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Great writer despite ‘What must be said’

The death this week of famed Nobel Prize-winning author Günther Grass, coincides with another round of arguments about Iran’s threat to Israel and the world, if it acquires a nuclear bomb. Grass plunged rather clumsily into this debate three years ago, provoking outrage in some quarters.




Geoff Sifrin


The big question hanging ominously over it all is: Should Israel pre-emptively bomb Iran’s nuclear reactors because of that country’s vow to destroy the Jewish state?

Israel has the capacity, and certain countries in the region would support it – reportedly even Saudi Arabia might provide an air corridor for Israeli bombers, since it shares Israel’s fear of a nuclear-empowered Iran.

Recent episodes in the Iran saga include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to the US Congress last month and intense dislike between him and US President Barack Obama.

And most recently, the understanding reached by the US and other powers with Iran to limit the latter’s possibilities of achieving a nuclear bomb any time soon, in exchange for lifting of sanctions.

What has German writer Günther Grass to do with this debate? As an anti-war icon, he sparked controversy in 2012 by publishing a poem in the Deutsche Zeitung entitled “What must be said”, claiming Israel’s nuclear capability – not Iran’s – was the threat to world peace.

He warned against an Israeli strike on Iran and said Germany should stop supplying Israel with submarines. He was criticised in Germany, Israel and by Jewish organisations and declared persona non grata in Israel.

Grass is not a crazy extremist whose views can be dismissed out of hand. A respected supporter of the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), he has been a voice in serious political debates in Germany. He was recognised as that country’s most important post-Second World War writer after the 1959 publication of his novel, “The Tin Drum” – dealing with Nazism’s rise in his hometown of Danzig.

He received the Nobel Prize in 1999 for his works, including “Cat and Mouse”, “Dog Days”, “From the Diary of a Snail”, and “The Flounder and The Rat”. He is a great admirer of Israeli writer Amos Oz, who he has repeatedly proposed for a Nobel Prize.

In 2006, however, Grass revealed a more than 60-year-old skeleton in his closet which shocked people – that he served with the Waffen SS during the Second World War. His devotees were outraged because of his carefully nurtured anti-war image, and because he hid his past for so long while achieving fame with his anti-Nazi rhetoric.

Grass responded that he wanted to use his memoir “Peeling the Onion” to explain his past. “What I accepted with pride in my younger years I wanted to keep quiet about after the war because of my growing shame,” he wrote.

When he published the poem “What must be said”, he was criticised even by people who admire his literary works, for his arrogance and simplistic assumptions about the complex Iran debate – which is even more complicated today as the Middle East descends into chaos, radical Islam’s influence rises and Israel’s security in that region requires ever more careful thought.

Israel has long been engrossed with this debate about a pre-emptive strike to foil Iran’s purported nuclear ambitions. Its political and defence analysts mull over the advisability and possible outcome of such an action, with its strategic and diplomatic dilemmas; heavyweights on the topic have taken contrasting positions.

Grass’ comments, coming from someone who apparently knew not much more about the practicalities than the average follower of the world news, amounted to a sort of moral grandstanding, without sufficiently factoring in Israel’s existential plight.

Great writers, however, are often considered great not because you necessarily agree with them, or like them or their views, but because they throw new light on things or challenge accepted notions.

Ultimately, writers are not necessarily smarter than other people. What they have is the ability to write. Grass’ intrusion in the Iran question raised many hackles – sometimes that is a good thing.

  • Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.

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  1. Gary Selikow

    Apr 15, 2015 at 11:42 am

    ‘GraSS wrote a poem accusing Israel of aggression against Iran, and the greatest threat world peace after Iran had made its genocidal intentions clear.

    And Siffrin says this was a good thing. Why do these leftwing icons get a free pass to say and do what they want?’

  2. Choni

    Apr 15, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    ‘Grass must be one of very few Jews who are persona non grata in Israel. Absolutely nothing about him can be praiseworthy.

  3. Choni

    Apr 16, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    ‘\”Grass is not an extremist whose views cannot be dismissed out of hand, but religious nationalistic Jews are lunatics\”. Sifrin, your assessments are sickening.’

  4. anon

    Apr 20, 2015 at 7:40 am

    ‘Sifrin sees good in evil, and evil in good.’

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Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi



More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.

Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.

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UJW Sewing School graduates model creations



The outfits modelled by graduates of the Union of Jewish Women’s (UJW’s) Sewing School were all the more spectacular for the fact that some of their creators had never seen a sewing machine prior to the four-month course.

