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Dissertation - Kafka and Cultural Zionism

My dissertation on Kafka's Cultural Zionism
Dissertation - Kafka and Cultural Zionism
Kafka's "Blue Notebook" - National Library of Israel

With much thanks to my supervisor Dr James Kelly


There is much discussion on how Kafka saw himself - as an author, an absurdist, and a German-speaking Czech. One aspect is distinctly under-discussed, his life as a Jew and Zionist. Kafka’s writing style often makes parsing difficult, though looking through his and his friends’ records, we can understand his thinking more clearly. Kafka should not be seen exclusively as a ‘grim depressive’ but as someone who accurately describes European Jewry’s condition (Danta 2009, 630). As a Jewish European, Kafka believed assimilation was not a sufficient answer to antisemitism, and he questioned whether there could be a political and cultural response. Kafka rooted this approach to Zionism in his life and the life of Jewish people he encountered, ‘[i]ndeed, his whole genius, his whole expression of the modern spirit, lay precisely in the fact that what he sought was to be a human being, a normal member of human society’ (Arendt 1944, 120–121). The most notable contribution to this area is Iris Bruce’s Kafka and Cultural Zionism (Bruce 2007). This dissertation will draw on Bruce’s text and incorporate more recent discussions, including the works of the newly opened archive in the Library of Israel (Bar-Hama 2021a).

It is first worth defining Zionism. In the broadest sense, it refers to the aspiration and realisation of Jewish nationhood, but this can be more precise. Before the establishment of the modern Israeli state, the central division of Zionism was one of culture and politics. Theodor Herzl advocated for Political Zionism, a Jewish state comprised of Jewish people (Don-Yiḥya 1998, 267). For most, this would involve emigration, just as Kafka promised Felice they would move to Palestine (Balint 2018, 54–55). We can understand this primarily as a pragmatic response to antisemitism; statehood would act as a means by which Jewish people could live without persecution (Don-Yiḥya 1998, 268).

In contrast, Ahad Ha’am advocated for Cultural Zionism (also called Spiritual Zionism), which centred on Jewish life. The Jewish state would not only be comprised of Jewish people but also practice Jewish values, culture and beliefs. We can see this as a response to the enlightenment, which deeply valued assimilation, matched against the possibility that Jewish tradition, culture and history would not continue (Don-Yiḥya 1998, 268). Bialik describes the connection between Political Zionism and Cultural Zionism more clearly, ‘the task of establishing a new Jewish national literature in Hebrew will prove impossible unless the literary imagination allows itself to feed on the spiritual resources associated with the law’ (N.’ ama Rokem 2008, 325). A shared culture addresses the central dilemma of Kafka’s novels: ‘nationless people living outside time and trying to confront problems without a clear temporal and spatial context’ (Shaked 2004, 104). Though Kafka wavered in politics, he most aligned with Cultural Zionism - as proved by widespread engagement in Zionist cultural activities and work in ‘völkische kleinarbeit’ (community work) (Bruce 2007, 65, 115). Kafka instead would contribute to the ‘Literature of the Small Nations’, a Zionist slogan born from the rise of nationalities across Europe (Bruce 2007, 42).

Kafka thought about class, trade unions and economics too. From an early age, he saw himself as a socialist and belonged to left-wing social circles (Bruce 2007, 17). Kafka’s friendship with social democrat politician Lily Braun guided his politics (Bruce 126). Influenced by second-aliyah Workers Without Possessions, Kafka writes in support of a six-hour working day, state provision of hospitals and old-age care, and redistribution for the poor within the kibbutz, positions of a Labour Zionist (Bruce 2007, 171).

