Grass, best known for his 1959 novel "The Tin Drum," has been the target of condemnation by German lawmakers, Jewish leaders and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his poem “What Must be Said.” The poem, published Wednesday in the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, accused Israel of hypocrisy for denouncing Iran’s nuclear program while allegedly maintaining one of its own.
“The nuclear power Israel,” he wrote, “is endangering an already fragile world peace.”
Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons but has never publicly acknowledged it.
In a sharply worded statement Thursday, Netanyahu blasted Grass for equating Israel and Iran.
“Guenter Grass's shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel, says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass,” Netanyahu said.
Grass appeared on the public television station NDR on Thursday night to defend himself.
“The overall tenor is not merely to address the content of the poem, but rather to wage a campaign against me, and to claim that my reputation is damaged for all time,” Grass said.
The 84-year-old author, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, shocked literary circles in 2006 when he admitted that he had been a member of the Waffen SS, a Nazi paramilitary unit, when he was 17. Grass had previously written critically about German military aggression and urged Germans to confront their Nazi past.
Netanyahu said that, given Grass' Nazi involvement, “for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising.”
Grass wrote in his poem that he had long avoided condemning Israel’s suspected nuclear program because he did not want to be labeled an anti-Semite. “But I will be silent no longer,” he wrote.
The poem drew rebukes from Jewish leaders around the world and from German politicians.
Hermann Groehe, general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union party, said he was “appalled by the tone and bias of this poem.” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, without addressing Grass or the poem by name, warned that "to downplay the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program is to downplay the seriousness of the situation.”
Grass said in another interview Thursday with the public television station that he had no intention of retracting his words. “By no means will I take it back,” he said.
-- Aaron Wiener
Photo: Author and Nobel laureate Guenter Grass at his home in Behlendorf, Germany, on Thursday. Credit: Marcus Brandt / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images