Kafka on Trial: Cultural Appropriation and the Politicisation of Literature

  • Abstract:

    A century after Franz Kafka wrote his famous short story The Judgment, a judgment befell his own literary corpus: The legal dispute over the unpublished writings of the Prague author and his executor Max Brod ended with a 2012 ruling by a Tel Aviv court, awarding their ownership to the National Library of Israel, in support of its claim that Kafka’s writings are a cultural asset which belongs to the Jewish people, and as such, to the Jewish state. The highly politicized use of Kafka’s Jewishness and Israel’s appropriation of his works is problematic. The act of claiming a German-speaking Czech author as an icon representative specifically of Jewish culture displaces him from an original context, and by extracting him from it, overrides the embeddedness of Jewish contributions to European culture in the early 20th century. The question that underlies this trial, namely, ‘to whom does Kafka belong?’, is deeply misguided, not because his Jewishness is disputed, but because the sheer notion of homogenous cultural identities overlooks the main concern of the author’s literary work. There is irony and sadness in a discourse that insists on the belonging of an author whose entire oeuvre explores the human experience of non-belonging: Karl Roßmann goes missing in America, failing to assimilate in the New World; Gregor Samsa metamorphoses into a bug, becoming unable belong to a familial community; and The Castle’s protagonist K. quite explicitly refuses both to integrate and to emigrate, deliberately choosing a form on non-belonging as his identity. This paper contextualizes Kafka’s literature as one that challenges traditional notions of identity formation. A reading of Kafka necessitates reaching beyond the limits of national, ethnic and religious borders. This quality affords him global recognition.