Kafka also saw himself as someone who engaged in practical community building, helping establish local Jewish schools and the Jewish Home of Prague (Bruce 2007, 118, 123). His involvement in the community was instilled from an early age, as he came from a religious family and attended synagogue (Bruce 2007, 12–13). Practical Zionism focuses on the immediate task of developing the land and people. Kafka’s bookshelf included his reading of Palästina, a weekly paper documenting agricultural development in Mandate Palestine, explaining how to farm oranges, grapes and dates (Bruce 2007, 68–69). Kafka mentions agricultural development during his attendance at the World Zionist Congress and a talk on farming by Zionist figurehead Davis Trietsch (Bruce 2007, 75, 68). Kafka also supported educational projects focused on agricultural work, encouraging his friends to join the Jewish National Fund (Bruce 2007, 168). Even in Kafka’s distinctive style, he would describe his admiration for this project, following ’a newspaper account of a young man’s arduous trek across one of Israel’s deserts [...] details of fatigue, thirst, and sweat. Yet precisely this - the presentation of negative and repellent aspects, as it were, appealed to Kafka’ (Sherman 2014, 6). He was also an attendant to the Zionist Bar Kochba group, where he would listen to talks on the future of Zionism and Jewish life (Balint 2018, 59). To Kafka, Zionism was a communal effort that required Jewish people of different backgrounds, denominations and beliefs to work together (Bruce 2007, 124).

To summarise these competing threads to Kafka’s thinking, we can classify Kafka’s views under Cultural Zionism or “Larger” Zionism - the teaching of Hebrew, the development of Jewish social and cultural institutions, and the practical work of building the Jewish state (Bruce 2007, 113). In this dissertation, the first section will explore Jewish and Zionist themes within Kafka’s three novels - The Trial, The Castle and Amerika. Afterwards, this dissertation will focus on how Kafka’s Zionism is understood presently.

The Trial

The Trial is a novel rooted in a literal premise (Kafka [1925] 1995). Our protagonist, Josef K, is arrested by two agents for an unspecified crime but is not imprisoned. K seeks advice from his neighbour, his landlady, his uncle, and a lawyer, but to no avail. A priest tells K a short parable, Before the Law, describing life’s absurdity. Shortly after, K is taken to a quarry and executed with a butcher’s knife. The Trial describes the process and rhetoric where the law is a tool for persecution.

Whilst none of The Trial’s characters is explicitly coded Jewish, the novel can still inform us about how Kafka understood the social condition of European Jewry. The obscurity is intentional; Kafka’s storytelling explores what the ​​‘protagonist’s consciousness hides from itself’ (Band 1980, 172). Despite lacking signposting, the treatment of K mirrors the ‘existential uprootedness’ that Jewish people in Europe experienced (Shaked 2004, 140).

More specifically, The Trial describes how the law reflects the pathologies of the social environment, particularly with antisemitism. The ‘poverty of the court’ becomes literal as judges work in the attic of a tenement (Benjamin [1968] 2011, 96; Kafka [1925] 1995, 60). Kafka describes how this inflicts harm, those whom the law aims to serve are despondent. Rothkirchen comments on how early Kafka translator Pavel Eisner describes how ‘the triple dimension of Jewish existence is embodied in Kafka’s The Trial [...] a “guiltless guilt” that imbues the Jew in the modern world’ (Rothkirchen 2006, 23). This antisemitism and second-class status under the law informed the context that predicated Zionist thinking.

In 1911, in a quarry outside Kyiv, the murder victim, twelve-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, was found (Bruce 2007, 57). Whilst police already had the likely culprits, ’a group of thieves’, they let the accusation run that Jewish brick quarry worker Menahem Mendel Beilis was responsible (Bruce 2007, 57). The accusation was rooted in blood libel, the belief that there existed Jewish ritual murder to feed off the blood of others, particularly children. The Trial finally took place after three years, and the jury unanimously found Beilis innocent (Bruce 2007, 60). The Beilis Trial being such a well-known and well-reported story, very likely meant it informed Kafka’s writing of The Trial.

During the Beilis Trial, a Czech newspaper published a picture of Yushchinsky describing how Beilis had engaged in ritual blood sacrifice (Bruce 2007, 59). In response, a Prague Jewish and Zionist paper, Selbstwehr (self-defence), reproduced the picture and extensively reported on Beilis Affair and associated trials and pogroms (Sokel 1999, 845; Bruce 2007, 59). A Prague school distributed storybooks describing how ‘Jews with their rabbi slaughter a little child, cut up the body, drain its blood, and hang the body from a tree’ - this, too, would be reported by Selbstwehr (Bruce 2007, 60). Kafka was an avid reader of Selbstwehr; the detached passages in Selbstwehr’s trial recording inspired what later came to be known as the ‘Kafkaesque’ (Bruce 2007, 61). Reporting such stories helped raise the salience of Jewish media and culture locally.

