Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
Günter Grass told Süddeutsche Zeitung: 'I have often supported Israel, I have often been in the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbours.’
The celebrated German author Günter Grass has been declared persona non grata in Israel following the publication of his poem warning that the Jewish state's nuclear programme was a threat to an "already fragile world peace".
The row over the literary work continued to reverberate over the weekend, with the 84-year-old Nobel laureate saying in a newspaper interview that he did not intend to criticise Israel but the policies of its present government, led by Binyamin Netanyahu.
With hindsight, he told Süddeutsche Zeitung, he would have rewritten his poem to "make it clearer that I am primarily talking about the [Netanyahu] government". He added: "I have often supported Israel, I have often been in the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbours." Netanyahu, he said, was damaging Israel.
Israeli politicians and commentators said that Grass had disqualified himself from criticising Israeli policies by his service as a young man in the Nazi Waffen SS. Some said the poem was thinly disguised antisemitism, a response predicted by Grass in his poem. Netanyahu issued a statement denouncing the poem and its author.
On Sunday, Israel's interior minister Eli Yishai used a law permitting a bar on entry to former Nazis to declare Grass persona non grata for his "attempt to fan the flames of hatred against the state of Israel and its people, and thus to advance the idea to which he publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform".
Yishai's statement added: "If Gunter wants to continue to spread his twisted and lying works, I suggest he does this from Iran, where he can find a supportive audience."
Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, added his voice to the storm of criticism, saying Grass's poem was the expression of "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".
Speaking during a meeting with the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, Lieberman demanded condemnation from European leaders. "We have witnessed in the past how small seeds of antisemitic hate can turn into a large fire that harms all of humanity."
Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said comparing Israel to Iran was absurd. The state of Israel was based on democracy, rights for individuals, freedom, responsibility and the rule of law, he wrote in Bild am Sonntag. In contrast, Iran was in violation of international law and had for years avoided co-operation over its nuclear programme.
Amid the torrent of denunciation, some Israeli commentators said Grass had raised an important issue and that criticism of Israeli policies was routinely portrayed as antisemitism.
Writing on the +972 website, Larry Derfner said: "Günter Grass told the truth, he was brave in telling it, he was brave in admitting that he'd been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and by speaking out against an Israeli attack on Iran, he's doing this country a great service at some personal cost while most Israelis and American Jews are safely following the herd behind Bibi [Netanyahu] over the cliff."
Gideon Levy, the Haaretz columnist, wrote that Grass and other critics of Israeli policies were "not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinions of many people".
"Instead of accusing them, we should consider what we did that led them to express it," he said.