that Israel has not been the perpetrator of untold number of atrocities against the Palestinians –– choking, numbing, and starving them into submission in a war of gravely disproportionate resources.  It is no surprise that the list of accusations hurled against Iran did not include its real or alleged sponsorship of political assassinations, since Israel is likely without peer in its mastery in this department of covert politics.  But there is something else underlying the swashbuckling behavior of Netanyahu and his predecessors in high office:  Iran and Israel have long fought a shadow war, and they need each other desperately.  The ayatollahs in Iran say and do enough to keep states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan frothing at the mouth; similarly, the Shia clergy can always count on the presence of Israel to summon the faithful, particularly when internal dissent appears to pose grave threats to the regime.  Whether or not the relationship of Iran and Israel can be characterized as one informed by what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences”, there is no gainsaying the fact that these two countries understand each other very well.

The more Iran and Israel begin to look alike, the greater the swagger with Israel must contemptuously dismiss Iran as the irredeemable other. Israel has long thought of itself as the sole democracy in the Middle East, ringed by unruly Arabs within and hostile states beyond; and if on occasion its unmitigated repression of Palestinians has evoked a mild rebuke from its allies in the West, it has nearly always conducted itself in world politics with the assurance that it may act with impunity.  Iran, on the other hand, has for an equally long time labored under it reputation in the West as, in the vocabulary of our times, a ‘rogue’ state.  The nationalism of countries such as Iran has always seemed to many in the West, even those who style themselves liberals, as ‘problematic’.  The nationalization of Iran’s oil industry in 1951 was bound to lead to serious repercussions for then Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who would be removed in a coup two years later.  His overthrow, orchestrated by the CIA and British military intelligence, brought Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whose gratitude to his benefactors would amply be on display in the decades ahead, to the helm of power.  Since the revolution of 1979, which installed the mullahs in power, and the subsequent Iranian hostage crisis, a rather humbling experience for the Americans, Iran has effectively been shunned as a ‘pariah state’ by the West.

The countries in the West which for years have rallied behind the United States to declare Iran a ‘rogue’ state have, historically speaking, treated their Jewish population much worse than did Iran, which even today has the largest population of Jews outside Israel in the Middle East.  It is barely necessary to recall, for example, the barbarism of the French, whether with respect to the Jews or their colonial subjects in Algeria, Indochina, and elsewhere.  On the received narrative, however, the anti-Semitism that was so characteristic a feature of European society is a thing of the past; indeed, what generally gives Western civilization its distinct prominence over other civilizations is its capacity for atonement and repentance.  It is precisely in this respect that Grass has been found by Netanyahu and other like minded yahoos to be severely wanting:  as Grass had disguised his past for over six decades, he is said to have been absolutely stripped of credibility.  Writing for Haaretz, long established as the voice of Israeli liberals, Anshel Pfeffer ponders in a piece entitled ‘The Moral Blindness of Günter Grass’ why ‘a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less’, does not understand that ‘his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began. What could be more self-evident?’ For the likes of Grass, there is, quite self-evidently, no atonement, no remorse, only the certitude of eternal condemnation.  Yet the poet had clearly anticipated it all:

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

When critiques of Zionism, or of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians, cannot be adequately answered, there is always the weapon of last resort, the ultimate weapon with which to tarnish the voice of informed democratic and humanistic criticism:  the charge of anti-Semitism.  ‘This general silence on the facts’ –– the fact, which Israel is in no position to repudiate, and which Grass’s poem has now uncomfortably brought into the limelight, namely that Israel’s own nuclear program remains without supervision, inspection, or verification, subject to no constraints except those which its leaders might impose upon themselves in the light of reason –– forced Grass’s hand; and it was not without awareness on his part of how the end of the narrative was foretold.  Writes Grass,

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,

leading to a likely punishment

the moment it’s broken:

the verdict “Anti-Semitism” falls easily.