There are several similarities between The Trial and the Beilis Trial; for instance, the setting of the city’s outskirts matches the story [a] small stone quarry, deserted and desolate’ (Kafka [1925] 1995, 227). The narratives are similar too. In Kafka and the Beiliss Affair, Band describes how Kafka repeats the narrative structure, ’a powerless man, innocent of any crime, stands alone before an awesome state tribunal whose sole aim is to convict him’ (Band 1980, 171). Further, Band introduces new evidence, exploring how Dora Dymant, Kafka’s last partner, had recalled that among Kafka’s burnt works was a story of his on Beilis (Band 1980, 171). For Kafka to have associated these events in his writing suggests Jewish life was foremost in his mind when writing.

It is worth considering how The Trial interacted more widely with Jewish and Zionist literature. For instance, Kafka based The Trial on Arnold Zweig’s play Ritual Murder in Hungary. Kafka comments in his diary, ‘[t]he other day I’ve read [Ritual Murder in Hungary] by Zweig [...] At one point I had to stop reading, sit down on the sofa and weep aloud. It’s years since I wept’ (Gilman 1994, 17). He was also likely informed by Die böse Unschuld (Evil Innocent), an exploration of how the innocence of the accused raises the psychological fury of ritual murder pogroms (Bruce 2007, 60–61). These texts centre on how baseless accusations inflict suffering on the powerless, ‘the strange way that the law gives way to a lawlessness it cannot control’ (Butler 2011, 10). Kafka was an avid reader of Jewish literature and a keen attendant to Jewish plays. He wrote about his thoughts on antisemitism and Zionism; his writing is inseparable from this background (Vogel 2009, 151).

Another aspect of how Kafka explains the social condition of Jewish people is through the use of fables. The execution of K evokes the slaughter of a pig, ‘K. now perceived clearly that he was supposed to seize the knife himself, as it travelled from hand to hand above him, and plunge it into his own breast’ (Kafka [1925] 2005, 228). Comparing the final chapter to the final scene of Ritual Murder, Gilman describes, ‘it is a butcher knife that the nameless executioners carry: as one holds his throat (to prepare him for the blow), the other stabs him in the heart. [...] a Jewish butcher’s knife cannot stab; only a practitioner of the more “modern” and “humane” form of butchery, the pig butchers of Kafka’s nightmares, can stab the victim in the heart’ (Gilman 1994, 134). The condition of Jewish people in the diaspora can be understood as the pig slaughtered; for Jewish people to gain agency, they needed to look to self-determination. Kafka, in this metaphor, describes the social conditions that predicate Zionism.

A similar use of animals is the use of dogs and their owners to reflect the imbalance of power. For instance, K’s final words are ‘like a dog!’, reflecting his transformation from humanity (Geller 2018, 170; Kafka [1925] 1995, 228). Similarly, Block is demeaned as a dog by his lawyer, Huld, ‘he humiliated himself to the court in a way that was downright dog-like’ (Preece and Julian 2002, 165; Kafka [1925] 2005, 336). Bruce compares the use of anthropomorphism to the art of Marc Chagall, ‘Kafka’s imaginary animals and characters do have a place in Chagall’s allegorical and mystical landscape [...] [as] Chagallian magic realism’ (Bruce 2002, 165). Kafka invokes an unreal world to give the reader a more accurate sense of the world they live. Similarly, Danta argues that ‘by literally representing Jews as what they were said to be: jackal-like pariahs and ape-like imitators and imposters’, Kafka is unmasking the pretensions of assimilation, revealing the treatment of Jewish people (Danta 2009, 630). Kafka employs the dog analogy to symbolise the implicit position of Jewish people within a hierarchy and the enduring shame that endures even after death (Vogel 2009, 157).

Kafka was intensely aware of social differences among European Jewry. These differences haunt the narrative of Kafka’s stories, ‘while we walk the bright broad modern boulevards, the dank gloomy alleyways of the old ghetto still live on deep within us’ (Sokel 1999, 849). In Before the Law, a gate stands, symbolising the boundaries inflicted by the law. The gate parallels Prague’s physical boundaries after an influx of Jewish refugees from the Galician front led to the state halting immigration (Caygill 2011, 56). To Kafka, social precarity pervaded all aspects of Jewish life. When Kafka watched the play In the City of Slaughter, based on the Kishinev pogrom, he described how ‘the poet stooped from Hebrew to Yiddish’, ‘für die jüdische Zukunf’ (for the Jewish cause) (Bruce 2007, 58). In this quote, Kafka not only explains the perceived status of Jewish languages, but he also quotes a common Zionist slogan and, in so doing, recognises how Zionism is the effort to find commonality where there otherwise exists differences.

