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Democracy field notes

Israel’s “Fighting Democracy”: A Few Things That Need Saying

Günter Grass, at the New York Public Library, June 2007. Flickr

Günter Grass has dared say publicly in a poem what needed saying: the present Netanyahu government of Israel is a potential danger to its own people, the wider region, and perhaps even to the rest of our planet. Proof of the anti-war poem’s point came pretty quickly.

During the past several days, verbal bombs have been launched at the man of letters, from all directions. With a general election and (who knows?) another war just around the corner, the aim of the Netanyahu government and its domestic and foreign supporters seems clear: to kill the old poet’s reputation, and to silence and maim anybody anywhere who dares share his opinion.

When making sense of the attacks on Grass, it’s worth noting that sections of German political society rushed to support the Israeli government. Germany’s media was suddenly awash with doubts about the integrity and motives of their leading poet. There’s since been vigorous support for both the poem, What Must Be Said, and the right of the 84-year-old Nobel Prize winner to speak his mind.

It seems bound to grow, partly because the first few commentaries on Grass went well beyond insult. Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle seems wilfully to have misread the poem: “Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level [the poem provides no evidence for this claim] is not ingenious but absurd.” Die Welt carried an editorial by the country’s leading Jewish writer, Henryk Broder. He insisted that Grass had always “had a problem with Jews” (that’s untrue) and “a tendency toward megalomania” (that may be true) but that “this time he is completely nuts” (readers’ call).

Germans who think this way indulge the spirit if not the substance of Angela Merkel’s 2008 widely-reported speech in Jerusalem. There she spoke of the “truth” that the security of the Israeli state belonged to Germany’s understanding of its own sovereign raison d'état. It was a peculiar speech - and strangely out of touch with strong support for Palestinian statehood and growing public discomfort among German citizens about Israel’s foreign policy behaviour.

Merkel in effect said that the Federal Republic of Germany, whatever its constitutional obligations to its own citizens, or to the rest of Europe, would protect the state of Israel, no matter what. It was sovereignty thinking at its worst. By projecting its mindset well beyond German borders, Merkel certainly outdid Carl Schmitt, the leading constitutional lawyer and political thinker of the early Nazi period. He insisted that sovereign rule, a few people arbitrarily deciding important things, such as military interventions, especially in emergency situations, should always trump the principles of power-sharing democracy and its culture of respect for openly-expressed differences.

Grass’s poem rightly rejects Merkel’s posturing, yet criticising Israel in Germany remains tricky business. Twisted guilt and sublimated shame run deep, and the old poet wants nothing of them. Practically speaking, that means he’s opposed to the sale of Dolphin-class, potentially nuclear-armed submarines by Germany to Israel on the quiet. He calls for “free and open monitoring of Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear potential and capability through an international entity that the government of both countries approve.”

Is it a thought crime to invoke the spirit of monitory democracy, “grown old, and with what ink remains”? Many Israeli commentators are sure that it is, which prompts the thought that more things need to be said, this time about the troubled state of democracy in Israel.

Founded in 1948, the settler state of Israel was a rescue operation from European genocide. It was a parliamentary democracy with a difference. Infused with the spirit of Judaism, it included a sizeable minority of Arab people. It featured free elections based on proportional representation, a directly elected prime minister, a strong independent judiciary and a robust media and civil society.

It was hardly a textbook democratic state. Powerful bodies such as the Jewish Agency, which handled Jewish immigration, and the Jewish National Fund, which owned substantial amounts of land in the name of the Jewish people, functioned from the beginning almost as states-within-a-state.

There was also the inconvenient truth that three-quarters of a million Palestinian people were forcibly expelled from their homelands. Israel’s democracy was founded on exclusion and (in effect) war against people who lost nearly everything. From the time of Athens, war on balance has been bad for the spirit and institutions of democracy. It ruins lives, stirs up fantasies of national greatness and belief in the invincibility of state power, the kind of “illusions” (Grass’s word) expressed in Ariel Sharon’s 2002 Knesset speech, when he praised Israel’s high-alert “fighting democracy”.

The Netanyahu government’s statements of recent days push in the same direction. Netanyahu himself says that Grass’s poem is “shameful”. The Israeli Embassy in Berlin denounced it as a work of Christian Europe: “What must be said is that it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder.” Forgetting the stateless Palestinians, it cast the poet as a friend of Iran (Grass rightly calls Ahmadinejad a “loudmouth”) before adding that “Israel is the only state in the world whose right to exist is openly doubted.”

Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai meanwhile said Grass was an “anti-Semite” who once “wore an SS uniform”. The latter point is correct (Grass joined the Waffen-SS towards the end of World War II, when aged 17), but Yishai wielded it like a sword to declare him “persona non grata” and to urge he be stripped of his Nobel Prize. On Facebook, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman agreed. The poem, he wrote, revealed the “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”

Grass actually says in his poem that Israel is “a land to which I am, and always will be, attached”. But that seems of little interest to those bent on peddling muddled syllogisms: A is B; A is therefore C; and, thus, A is B, C and no doubt D. The illogic is a bad omen, of a world beyond anything that could fairly be called democratic. Its ultimate purpose, when used as a weapon by politicians like Netanyahu, is to pin down waverers and to dog-whistle excitement among supporters at home.

In Palestine, 2009. Olivier Blaise/Flickr

Two months ago, when in Berlin, I had the pleasure of a few hours with Tamar Hermann, a distinguished Israeli scholar who until recently headed up the Israel Democracy Institute. She steered me in the direction of IDI’s Democracy Index Survey 2011. It’s an excellent scholarly attempt to measure “democratic and anti-democratic thinking and performance” in Israel, and it’s definitely worth reading.

The independent report contains many positive findings, including unwavering support for “democracy” and high levels of interest in “politics” among Israeli citizens. But the report also tables a few things that need to be talked about. It shows (for 2011) that there is common belief among the country’s citizens that they have no way of influencing political decisions. It reveals that a sizeable segment (nearly 30%) of non-Arab citizens are willing to ditch democracy in favour of Jewish religious law (halakha). And it reports that a clear majority of the same citizens do not think there is any significant discrimination against Arabs; that their exclusion from holding political office is nevertheless right; and that harsh public criticism of the Israeli state by anybody is wrong.

But that’s enough said for one day.

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