Franz Kafka's Zionism

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Franz Kafka's Zionism


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was not religious, but he was a committed Jew whose life was centered on the Jewish world of Prague. All his closest friends except Milena Jesenska were Jews. More books have probably been written on his life and work than that of any other 20th century writer, and his own literary work is to a significant extent based on aspects of Jewish thought and understanding. Max Brod was his closest friend (their friendship was said to have been a unique one) and the man who saved Kafka's works from oblivion. Brod has written that alongside the general tragedy of mankind, Kafka's writings uniquely embody the sufferings of his own unhappy people, homeless, haunted Jewry that had mass without form or body. And yet, the word yew' does not appear in any of his fiction that is full of Jewish wisdom.

Gershom Scholem, the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism, once wrote that to gain a proper understanding of Kabbalah, one should read the works of Kafka, especially The Trial And Brod once described The Castle as a simple story "straight from Kafka's Jewish soul" that said more about the situation faced then by Jewry than "can be read in a thousand treatises."

Theodor Herzl emerged to promote the concept of a Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael when Kafka was a schoolboy. Both Kafka's letters to his friends and his extensive diaries contain references to the subject of Zionism. In recent years, interest in the depth of his Zionism and on whether he intended to make aliyah have increased to the extent that an international conference was held in Israel a few years ago largely devoted to the subject. (1) Even more recently in 2007, Professor Iris Bruce published a book on Kafka's involvement in the cultural Zionism of his day. (2) What is clear is that Kafka's attitude towards Zionism was a complex one in which much ambivalence was exhibited. There is no indication that he ever read Herzl's Judenstaat but he did own a copy of the latter's Diaries (although Herzl is never mentioned in any of his correspondence) and a copy of Moses Hess' Rome and Jerusalem, an early Zionist classic. Furthermore, he did attend a session of the 1913 Zionist Congress that was held in Vienna. In his later years, Kafka did write and talk about the possibility of making aliyah, but whether this was serious is subject to debate.

One or two of his contemporaries have stated that as a young man, Kafka favored Zionism, but the general consensus is that then he was indifferent and somewhat hostile to it. There was no consistent pattern in his approach to the subject even though his closest male friends, Max Brod, Hugo Bergmann, and Felix Weltsch, all of whom eventually made aliyah, were soon to be committed Zionists. These friends have said that their conversations on the subject left him uninterested and aloof. In 1902 for example, his negative attitude showed up when he questioned Bergmann, a schoolmate of his, on why he had become a Zionist. Bergmann has put on record that while he [Bergmann] became a Zionist, the young Kafka adopted socialism as his creed even though he took little interest in politics. Bergmann's friendship with Kafka apparently cooled for a time as he was forced to defend his support for Zionism against what he later called Kafka's "intellectual assault." He saw Kafka's efforts to mock his [Bergmann's] Zionist beliefs as an obsession. At one point Kafka referred to Bergmann's Zionism as an 'idte fixe', although later in 1919, he told Bergmann that his newly-published book of essays Jawne und Jerusalem impressed him as an introduction to the general principles of Zionism. He did however before 1914 retain a skeptical interest in the subject and he did attend Zionist gatherings even though they made him feel uneasy. He once said that being at such meetings was as if "a wooden, clothes rack had been shoved into the middle of the room."

Kafka eventually showed real support for the Zionist idea although not until his early thirties. …

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