The parable Before the Law explores similar themes to The Trial but also introduces new possibilities for interpretation. The phrase ‘The Law’ is often used in place of the Torah (the written law), suggesting a religious reading is required. An analogy for both K and the man in Before The Law is Job, who, by divine will, is persecuted for no apparent reason (Horwitz 1995, 23). Max Brod saw K as Job too (Brod 1960, 182–183). Job can act as both a symbol of Jewish collective suffering and collective purpose (Horwitz 1995, 23).

The religious themes of Kabbalah are present, too; Sicher argues that Kafka’s inclusion of law into a broader story references what Walter Benjamin describes as the struggle between Aggadah (folk law) and Halakhah (law) (Sicher 2004, 9). Kafka’s religious interpretations reject assimilation, seeing the modern world as ‘anonymous, modern, technical [...] a world in which the age-old relationship between God and man has been lost’; K is a victim of a world that has abandoned continuity for modernity (Horwitz 1995, 22). Like Zionism, Kafka demonstrates how Religious Judaism also argues for Jewish people to rediscover meaning (Spector 2014, 22).

The Trial connects different strands of Kafka’s thinking, a struggle with identity, and a rejection of assimilation, producing a story that conceptualises surreal concepts within a literalist text. By highlighting injustices, Kafka establishes the basis on which many saw the case for Zionism. Whilst Kafka does not explicitly state the case for Jewish or Zionist thought within The Trial, it is clear that he meant for us to consider the Jewish condition as analogous to K during its reading.

The Castle

Similar to The Trial, The Castle takes us through the eyes of a character named K (Kafka [1922] 2013). K is a new arrival to a distant village, aiming to survey the land. K finds that a Castle governs the village and that only Count Westwood, the owner, can admit K. An official assistant called Klamm says that to reach the Castle, K must speak to the mayor of the village. The struggling assistants mirror the lawyers of The Trial, ‘no matter how highly placed they may be, they are always fallen or falling men’ (Benjamin [1968] 2011, 96). The village’s mayor explains that K’s invitation was a mistake and that he should now work as a janitor. K is frustrated, though villagers assure K that the officials of the Castle are flawless and that all mistakes are intentional. K arrives at the Castle, a decrepit series of buildings containing bureaucratic officials who delegate tasks and messages to their assistants. It is here that the novel ends incomplete. Notably, The Castle was kept as manuscripts by his contemporary Max Brod, to be later published (Kulka 1998, 1). Brod argues that the novel’s ending was to be that K is on his deathbed, exhausted from his search, where the village would finally permit him conditional admission on work grounds (Bokhove 2014, 51).

A central motif underlying The Castle is the search for a home, echoing the familiar rhetoric of Zionism. In The Castle, K travels from place to place, talking to strangers and never finding a secure place to sleep, ‘said K. “it’s surely possible to let me sleep in a corner somewhere” [...] “but besides the strictness with which the rule is enforced - and you speak about it as only a stranger could - it’s quite out of the question” (Kafka [1922] 2013, 49). Similarly, writing to Brod in 1922, Kafka describes, ‘I am away from home and must always write home’; he never feels he can belong in Prague (Harman 1997, 156). Providing a safe home is a central aspect of the Basel Program (Zionist Manifesto), ‘Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognised, legally secured home (or homeland) in Palestine’ (Herzl [1896] 2008, 32). Kafka also describes the kibbutz as providing food, comfort and security, a place which contrasts his identity as a ‘desert wanderer [...] banished from the Promised Land’ (Bruce 2007, 171; Harman 1997, 153). The Castle reflects Kafka’s belief that the home can provide the wanderer comfort and security, a metaphor central to Zionism.