To consider just how easily the verdict of ‘anti-Semitism’ falls on the critics of Israel, let us recall the opprobrium that Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi and the co-founder and then President of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, had to face when he penned a short blog for the Washington Post (20 January 2008) entitled, ‘Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence’.  Though Arun Gandhi recognized that Israel was far from being the only purveyor of violence in that part of the world, he nevertheless thought that ‘Israel and the Jews’ were the ‘biggest players’ in promoting the ‘culture of violence’.  On a visit to Tel Aviv in 2004, Gandhi wrote, he was surprised to hear even peace activists defending the separation wall and the military build-up as the unavoidable condition of their secure existence.  The future of Jewish identity struck Arun Gandhi as ‘bleak’:  too many Jews remained ‘locked into the holocaust experience’, not merely convinced of the absolute exceptionality of the Holocaust but firm in their view that their victimhood gives them unique entitlements.  The case of Israel, Gandhi argued, ‘is a very good example of [how] a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. . . . the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews.’  What hope is there, asks Arun Gandhi, that Israel will ever come around to the view that its existence cannot be secured by ‘bombs and weapons’?

Fast and furious was the response to Arun Gandhi, and in much less than a week he had been forced to step down as President of the M. K. Institute for Nonviolence.  Though Arun Gandhi cannot be accused of disguising his Nazi past, nothing prevented him from being brandished with the scarlet letters of anti-Semitism.  One cannot downplay the persistence of anti-Semitism over the centuries, and it is similarly instructive to what extent a forgery such as the ‘Protocol of the Elders of Zion’ continues to resonate among those who are convinced that the Jews are uniquely capable of conspiring to ensure their domination over the world’s financial markets and the power elites in the United States and Europe.  But it is a form of totalitarianism to insist that all criticism of Israel is itself a form of anti-Semitism.   Even the Jew might not critique Israel; if he or she does so, the Zionists have a phrase for such a person: a self-hating Jew.  Moreover, it is imperative to recognize that in the United States and much of Europe, it is not anti-Semitism but rather a visceral hatred and fear of Islam which is by far the greater problem.  In large swathes of respectable European and American society, the open display of xenophobic behavior towards Muslims is not burdened by the fear of censure.

It is Israel, rather than Günter Grass, that has come across poorly in this recent exchange.  This has happened all too often in the past, and Israel will have to do more than hide behind those gigantic scarlet letters that spell ‘anti-Semitism’ if it is to confront the reality of its own demons.

— First published in the Economic and Political Weekly XLVII, no. 17 (28 April 2012), 23-24, under the same title; for much shorter version, see ‘Stake in the Grass’, Times of India – Crest Edition (21 April 2012), p. 14.

*Iran’s Revolution and the Global Politics of Resistance


[Review of The People ReloadedThe Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future, eds. Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel.  Brooklyn, New York:  Melville House, 2010.  439 pp.]

 [First published in the “Economic and Political Weekly”, 24 March 2012; also published in “Truthout.org”]

In the euphoria over the ‘Arab Spring’, which has brought revolutions to the doorsteps of autocratic regimes that only last year seemed unflappable in their resolve to keep the aspirations of their peoples suppressed, it becomes imperative to recall that the first sustained signs of change in West Asia in recent years appeared in Iran.  The Arab world seemed so firmly in the grip of monarchs and dictators, many of them bolstered by the United States, which has been in the business of exporting the rhetoric of electoral democracy to the world but has feared reform and revolution at every turn, that no one expected the people to take to the streets in millions.   And how people have stormed the streets, facing police barricades, braving tear gas and baton charges –– and not just in the Arab world!  The ‘Arab spring’ turned into a long summer of discontent, as signs of protest began to appear in other parts of the world, in Athens, Rome, Madrid, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere.  As these lines are being written, the Occupy Wall Street movement has even brought dissenters and rebels to the fore in the United States, where politics for far too long has been reduced to an exercise of choosing between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.  Yet, all this was anticipated in Iran’s dramatic political upheaval in June 2009, the outcome of which, perhaps contrary to received opinion, is far from settled. 


Though nearly everything in Iran is marked by the watershed events of 1979 that led to the ouster of the Shah and the assumption of power by the Ayatollahs, it is possible that some years from now the phrase, ‘after the revolution’, will resonate with an altogether different meaning.  The burden of the present collection of essays, The People Reloaded, which brings together the reflections of some fifty scholars, activists, and observers of contemporary Iranian society, is to suggest that we may be in the midst of another momentous upheaval in Iran thirty years after the revolution which replaced the dictatorship of the Shah with the rule of a theocratic elite.  Some of the contributors take a long-term view of Iranians’ ‘bloody and painful march towards democracy’ (p. 27), commencing with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the coup, engineered by the CIA and British military intelligence, of 1953, which led to the deposition of the nationalist hero Mohammed Mosaddegh; others hearken back to the Shah’s despotism and the political skill with which Khomeini and his supporters orchestrated his removal; and yet others set their sights resolutely on the mammoth protests against the ‘stolen election’ of 2009.  But all the contributors are clearly animated by one central question, aptly reflected in the book’s subtitle, ‘The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future’:  how might political action in Iran continue to be steered in directions that would help to secure a future for the country’s citizens that allows for the fulfillment of legitimate political aspirations, the free pursuit of one’s livelihood, economic security, and some commonly agreed upon conception of human dignity? 


