Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass

When I do a post for Comment is Free, I like to do a round-up here of pertinent and impertinent comments that appear below it.
My piece on Gunter Grass pulled in 298 comments, which is a record for me, but sadly nothing to do with my prose. They are the predictable result of writing anything about Israel – partisans of both sides come out in force.
One comment, from fellow Comment is Free contributor David Wearing of the New Left Project, stood out:

The equivalence drawn here with the Habima theatre situation is entirely spurious.
The Habima theatre has performed to illegal colonists in the West Bank. Those colonies are maintained through a system of brutal repression (including the denial of many democratic rights, such as free expression) of the indigenous population.
Individuals and institutions are 100% entitled, as a matter of conscience, to choose not to work with Habima for that reason, and to encourage others to take a similar position. There is no question of censorship. To decline to associate with someone on moral grounds is a democratic choice.
No one has suggested that Jews or Hebrew speakers should be excluded blanket-fashion. The insinuation that this is what the proposed cancellation of Habima amounts to is an outrageous slur. Would anyone object to a performance by a Hebrew speaking theatre group made up of people who had never and would never perform in the illegal colonies? Everyone knows the answer to that. Everyone knows that those calling for Habima to be cancelled would welcome such an alternative performance with absolute delight.

So there is no comparison here to the Grass case, where a state (the one which criminally maintains the colonies mentioned above) has declared an individual persona non grata because he has expressed an opinion that the state disapproves of. That is dictionary-definition undemocratic behaviour.

I think that’s true, and my piece should have taken more care not to draw direct equivalence. I was merely trying to make the point that it should be left to individuals as to whether to engage with any piece of art. User silverchain took issue with Wearing, pointing out that plenty of other languages in the Shakespeare festival are represented by countries such as China and Turkey who also abuse human rights.

A few people, including user Yanpol, said that a travel ban is not censorship:

d) Declaring him persona non grata is not censorship, because he is a foreign national, so the country is entitled to deny him entry. Censorship would be banning his books. But it’s an overreaction (with authoritarian undertones to boot), and one should be very wary of politicians’ overreaction.

I disagree with this. I think freedom of movement is a part of free expression, as is the right to meet with one’s literary fans (some of whom presumably exist within Israel). If the only reason that a state bans a person visiting is a (non-violent) poem, then I think it meets the censorship criteria. Grass has traveled to Israel before, so this is no academic point.
On the same topic, GoloMannFann thinks outside the box.

what better way to enlighten his ignorance than by letting him visit and meet Israelis

The Jerusalem Post argued for a similar thing: “Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – And Encounter Democracy”.
Next, we have OpiumEater, who asks:

Do the laws banning Holocaust denial really enforce censorship? Any more than laws prohibiting false financial declarations?

I think arguing over history is very different from financial declarations. It risks legitimising the state, or some other authority, setting out an ‘official’ version of history. This is problematic when one thinks of Communist China or the Soviet Union, sanitising their own ‘official’ histories, allegorised so brilliantly by Orwell in Animal Farm and 1984. In Turkey, the official history prohibits acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide, a sort of institutionalised Holocaust Denial.
There was also some pushback on my description of Merchant of Venice as “notorious for its antisemitic characterisations”. LinearBandKeramik said:

Anyone who thinks that either The Merchant of Venice or Shakespeare are antisemitic has either not read them, or is an idiot.

Usini stepped in to defend my blanket assertions:

Come off it. Of course Merchant of Venice is riddled with anti-semitic stereotypes as well as Jew hatred. I know he gives the best speech to Shylock but it is only one, compared to many sneering at Jews. Of course what would have been really radical would have been to stage it with Shylock as a Palestinian and the Venetians as Israelis.

LinearBandKeramik went another round:

The Merchant of Venice contains antisemitic characters. But then so does Schindler’s List. Portraying antisemitism does not make a work antisemitic. And there are no antisemitic stereotypes in The Merchant of Venice that I’m aware of – perhaps you would care to point them out. Shylock’s speech is an empassioned plea to recognize the humanity of Jews and is one of the most powerful and moral literary speeches in the English canon. Your failure to see that is beyond me. Have you actually read the text? if you want to read some truly antisemtic Elizabethan literature, check out The Jew of Malta by Marlowe.

Finally, user creel says “thanks for the invitation Robert Sharp” and posts a poetic response to the controversy. But rather than critiquing Gunter Grass, they seem to be criticising the Israel project:

A Voice denied, for evil
The purpose? To displace
One people with another
Where the choice is to embrace
Where man’s desire for country
Is another’s home. Denied
And Strangers with connection
but no leave, just step inside.
War gifts no peace or justice
But encourages the strong
To press for cruel advantage
No matter what the wrong
..until the moral burden
emboldens: Faith secure
To challenge faith-in-conquest
And uphold One Rule of law


3 Replies to “Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass”

  1. Hi Robert,
    thanks for debating my point. I’ve read your response on Cif and now I’m rethinking what I wrote. I still don’t think it’s censorship, because his works and the poem have not been banned, but I do think you have a strong point. It’s an authoritarian gesture and a demagogic one. Some Israelis have complained about it. Anyway, I too oppose the ban, as I oppose academic boycotts that target individuals and even banning lunatics like some hate preachers (provided they don’t threaten to harm individuals, which would constitute conspiracy to break the law). Free speech and free movement are sacred rights in my view. Thanks again.

  2. Does freedom of movement extend to going round people’s houses uninvited? It’s a fine, high-minded principle, but shows utter disregard for the rights of the recipients of such movers to be self-determining. I was thinking this was a silly thing to say, but actually it isn’t so far-fetched an analogy: a person could argue that your position seems to be a hair’s breadth away from sanctifying rape. The right of people to go places overrides the right of people in those places to reject them. I don’t think that’s right. There seems to be a major blindspot inherent in your notion of freedom of movement – dismissing half the argument doesn’t help anyone (and I think some Palestinians might agree).

    1. This is complete bollocks, Clarice. “A hair’s breadth away from sanctifying rape” is a ridiculous suggestion.
      There is a world of difference between a country, which is made up of millions of citizens with their own opinions, diverse cultures, and interpersonal relationships… and a household, which is private property and the home of an autonomous family unit… and a person, who obviously must have autonomy over their own body and how it is used.
      The boundaries, and the decision-makers on who gets to cross those boundaries, are completely different. Even within a family unit there are disagreements over who is invited to cross the threshold. There is much more diversity of opinion on a country level, for political, cultural, or economic reasons.
      This is totally different category of decision from a single person making a decision about their body. The analogy does not hold on this crucial point. This should be obvious to anyone who considers the matter for more than a few moments.
      And that’s before we remind ourselves of what I am actually arguing. All I say is that Israel’s decision is wrong and undemocratic. I am not arguing that their decision should be overruled (by force, or by some international court, or by illegality).
      With this blog post I was trying to genuinely and honestly grapple with the nuances of a difficult issue, posting critiques that I think help my understanding. I must say I am surprised and puzzled to find myself responding to this kind of trolling.

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