They were modelled at the school’s graduation ceremony at Oxford Shul on 15 December to much excitement and applause.

UJW executive member and Sewing School Manager Ariane Heneck expressed her gratitude to Chido Tsodzo, the school’s superb teacher, and the event ended with a much appreciated lunch for graduates and their invited guests.

The self-empowerment Sewing School for unemployed men and women was started by the UJW 10 years ago. It now has a small production team of ex-students, and some of its graduates have been employed in factories, while others are selling their own creations.

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Israel Rugby 7s to camp with the Blitzbokke



The thrill-a-minute Rugby 7s have captured the hearts of fans around the world. The Blitzbokke, South Africa’s national Rugby 7s team, ranks second in the world, and is among the most exciting, formidable, and feared of 7s teams.

Exactly 9 191 km away are the Israelis, an emerging rugby nation that has talent, determination, and a world-class coach in South African Kevin Musikanth. Now, these two squads will meet. The Israeli 7s side will be travelling to the SAS Rugby Academy in Stellenbosch to train with the Blitzbokke.

The Blitzbokke will have the opportunity to prepare for the coming 7s rugby season by measuring their skills of play against the Israelis. And the Israelis, well, they will be rubbing shoulders with, and learning from the best in the world and honing their skills for their coming European Rugby season.

“It’s an opportunity for our boys to learn from the world’s best,” says Musikanth. The SAS Rugby Academy is run by the legendary Frankie Horn, a technical expert whose coaching guidelines and methods are second to none in World Rugby 7s.

Musikanth took over as Rugby 15s head coach in Israel in 2018, and in October 2019, he became director of rugby for the Israeli Rugby Union and head coach for the national programmes of both the 15s and the 7s.

Horn visited Israel last December at the behest of Rugby Israel and its supporting Olympic body and since then, the partnership has continued to grow. The upcoming training camp will begin in Israel, where Horn, together with Phil Snyman, the former Blitzbok captain and multiple world champion winner, will spend a week with the players and coaching staff at Wingate, Netanya, the home base of Rugby Israel. They will then all travel to Stellenbosch for a week’s camp with the Blitzbokke.

“We’ve already seen the difference through our partnership with Frankie. Two of our players were spotted by him on his previous trip to Israel, and have been training at SAS on the off-season,” says Musikanth. The two players are Omer Levinson (scrum half) and Yotam Shulman (lock).

Horn, technical advisor to Rugby Israel’s 7s, says “It is a great opportunity for both teams to derive positive benefit from the camp.”

Israel Rugby has been making considerable professional strides since Musikanth took over the reins. Israel 15s played their 100th test match against Cyprus and celebrated with a 34-22 victory.

“We’re in the top 25 in Europe in 15s and in the top 16 in 7s, the toughest, most competitive continent in world rugby,” says Musikanth, “and I can realistically see us setting our sights on the Top 15 and Top 12 respectively in the future.”

Currently, there are three eligible South Africans who are on the Israeli national squad: Jayson Ferera as flanker (Pirates Rugby Club), Daniel Stein as fly half (studying in Israel), and Jared Sichel as prop (Hamilton’s Rugby Club, Cape Town). Eligibility to play for a national team in rugby is stricter than in other sports. One does not qualify just because one has a passport. One has to have had a parent or grandparent that was born in that country or one has to have lived in the country for at least three years.

“With so much Jewish rugby talent around the world, we would be able to put a world-class Israeli national team together if not for the measures that restrict eligibility to national call ups,” says Musikanth.

The Israel Rugby development project was accelerated thanks to Musikanth initiating Bridges through Rugby. This project is the collective effort of a few South African Jewish businessmen who appreciate the long-term vision of Israel becoming a stronger rugby nation. They have come on board to assist with this most opportune tour. National financial support is fixed and, as such, is limited. While the strong players and national coaches will be attending the training camp in Stellenbosch, there will be some that will, unfortunately, have to stay behind.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our players and coaches. To get to see the best upfront and feed off their knowledge is going to be incredible,” says Musikanth. “Everyone is eager to go, of course, but there is a cap to the support we have in place. We would like to take a development u20 squad as well as coaching staff who would carry the benefits of this into the future. A rugby visit to Stellenbosch can change rugby lives in many respects. Stellenbosch is rugby utopia!”

Rugby aside, with the Israelis and South Africans camping together, the question of what will be for dinner after a gruelling day’s training may be a matter of contention. A tussle for whether to serve boerewors or shwarma may result in a scrum in the SAS dining hall to determine the outcome.

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