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What Kafka’s Jewish fear in central Europe teaches me about America today

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A lot of the life of this website is a response to a challenge that Tony Judt issued two years ago: "Why is the American Jewish community so determined to convince itself
that we are living in 1938? Why does the most successful, the most well
integrated, the most culturally and politically influential, the most
socially and economically well situated Jewish community since the late
years of the Roman republic, why is it so worried about the demon of
anti-Semitism—more worried than the Jewish community in any other
country I know and certainly more worried than Israel itself?."
My latest response to Judt comes from reading Kafka's letters and diaries about life in central Europe (notably this book, from which I'll be quoting). 

We all know that Kafka changed world literature; what I didn't know before is that Kafka was a newspaper-reader and intellectual, engaged in the social, business and literary life of modern Europe. And what comes through in his nonfiction writings is that he was fearful about the rise of antisemitism amid this new nexus of power. For instance, he read portions of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and found them "stupid and frightening." He was afraid of traveling in Germany partly because of the antisemitic unrest. He urged another Jewish writer to counter a viciously anti-semitic German tract, Secessio Judaica, and urged that writer to adopt the perspective of David looking at Goliath. Kafka said he did not have enough of the "Talmudist" in him to do the job himself–though the antisemitic tract apparently played a role in Kafka's writing of "The Castle."
An effete urban intellectual if ever there was one, Kafka studied Hebrew and spoke of a Jewish literary "complex" that affected a Jew's understanding of reality:

"springing from the confusion that the natives are too alien to one, thus distorting reality, and the Jews too close, distorting reality, and therefore one cannot treat the latter or the former with the proper balance."

I'd say I suffer from that complex myself!
Notwithstanding his alienation, Kafka was integrated into central European life as so many Jews are in America today. He worked for a Prague insurance company insuring Czech workers. He wrote in German and loved Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Kleist–he treasured the idea of Jews grazing "on this German and yet not entirely alien pasture." He went to bars and clubs in Prague and was aware of his own assimilation. Of the many women with whom Kafka is associated, most were Jews and Zionists–but how astonishing is it that in 1921, he gave his diaries to his Catholic lover, the Czech journalist Milena Jesenska, who translated his work into Czech, did his first important obituary, and later died in the Holocaust–honored at Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile!? 

I am using the lens of Kafka to show how at once integrated, powerful, and fearful Jews of central Europe were. And well they should have been. Kafka's sister was killed in the Holocaust; and the Jewish intellectual life that he was a part of was obliterated.

Today when Jews integrate in America, they have a strong cultural memory of just this history–in which a Jewish genius who is giving his utmost to German literature lives in fear. This explains why, when Walt and Mearsheimer come along, they were immediately smeared by several Jewish critics, power players such as Peretz and Jeffrey Goldberg, as the second coming of the Protocols. Because obviously, Walt and Mearsheimer's book will affect Jewish power in America– and certainly should affect Jewish power over foreign policy.

This is the context of the Jewish response to criticism of Israel: a memory of the great Jewish moment in central Europe that Jews fear is going to unravel in the same way today in the new high-water-mark of Jewish power, the U.S. But let's remember the message of Kafka: that Jewish alienation can promote a distortion of reality. The business of this site is to reveal what so many Jews know, that there is no real sign that anything that Kafka or his family experienced is coming to pass again, that American life is different, that Never-again is something Americans have taken to heart.

And that that trust must be reciprocated.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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