Kafka is likely describing “home” beyond its literal meaning, broadening the term towards an accepting culture and society. Connecting Kafka and Joyce’s hopes for a homeland, Harman describes this broader conception of home, ‘Kafka’s own longing to escape arose from a beleaguered linguistic, cultural, and social atmosphere’ (Harman 1997, 516). Similarly, K searches not just for a physical home but a social home, asking for assurance from Count Westwood that he belongs to the village as a citizen. Growing up, Kafka was aware of both Czech and German nationalism, and whilst Jewish people made efforts to align with these movements, they both had fiercely antisemitic tendencies (Bruce 2007, 14, 17). Bruce describes how ‘many Czechs disliked the Jews because they identified them with the dominant German power structure’ (Bruce 2007, 60). Brod, too, comments on how K describes, ‘[t]o the peasants I don’t belong and to the castle I don’t either, I suppose’, paraphrasing Psalm 137, a description of Zion (Brod 1960, 189). Beyond the literal search for a home, Kafka believes the home must be a place where he can live and belong, a belief that underlies Cultural Zionism.

It is also possible to find a religious interpretation behind The Castle. The villagers have great faith in the officials that govern them and K’s arrival, hoping it will bring ‘divine political intervention’ (Heidsieck 2008, 2). Benjamin compares The Castle’s plot with a Talmudic legend initially told by the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Benjamin [1968] 2011, 109). Rabbi Nachman’s story is a metaphor, describing a princess, who represents the soul, who arrives at a village, which represents the body, who has a fiancé, which represents the Messiah (Benjamin [1968] 2011, 109). The princess prepares a meal on the Sabbath for her fiancé because this is ‘the only way she can find joy in a village whose language she does not know’ (Benjamin [1968] 2011, 109). Benjamin aptly compares this to the condition of K, trapped in his body, alien to the modern world, struggling to understand the language of the village, a representation of the ‘collective paranoia of a community threatened by the social and political transition to modernity’ (Benjamin [1968] 2011, 109) (Heidsieck 2008, 1). By employing the metaphor of the ‘Shabbat Bride’, Kafka explains the struggle underlying Judaism to ‘besiege the castle’ and achieve spiritual realisation (Hayman 1983, 298).

Another religious interpretation of The Castle relates to the convergence of Religious Judaism and Zionism. Roberston draws from the view of Göhler, that the novel is an allegory for Ezekiel 40, whereby K, as a land surveyor, measures the dimensions of the Temple to ‘rebuild Zion’ (Robertson 1987, 228). The Castle can represent the Castle and City used to describe Zion in the Hebrew Bible (Robertson 1987, 236). Going by an allegory Maimonides described, ‘those with their backs to the palace have a religion, but a false one; those who cannot find the entrance to the palace are Talmudists, who understand religious truth but have never thought about the fundamental principles of religion; [...] and those inside the palace are on the way to attaining knowledge of God’ (Robertson 1987, 237). Within this allegory, the roles of everyone within the Castle and village are predefined (Robertson 1987, 225). Kafka relocates the story of the Temple into an Eastern European village, implicating a common identity and existence.

Kafka in The Castle explores the Jewish urban-rural periphery by placing the novel within a village. The story begins with the character of K sleeping on a ‘bag of staw’ in discomfort; it is an unfamiliar setting to him (Kafka [1922] 2013, I). Jewish urbanisation had accelerated in the industrial revolution, and by the time of the novel’s writing, there was now a countercultural aspiration to return to the farms and villages. Often this is described under the expression ‘Kibbush Haaretz’ Conquest of the Land (Isseroff 2005, 3; Kemp 1999, 87). This ambivalence is shared in Kafka’s letters, as he describes to Grete Bloch how Herzl’s message has failed to reach the ‘jüdischen Dorfbewohner’ (Jewish villagers) - comparable to how K, the land surveyor, fails to reach and understand the villagers (Bokhove 2014, 51). The surveyor’s role, too, can symbolise the outsider, as this was typically a profession feared by peasants (Heidsieck 2008, 2). Kafka, at the time of writing, had become increasingly sick and spent much of his time retired to the country (Brod 1960, 164). K’s story shares both Kafka’s romanticism for the countryside shared by the romantic aspirations of Labour Zionists to redefine Jewish life in an agrarian society.

