Blog post

Cultural liability—Judith Butler on Israel's appropriation of Kafka

Tamar Shlaim16 March 2011

In a recent article for the London Review of Books, Judith Butler examines the political and cultural implications of the on-going trial in Tel Aviv to determine the future stewardship of boxes of Kafka’s original writings, the majority of which is currently unpublished. Butler discusses the claim of the National Library of Israel, which takes the position that Kafka’s writing is a cultural asset belonging to the Jewish people, and as such, rightly belongs to the Jewish state:

If Kafka is claimed as a primarily Jewish writer, he comes to belong primarily to the Jewish people, and his writing to the cultural assets of the Jewish people. This claim, already controversial (since it effaces other modes of belonging or, rather, non-belonging), becomes all the more so when we realise that the legal case rests on the presumption that it is the state of Israel that represents the Jewish people. This may seem a merely descriptive claim, but it carries with it extraordinary, and contradictory, consequences. First, the claim overcomes the distinction between Jews who are Zionist and Jews who are not, for example Jews in the diaspora for whom the homeland is not a place of inevitable return or a final destination. Second, the claim that it is Israel that represents the Jewish people has domestic consequences as well. Indeed, Israel’s problem of how best to achieve and maintain a demographic majority over its non-Jewish population, now estimated to constitute more than 20 per cent of the population within its existing borders, is predicated on the fact that Israel is not a restrictively Jewish state and that, if it is to represent its population fairly or equally, it must represent both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. The assertion that Israel represents the Jewish people thus denies the vast number of Jews outside Israel who are not represented by it, either legally or politically, but also the Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of that state. The position of the National Library relies on a conception of the nation of Israel that casts the Jewish population outside its territory as living in the Galut, in a state of exile and despondency that should be reversed, and can be reversed only through a return to Israel. The implicit understanding is that all Jews and Jewish cultural assets—whatever that might mean—outside Israel eventually and properly belong to Israel, since Israel represents not only all Jews but all significant Jewish cultural production.

Using exile as a point of departure, Butler suggests that the potential global implications of the library’s claim on Kafka’s writings could be retroactively extended to any form of cultural production undertaken by anyone who is arguably Jewish, greatly expanding the representative claim of the state of Israel:

So it is not enough for a person or a work to be Jewish; they have to be Jewish in a way that can be capitalised on by the Israeli state as it currently fights on many fronts against cultural delegitimation. An asset, one imagines, is something that enhances Israel’s world reputation, which many would allow is in need of repair: the wager is that the world reputation of Kafka will become the world reputation of Israel. But a liability, and a Jewish one, is someone whose person or work, arguably Jewish, constitutes a deficit of some kind; consider, for instance, the recent efforts to prosecute Israeli human rights organisations, such as B’tselem, for publicly documenting the number of civilian casualties in the war against Gaza. Perhaps Kafka might be instrumentalised to overcome the loss of standing that Israel has suffered by virtue of its ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian land. It matters that Israel comes to own the work, but also that the work is housed within the established territory of the state, so that anyone who seeks to see and study that work must cross Israel’s border and engage with its cultural institutions. And this is also problematic, not only because citizens from several countries and non-citizens within the Occupied Territories are not allowed to cross that border, but also because many artists, performers and intellectuals are currently honouring the cultural and academic boycott, refusing to appear in Israel unless their host institutions voice a strong and sustained opposition to the occupation. The Kafka trial not only takes place against this political backdrop, but actively intervenes in its reconfiguration: if the National Library in Jerusalem wins its case, to have access to the unpublished and unseen materials of Franz Kafka one will have to defy the boycott and will have implicitly to acknowledge the Israeli state’s right to appropriate cultural goods whose high value is assumed to convert contagiously into the high value of Israel itself. Can poor Kafka shoulder such a burden? Can he really help the Israeli state overcome the bad press of the occupation?

'Who Owns Kafka?' was the first of this year's London Review of Books Winter Lectures, delivered at the British Museum in February.

Visit the London Review of Books to read the article in full.

Filed under: articles, gaza, israel-palestine