Israeli politicians have had some fun at Günter Grass’s expense, and rightly so. When a former member of the Hitler Youth and (until 2006) secret Waffen-SS member pronounces Israel as the preeminent threat to world peace and then claims that his comments were misunderstood, it is understandable that Israeli leaders fall over each other to see who can denounce him in the loudest and most creative ways. Grass is a buffoon who deserves to be lampooned after drowning himself in the shallowest of foreign policy pools, and it is just the latest reminder of why artists should stick to what they know rather than pontificating on global politics. Now that the piling on is done, Israel cannot just walk away with a win but rather is doing its usual job of beating a dead horse, and doing so quite unproductively. Not to be outdone by his cabinet colleagues, Interior Minister Eli Yishai has announced that Grass is not welcome in Israel, where he now joins an illustrious list including academics Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein and the famed Spanish clown Ivan Prado.
Note that none of these people presents a security threat. They are not terrorists and they are not alleged to have committed violence against Israel. They have all made headlines with nothing more than over the top comments and positions on Israel, and by banning them from the country, Israel guarantees them a renewed dose of attention and notoriety. Instead of letting them fade away into irrelevance as they twist themselves into verbal knots and increasingly outrageous positions, Israel makes sure that everyone knows who they are by responding to their taunts and then loudly and publicly barring them from entering Israel’s borders. Furthermore, Israel’s overreactions occasionally blow up in its face by embroiling other countries in what should be a contained dispute. Prado, who is both literally and figuratively a clown, was deported immediately after landing in Israel and deemed a security threat, which would be funny if it hadn’t created needless rancor between Israel and Spain and made Israel look like a bully abroad. With Grass, Israel has again overplayed its hand, prompting a predictable response today from the German Health Minister who called out Israel’s banning of Grass as “utterly exaggerated.”
Democracies need not be afraid of critical speech. The proper response to someone such as Grass is not to grant him martyr status on the left by meeting his childish and ill-informed words with overwhelming and disproportional force. It is to spend a day pointing out the absurd inconsistency of his position, remind everyone that former Nazis are not particularly well-suited to criticize the actions of the Jewish state, and then move on. If Grass wants to come to Israel and make an even bigger fool of himself, then by all means let him do so. Treating him as if he is a dangerous figure worthy of Israel’s concern rather than a comical imbecile to whom no further attention should be paid is precisely the type of Israeli response that always backfires in the end.