‘Iran’, writes Ervand Abrahamian with precision and elegance, ‘has a healthy respect for crowds –– and for good reason’ (p. 60).  It is the crowds that started gathering in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other provincial towns in June 2009, most particularly the million or two or more people who converged on Tehran’s Azadi [Freedom] Square on the 15th in a silent rally, as the 10th presidential election since the 1979 revolution came to an end, that are the subject of this book.  As the election results were announced, unambiguously affirming the victory of the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran appeared to be engulfed by huge waves of disbelief.  A host of pre-election polls suggested that Ahmadinejad and his closest competitor, the reformist Mir Hussein Moussavi, were neck-to-neck; yet, Ahmadinejad would be declared the winner with 64% of the vote.  Moussavi, it was announced, had been unable even to carry his hometown of Tabriz; meanwhile, another candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, apparently had more people campaigning than voting for him.  Reports of fraud came streaming in –– an extra 14.5 million ballots had been printed, and could not be accounted for; or, to take another example, voting had not even been completed in some districts when Ahmadinejad was declared the victor on state-owned television.  The complaints lodged with the Election Commission would have a predictable outcome:  on investigation, the Interior Ministry dismissed allegations of rigging and fraud as baseless, and went on to issue advisories urging people to accept the electoral results and desist from protests. 


Over a few days, notwithstanding Supreme Leader Khamanei’s admonitions that protestors, characterized by Ahmadinejad as ‘specks of dirt’, would face the wrath of the law, the crowds surged in size.  Tehran’s own conservative mayor estimated that three million people had gathered in Tehran on June 15th to register their dissent –– one of the largest gatherings of people, bereft of arms and intent on nonviolent resistance, in recent history anywhere in the world.  If repression is generally the only language in which the modern nation-state trades, then Iran’s response cannot be viewed as entirely surprising. On June 20th, the twenty-seven year old Neda Aghan-Soltan, a philosophy student and budding musician with no previous history of involvement in politics, was shot dead by a member of the Basij (government) militia as she approached the site of the protest.  Three amateur videos of her death went viral:  within days, millions around the world had viewed them and Neda had become, at least in the West, the supreme icon of resistance to theocratic despotism.  As criticism of the government mounted, the full machinery of state repression was brought crashing down upon the dissenters.  Before the end of the month, the protestors had largely dispersed.  The state might have imagined that it had broken the backbone of the movement, and dulled the protestors into abject submission with beatings, police firings, and targeted assassinations of dissenters; yet, less than two years later, Iran would again be rocked by a series of demonstrations over the course of a month in February and March 2011.


What, then, is the Green Movement, and what are some of the strands of Iran’s complex history and culture that have been interwoven into the nation’s contemporary politics?  There remain differences of opinion among the volume’s contributors on the question of the movement’s demography: while the American sociologist Charles Kurzman argues that the less educated in Iran have repeatedly shown themselves to be more supportive of Ahmadinejad (p. 17), the Iranian blogger and writer Nasrin Alavi is among those who soundly reject the argument that the movement drew its support largely from educated urban elites.  The student leaders, Alavi avers, ‘are not the children of affluent citizens of north Tehran, but instead come from provincial working-class families or are the children of rural schoolteachers and clerks’; indeed, she goes so far as to say that ‘these future leaders of Iran hail from the very heartland of Ahmadinejad’s purported support base’ (p. 211). 