Collective Loneliness is central to K’s conception of the world in The Castle. K is the newcomer trapped in an impossibility, ‘[n]obody can the be the companion of anyone here’, he is profoundly alone as he realises no one will ever welcome him ‘surely he at least had some ordinary common sense? - that he was in a place where he actually did not belong’ (Brod 1960, 187; Kafka [1922] 2013, 343). Brod describes how this expresses the Jewish struggle to find acceptance, ‘[t]he word Jew does not appear in The Castle. Yet tangibly, Kafka in The Castle [speaks] straight from his Jewish soul’ (Brod 1960, 187). K works hard and finds a job in the village but is still not accepted, demonstrating the ‘illusionary spirit of the psychology of assimilation’ (Brod 1960, 189). K’s story is a collective story of a people denied acceptance, yet continuing to hope, just as Joseph K hopes for justice.

The allegory of the zoo allows us to gain further insight into how Kafka describes the Jewish condition in The Castle (Balazs 2015, 99). The chaotic state of nature traps K, the village represents the zoo animals, and the zoo keepers represent the Castle officials (Balazs 2015, 99). The Castle has a ‘totalising’ power over its inhabitants, making it impossible for K to gain authority (Balazs 2015, 93). K is transformed into “a monstrous vermin” through three stages - loss of the protagonist’s self-worth, entrapment within a cruel world and confinement through the third person perspective (Begley 1997, 256). The zoo metaphor relays Kafka’s experience within Prague, ‘I’ve been spending every afternoon outside in the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate. The other day I heard someone call the Jews “a mangy race.” Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated?’ (Vogel 2009, 151). Within this state, Kafka has no control or worth to society, ‘the mouse in a closed trap’, unable to escape (Silberschlag 1983, 74). Kafka’s characters must escape the metaphorical zoo and achieve self-realisation.

Despite the lack of explicitly coded characters, K’s condition within The Castle is analogous to the “Wandering Jew”. K wanders throughout the village but never finds himself closer to acceptance. The struggles of K represent the tumultuous path of Jewish people in a period of rising nationalism, secular communism, and the development of the ‘Heimat’ (German homeland) (Boa 2002, 78). Brod’s employment of a Jewish metaphor provides context to The Castle, offering a broader analysis of the social context Kafka experienced. As a Jewish subject, K finds himself trapped in an impossibility that demands self-actualisation.


America “Amerika” (Brod’s title) or “Der Verschollen”, The Man Who Disappeared (Kafka’s title) describes a story of migration to an unfamiliar land (Kafka [1927] 1962; Tuckerová 2003, 154). Its strangeness can partly be explained by this being an account of life in America written by someone who had never visited and who spent his life almost exclusively within Prague (Harman 2008, 10). However, the myths of America carry through, such as “The Shining City on the Hill”, the American Dream and Manifest Destiny. However, with the promise of America, Kafka also acutely describes the commonplace reality of exploitation, racism and discrimination as Karl Rossman struggles to make his way in New York and Oklahoma (Robertson 2012, xii). Kafka synthesises a range of sources in Amerika - his relatives who left for the New World, written travel sources from American immigrants, and the writings of Charles Dickens (Robertson 2012, page xii-xiii, xviii). This novel is a description of the American story, but at the same time, Kafka cannot ignore Jewish and Zionist debates.

The connection to the Hebrew Bible Amerika is worth considering. Alter argues that Amerika draws from Genesis and Exodus (Alter 2000, 63). It is worth noting that, as his first language, Kafka drew (reluctantly) from the Bible in Luther’s German (Kimmage 2012, 133; Robertson 2003, 839; Suchoff 2011a, 29). We can tell he was reluctant to German from one of his letters to Brod, describing the distinct impossibilities: ‘the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise [and] the impossibility of not writing [at all]’, along with other comments which include his description of the German language as ‘cold’ (Deleuze, Guattari, and Brinkley 1983, 16; Bruce 2007, 35). In Alter’s conception of Amerika, Karl is banished repeatedly, first from his homeland and then from his uncle’s luxury apartment, for an act of ‘betrayal’, a nod to Genesis (Alter 2000, 79–81). After leaving his uncle, Karl becomes Joseph, a weary traveller who struggles to achieve the “Rags to Riches” story (Alter 2000, 82–84, 88). Karl leaves for Hotel Occidental in the town of Rameses, representing the Hebrew enslaved person in the ‘Egyptian house of bondage’ (Alter 2000, 85–87). Karl leaves the job before hastily leaving for Oklahoma (representing Israel) to the sound of Music (representing Miriam’s Tambourine) (Alter 2000, 89–90). This interpretation may read as drawn out; however, Kafka is known to write cryptically. However, Shaked makes a convincing case that Alter’ overinterprets’ this text in drawing a literal Biblical comparison (Shaked 2004, 99).

