Israel must relinquish ownership over Kafka

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle, July 16 2012

With the impending verdict of a three year legal battle regarding Franz Kafka’s unpublished papers due to be announced imminently; Israel hopes the decision will allow Kafka’s work to be restored to the National Library of Israel. But the septuagenarian Eva Hoffe expects the court to prove she is the autonomous owner of Kafka’s papers, thus allowing her to sell them to the German literary archive in Marbech.

In 2008, Eva and her sister Ruth Wiesler inherited the papers from their mother, Esther Hoffe, who had been secretary to Kafka’s friend Max Brod. He left Kafka’s papers to her in 1968. Following Ruth’s death earlier this year, Eva became the sole owner of Kafka’s work.

In spite of this, the Israeli National library believes Kafka is part of their heritage, and the chairman of the board of directors has argued: “The library does not intend to give up on cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people”.

As previously pointed out by the Jewish writer, Anthony Lerman; if the Israeli National Library are allowed to claim Kafka as part of their heritage, then all Israeli institutions can thus make a claim to “practically any pre-Holocaust synagogue, artwork, manuscript or valuable ritual object in Europe’.

This is based on the mistaken premise that Jewish work is only a consequence of the individual’s Jewish heritage, which is a gross oversimplification, and an emotionally charged idea.

Since the fall of communism in Europe, this proprietary attitude has become increasingly orchestrated to the dismay of many Jewish communities, who reject Israel’s assumption that world Jewry’s cultural assets belong to the Jewish state. Rather, they rightly believe themselves to be autonomous societies that are capable of sustaining their own heritage.

In 2001, Yad Vashem claimed “moral” ownership over recently discovered murals painted by the Polish genius of both literature and art Bruno Schulz, in a house in the former village of Drohobycz. The museum dismissed the Poles’ claim to Schulz as a writer, as well as recognition as a native son of Drohobycz, on the basis that they had been complicit in his death during the Holocaust.

Behaving, in my view, like bandits, the representatives from the museum took the murals to Israel. Yet Marek Podstolski, Schulz’s great-nephew and last surviving relative, argued that Schulz considered himself to be solely a “Polish writer”, who had no Zionist inclination. In essence, the museum acted on the basis that because he was killed a Jew, only the state of Israel could claim him.

Understandably, many in Poland and the Ukraine see Israel’s partitioning of the murals as a continuing act of thievery against their national treasures.

In the case of Kafka, several European critics; most notably his recent biographer, Reiner Stach, oppose the notion that he was a Jewish writer and (more significantly for the court case) a Zionist. Whilst Kafka had a brief interest in Kabbalah, mysticism, and Yiddish theatre, he rarely attended synagogue and considered himself an atheist.

His personal diary was littered with occasional outbursts that could be described as antisemitic and antizionist; for example, he wrote of his desire “to stuff all Jews (myself included) into a drawer of a laundry basket”. Thus, as Hoffe’s lawyer, Harel Ashwall has argued, “to describe Kafka as some kind of Israeli writer or a writer with a connection to the state of Israel is nonsense”.

Whilst Israel has previously played a significant role in preserving Eastern and Central European Jewish heritage, and the National Library has beautifully maintained the papers of a range of German Jewish intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Stefan Zweig and Else Lasker-Schüler; it does not necessarily mean the state has divine right over all Jewish cultural assets.

In 1918, Kafka wrote about the early kibbutzim in Palestine, arguing there should be no legal courts – “Palestine needs earth (…) but it does not need lawyers”. It seems to me that until Israel removes its lawyers from this sorry tale and ceases to try taking what is simply not theirs, the world will continue to be starved of a true literary greats work.


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