Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author of Kafka's Last Trial (Norton), winner of the 2020 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He is also co-author, with Merav Mack, of Jerusalem: City of the Book (Yale). His translations from the Hebrew have appeared in the New Yorker and in Poetry International.
Reading Kafka in Palestine
One of my most meaningful encounters with the work of Franz Kafka did not make it into Kafka’s Last Trial. From 2011-2014, I taught a “great books” seminar to Palestinian students at the Al Quds-Bard College for Arts and Sciences in East Jerusalem, the only dual-degree liberal arts program in the Middle East.
As we designed the curriculum, one professor asked: “Will the program focus on studying Palestinian writers?”
An Al-Quds University administrator answered the question with a question: “Will Palestinian students gain in self-esteem by being confined to reading Palestinian writers? Is it not patronizing to student and to writer alike? And anyway, is it the purpose of such studies to instill self-esteem? Kafka is not read because he happened to be a Jew; he needs no ethnic credentials.”
And so our course ended—or culminated—with Kafka’s unfinished masterpiece, The Trial. We discussed how the Prague writer had been interpreted and adapted by disparate writers, from the exiled Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat to the Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim.
One student compared The Trial to Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, a memoir of the author’s twelve-year imprisonment without trial in Syrian state security prisons, accused by the state of collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, and accused by fellow Muslim Brotherhood inmates of spying on them for the state.
Another student juxtaposed the absurd experiences of Josef K. in The Trial with her own family’s years-long struggle in Israeli courts to save their home in Jerusalem’s Old City from confiscation or demolition. She had never heard of Kafka before, but reading The Trial gave her a vocabulary to express what she was going through.
Here (used with permission) is an excerpt of her seminar paper:
Some years ago, we got a house demolition order. My father felt ashamed in front of people because of his inability to protect our house. He wondered if someone from our community, for their own interests, informed on us, just as Josef K. wondered if someone had informed on him. Exactly like him, we can’t do anything against the Israeli government, since we are individuals and basically we are weak whereas the government holds the power.
Our first lawyer started to prevent them from executing the house demolition. He succeeded in getting a postponement. Unfortunately, this lawyer died. He died, but the threat was still alive.
Josef K. felt that his freedom was being taken away from him even if he wasn’t put in a jail. We too couldn’t live freely. If we wanted to go somewhere, we feared that soldiers might come when no one was home.
Like Josef K., when we got our house demolition order, we appointed one lawyer, but discovered that if we continue with him alone, we will lose our home beside the fees that we paid to him. As in Kafka’s novel, we took two, four, ten other lawyers, all in order to postpone the demolition. All asked for fees which were impossible for us to pay. They took too long to give us answers. We felt constant stress and fear. Like Josef K.’s trial, ours seemed unending. We tried day after day, month after month, for years, but no decisions came. We felt wronged by all sides. And we cannot leave our lawyer, because in the end the one who would be damaged is us.
In The Trial, the accused can never obtain an acquittal. So also with us: we can only hope to postpone the loss of home—to postpone, postpone, postpone.
Finally, a third student intuitively grasped the notion of dedicating a life to seeking out the Law, but not the author’s distance from the Jewish faith. “Why then was Kafka not religious?” he asked. “Why didn’t he keep the Law?”