Metz directly explores whether Amerika has something to reveal about Kafka’s attitudes towards Zionism. He argues this from two angles. Metz first argues that whilst Karl moves to the West, he travels “East” as he encounters parallels to Yiddish Theatre, desert landscapes, Yiddish doublemen, and Biblical allegories (Metz 2004, 648). This argument is problematic as it assumes that Kafka held negative assumptions of the “East” when the evidence suggests otherwise (Metz 2004, 651). Further, Europe in this period did not necessarily see America highly (Robertson 2012, xiv). Kafka expressed a much more progressive view in his work supporting Eastern European Jewish refugees to Prague (Bruce 2007, 117). Metz is wrong or ‘problematical’ to suggest these views are relevant to Amerika (Gelber 2009, 174).

The more compelling case Metz argues is that Kafka meant for Amerika to be a critique of where assimilation leads, describing an alternative from ‘westjiidischester der Westjuden’ - “the most West Jewish of Western Jewry” (Metz 2004, 654). Rossman (with a ß) is commonly a Jewish surname; the more common German version is Rosman (Metz 2004, 653). Karl’s name could imply an attempt to assimilate (Metz 2004, 653). However, it could also be an animalistic reference, as Rosman translates as “horse-man” (Harman 2008, 12). Karl’s uncle Jacob is relatively isolated, despite living in New York, despite learning English and singing patriotic songs, suggesting that assimilated modernity has made Jewish living more precarious (Metz 2004, 254–255). New York then can be understood as a site of ‘alienation and techno-bureaucratic landscapes’, the Prague of America (Metz 2004, 255). Frank takes friendship with Robinson, an Irish character, perhaps a reference to the rise of the minor languages and the shared counter-assimilationist cause (Metz 2004, 660–661). When Karl encounters Oklahoma, a Western Christian state, others demarcate him as black (in a time of Jim Crow) (Metz 2004, 665). Despite the promise of The New Colossus, Kafka finds himself returning to the confining world of Germany and Western Europe, but in an American setting (Metz 2004, 658). From this critique of assimilation, we find Kafka searching for a way to return to his Jewish roots, something which, as a secular Jew, he finds more in Cultural Zionism than religion.

Brod takes a more optimistic reading of Amerika, but he is also getting at a broader debate, is there a happy ending for Jewish people? In Kafka’s other works, ‘[t]he demiurge who rules the transcendent world torments human beings. This world is an exact reflection of the next one, and vice versa: [...] of a reality beyond the real’ (Shaked 2004, 107). We could only assume that Kafka would follow the natural conclusion, humiliation or death. Nevertheless, Brod suggests an alternate ending: Karl is innocent and faces the ​​‘lighter hand, in bright [colours], and with more joy in hopes’ (Brod 1960, 137). The ending of Amerika describes picturesque scenery, ‘broad mountain streams appeared, rolling great waves down on the foothills and drawing them with a thousand foaming wavelets, plunging underneath the bridges over which the train rushed’, signalling the possibilities of Frank’s destination (Kafka [1927] 1962, 298). Brod took the view of Martin Buber, a colleague of Kafka’s, of a ‘Jewish renaissance’, whereby Jewish people could reconceptualise their existence as a nation and discover self-determination, a joyous ‘spiritual and cultural renewal’ (Bruce 2007, 73; Rubin 2015, 9–10). Dix describes how ‘America would have been as impossible a destination as Palestine, but certainly he must have at least considered both destinations at different points in time’, that Kafka is expressing possibilities more than prescriptions (Dix and Nervi 2021). Amerika is not just a travel story; Kafka conceptualises a world where Jewish people, ​​Joseph Mendel, Frank Rossman and Uncle Jacob, can live with greater autonomy, along with all the “minor” nationalities (Shaked 2004, 92).