What is indisputably true is that those under thirty have predominated among the dissenters, and that it is among the ranks of the young that unemployment rates are the highest –– but in these respects the protests in Iran would not appear to be at all atypical.  What is far more noteworthy, particularly in view of images about the Muslim world that freely circulate in the West and one suspects in some measure in other parts of the non-Muslim world, is, as a number of contributors point out, ‘the sizable female presence in the Iranian Green Movement’ (p. 37); indeed, if the eminent scholar of contemporary Iranian society, Hamid Dabashi is to be believed, ‘the most well-known aspect of these anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrations is that women visibly outnumber men’ (p. 23).  Contrary to the overwhelming impression about the docility of Muslim women that has been formed in much of the world, Iranian women have played a not inconsiderable role in the political life of the nation.  The ‘Million Signatures Campaign’ (2006), which has resulted in the arrest of some of Iran’s most respected feminists and human rights campaigners, sought to put men on notice that Iranian women sought complete equality under the law; and the ‘Stop Stoning Forever’ campaign has sought alterations to Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, the greatest burden of which has, not surprisingly, fallen upon women.  If the 1979 revolution imposed constraints on women, it also emboldened those who came from traditional families and who were reluctant to enter higher education in the days of the Shah to step into the public sphere once the revolution mandated segregation by sexes.  This may partly explain why, even if a little more than 12% of Iran’s labour force is comprised of women (p. 38), women are nearly two-thirds of all entering university students. 


The prominence of women at demonstrations in Iran may offer as well some cues on the remarkably nonviolent nature of the protests.  The dissident cleric Mohsen Kavidar, asked to explain the most salient aspects of the Green Movement, noted that it is ‘peaceful and against violence’ (p. 113), and the Toronto-based Iranian philosopher, Ramin Jehanbegloo, is certain that Iran in 2009 experienced a ‘Gandhian moment’ (p. 19).  Moussavi’s advisor, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, writing in the Guardian (London) in the thick of the struggle, may have put the matter more accurately when he said of his leader:  ‘Previously, he was revolutionary, because everyone inside the system was a revolutionary.  But now he’s a reformer.  Now he knows Gandhi –– before he knew only Che Guevara.  If we gain power through aggression we would have to keep it through aggression.  That is why we’re having a green revolution, defined by peace and democracy’ (‘I speak for Moussavi. And Iran’, 19 June 2009).  The colour green has long been associated with Islam, and Kavidar suggests that in flaunting green ribbons and banners, the demonstrators may even have sought to convey the idea that they were not prepared to relinquish their Islam to the Ayatollahs and other official purveyors of the religion.  To be ‘Green’ and ‘Gandhian’, however, means much more than abstention from violence and adherence to nonviolent strategies of resistance to oppression.  It may be too much to expect that nonviolence should become for everyone, as it did for Gandhi, the very law of our existence, an unimpeachable and incontrovertible guide to everyday conduct; nor would it reasonable to suppose that everyone should accede to Gandhi’s firmly held belief that to hold to the law of nonviolence entails the transformation of one’s whole life such that one might live it with the full awareness of ecological plurality and attentiveness to every little detail.  Nevertheless, one has the feeling that the characterization of the ‘Green Movement’ as Gandhian has received insufficient critical analysis, just as on occasion some of the contributors seem to want to embrace, rather too easily, slick terms such as ‘cultural Jiu-Jitsu’ or ‘Green Tsunami’ or facile comparisons with the American Civil Rights Movement to highlight the significance of Iran’s own great movement of dissent.


A more intensely political reading of what has transpired in Iran over the last few years may perhaps suggest other shortcomings in the volume to some readers.   Iran has been looking down the barrel of a gun for decades:  though the profoundly democratic aspirations of the volume’s contributors need not be doubted, few of them choose to consider how the relentless assault on Iran’s sovereignty, spearheaded since the revolution of 1979 by the United States, has played its part in shaping the worldview of the so-called ‘hardliners’.  Similarly, many of the contributors underestimate the intense resentment that persists against Britain in many sectors of Iran’s society, and in general the history of anti-colonial sentiment and resistance receives little attention in this volume.  These deficiencies may, in the last analysis, be overlooked, since the contributions essayed in this volume offer nuanced and perceptive insights into the remarkable display of people’s power in Iran.  Those who have lavished their attention on the ‘Arab Spring’, or, more lately, on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement as it unravels across the United States, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere, would do well to turn their gaze back on Azadi Square in Tehran, June 2009.  The democracies in the global North have long thought that it is their prerogative to lead the way; but, if there is at all a grave inference to be drawn from the movement in Iran documented and dissected in The People Reloaded, it may be that the vanguard of resistance to oppression will be found in all those places where it has been least expected.  For this reason, if for none other, Iran’s Green Movement augurs a new phase in the global politics of resistance.