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Eli Yishai Bans Günter Grass From Israel

Israel’s minister of the interior responds unjustly to controversial poem

Liel Leibovitz
April 09, 2012
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, on December 19. 2010 in Jerusalem.(Jim Hollander - Pool/Getty Images)
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, on December 19. 2010 in Jerusalem.(Jim Hollander - Pool/Getty Images)

When Eli Yishai, Israel’s minister of the interior, read Günter Grass’ now-notorious poem, “What must be said,” last week, he had little doubt what must be done: Without mincing words, Yishai used his executive powers and declared Grass persona non grata, barring him from entering Israel.

As a devout Jew—Yishai belongs to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party—the minister would probably appreciate the Talmudic discussion his decision merits. As his declaration is not merely a political statement but an official act of state depriving Grass of his right to freely visit the Jewish state, and as official acts of state should never, in a modern nation, occur merely on a whim but rather must reflect some carefully thought out government policy, we are obligated to parse.

The first clear implication is that the honorable minister of the interior must have the authority to decide on a case-by-case basis which act of criticism merits banishment and which is to be tolerated. And as official acts of state, once again, can not be arbitrary, this means that Yishai should be able to present a list of clearly defined criteria. Just what sort of criticism gets one’s name on the black list? Is criticizing in poem worse than criticizing in prose? Are Germans, especially those with murky pasts, deducted five points for every act of criticism, for obvious historical reasons? And given the whole existential threat business, is any criticism related to Iran far more damning than criticism related to, say, the Palestinians? It would appear so.

That, of course, is a ridiculous proposition, and so, the obvious conclusion is that the state of Israel will from now on categorically ban anyone who criticizes it in any way from entry. Which means that I, too, should be banned, immediately, and General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of Joints Chief of Staff, and Coldplay, and anyone else who has ever publicly uttered any word that could be somehow construed as anything less than entirely and unquestioningly approving of Israel and every single one of its actions and policies. This should apply to Israelis as well as foreign citizens: Any Israeli critical of Israel should be made to leave at once, especially those pesky Supreme Court justices that keep on saying unflattering things to Netanyahu and his Cabinet.

I would be endlessly amused by such mind-benders were this not my country. If anyone still needs any additional proof that Israel is headed into benighted realms, Yishai was all too happy to provide it. He, and the bosses who back him, acted like every weak, frightened, irrational, and vindictive country always acts. Stifling criticism and punishing speech are only the beginning. It gets much worse. This must be said.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.