The Silence of the Intellectuals

‘The intelligentsia ignored the irruption of religious fanaticism into domestic British politics. In the face of these foes of civilisation, silence is the worst form of cowardice’

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If the cap fits, wear it — even if it bears the insignia of the death’s head. Six years ago, when to promote his autobiography Peeling the Onion Günter Grass finally came clean about his membership of the Waffen SS, Germany’s most fêted writer declared: “I kept silent about it after the war out of a growing shame.” In an open letter to him in the New York Sun, I replied: “You still do not seem to understand that your silence was itself shameful.” 

Now aged 84, Grass has written a poem about his own silence: not about his Nazi past, but about Israel’s “threat to world peace”. In this month’s Standpoint Mara Delius recalls her childhood memories of Grass, in whose literary milieu she grew up. She finds it hard to accept that the avuncular gentleman who treated her so kindly as a girl is now coming out with lies intended to relativise the Holocaust: claiming, for example, that “six million” German PoWs died in Soviet captivity. His poem, “What must be said”, is an expression of undisguised hatred of Israel. He accuses the Jewish state of preparing “to annihilate the Iranian people” and declares “I shall no longer be silent,/Because I am tired of the hypocrisy of the West.” Grass’s resentment against the victorious but “hypocritical” Allies merges seamlessly with resurgent anti-Semitism. 

The whole poem is based on a lie: that there is some kind of conspiracy of silence about Israel’s nuclear deterrent. In fact, it has been the subject of public debate for half a century. I recall a heated argument about it many years ago at one of Lord Weidenfeld’s parties between two luminaries of the Left, the late Harold Pinter and Amos Oz, in which the Israeli writer rejected his British counterpart’s demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament, on the grounds that the Israeli bomb had deterred war. Oz supported the deterrent precisely because he was a peacenik.

What makes Grass’s libel against the Jewish state especially sinister is that Iran really is a threat to world peace, ruled as it is by a sacerdotal psychopath dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the West. Grass is, in effect, demanding that Israel disarm itself in the face of the greatest threat to the Jewish people since Hitler. In this month’s issue Con Coughlin reveals that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally ordered recent attacks on Israeli diplomats. Khamenei also plotted the failed assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington — a reminder that if Iran is permitted to become a nuclear power, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states will almost certainly protect themselves by following suit. 

Israel has now declared Grass persona non grata, but elsewhere he has got away with it. None of those who have honoured Grass over the years, including the Nobel Prize committee, has ostracised him for depicting Jewish victims as perpetrators and their genocidal foe as an innocent victim. The silence of European intellectuals on the rise of “educated” anti-Semites speaks volumes.

This silence, however, is not confined to the Continent. Here in Britain, we encounter it in academia, in the media and in the arts. When George Galloway won the Bradford by-election with an Islamist campaign, it took the nation by surprise. Neither the national press nor the BBC, indifferent to provincial politics, had bothered to report Galloway’s vicious but highly effective campaign. The intelligentsia ignored the irruption of religious fanaticism into domestic British politics for the first time in centuries. As Tim Congdon observes in his column, the political elite is silent about the impact outside London and the South-East of an immigration policy that has embittered the electorate in depressed regions.

Silence is the order of the day, too, on the collapse of stable family life into which successive governments have sleepwalked. They have created a culture of dependency that obliges the 25 million Britons who work to support up to ten million others of working age who do not. They have also silently undermined marriage, the institution which Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali defends and elucidates, while the philosopher John Haldane untangles the contradictions that beset liberals who discount the traditional definition of marriage. 

At the heart of British government, the dismantling of democracy, sovereignty and the nation state proceeds apace — but it is rare that we get such an insight as Michael Pinto-Duschinsky provides this month. He shows how the civil service connives with the human rights establishment and the Liberal Democrats to prevent any repatriation of powers from unelected foreign judges to Parliament. This process is driven not only by pragmatic self-interest, but by the secular religion of human rights.

 Secular religion is the theme of Melanie Phillips, too. A period of silence from Richard Dawkins would be as welcome as it is improbable. The silence of the intellectuals is always selective. In the face of the foes of civilisation, though, silence is the worst form of cowardice.