Frank’s friend, Fanny, offers a distinctly Jewish storyline to Amerika. Suchoff comments, ‘[i]n this culturally Zionist sense, Fanny is indeed both a biblical figure and a New York showgirl’ (Suchoff 2011b, 129). Her character directly compares to Fanny Brice, a Jewish immigrant who had achieved stardom in New York (Suchoff 2011b, 129). In the Theatre, Kafka describes ‘[w]hat destitute disreputable characters were here assembled’, that in the space of performance, minorities can find expression and purpose (Kafka [1927] 1962, 296; Alter 2000, 89). The joy found in the arts represents Kafka’s view of Yiddish Theatre, ‘Western Jews needed the Eastern Jews, and not the other way around’ (Bruce 2007, 121). Fanny plays the trumpets and the drums, and she ‘recruits’ Frank to the wonders of jazz music, dressed as an angel (Suchoff 2011b, 129). This ceremonial description could be an allusion to the Rams horn or a reference to Jewish messianism, a joyous form of Jewish culture (Alter 2000, 89; Suchoff 2011b, 130). Suchoff also alludes to the Tree of Life, whereby ‘Fanny replaces this obstacle to redemption with a chorus of trumpets’ (Suchoff 2011b, 129). Kafka demonstrates forms of Cultural Zionism that extend beyond literature and into Music and worship.

Amerika is not a Zionist text, but we can read it as an exploration of Jewish emancipation, a central goal of Cultural Zionism. Kafka views American modernity sceptically, as he sees parallels with his life in Prague. The same authoritarian structures dominate Karl’s life, from his family to his employers. The Statue of Liberty replaces its torch with a sword to remind the audience who is in charge (Löwy 1997, 8). At the same time, this is possibly Kafka’s only story where the character finds some form of emancipation, in this case through the outlet of Music. The ending draws from Kafka’s belief that it is not just rigorous politics emancipating people but cultural activity. Hans Kohn describes,’ [i]t is impossible to teach someone Zionism through arguments, and all the discoveries of racial and sociological research do not touch us. Zionism lies in another dimension of being. It is not knowledge, but life’; Kafka’s vision is distinctly rooted in life (Pan 1994, 7)

Jackals and Arabs

Jackals and Arabs is one of Kafka’s less-known short stories, but it provides insight into Kafka’s thinking on Zionism (Kafka [1917] 2009). Published in Der Jude, Kafka describes the experience of an unnamed narrator who comes from the north and travels the desert with a caravan of Arabs (Rubinstein 1967, 13). The Jackals surround the narrator by surprise, and they explain that he must ‘clean’ the land of Arabs, ‘[o]ur ancestors described a man like you as the one who will do it. We must be free of the Arabs - with air we can breathe’ (Kafka [1917] 2009, 2–3). The jackals hand the narrator a pair of rusty scissors to slit the throats of Arabs in their sleep, ‘That’s common knowledge—as long as there are Arabs, these scissors wander through the deserts and will wander with us until the end of days. Every European is offered them’ (Kafka [1917] 2009, 5). An Arab man who leads the caravan throws the jackals the carcass of a camel, and the jackals ravage the body after draining its blood (Kafka [1917] 2009, 5–6). The leader whips the jackals, but they do not care because they are feasting on the corpse (Kafka [1917] 2009, 6). The narrator asks the leader to stop whipping the jackals, and he complies (Kafka [1917] 2009, 6). Like much of Kafka’s writing, the details create an atmosphere of horror and despair.

Several popular interpretations of Jackals and Arabs are worth exploring. One suggests that Kafka warns against the ‘old-testament’ God, who demands the murder of Jewish ‘enemies’ to restore Israel (Rubinstein 1967, 14). It is unlikely Kafka meant an explicitly antisemitic reading of the Hebrew Bible. Another reading suggests Kafka is mocking revolutionary spirit, which also seems unlikely given that Kafka sympathised with socialist causes (Rubinstein 1967, 14). However, these readings suggest that the text is highly malleable to interpretation.

At this point, it is worth exploring a significant controversy. After one Shabbat dinner, Kafka comments about Orthodox Jews in his diary, claiming ‘looked at precisely, it was like a wild African tribe. Sheer superstition” (Spinner 2016, 17). Kafka’s contentious depiction runs contrary to most of his depictions of Orthodox Jews - though Kafka often writes contradictory thoughts. Brod, Bruce and Spinner argue that Kafka is ‘turning his encounters with the “other” inward’ (Spinner 2016, 17; Bruce 2007, 135; Brod 1960, 153). Kafka may not intend to use ‘African tribe’ and ‘superstitious’ as pejorative but as descriptions of primitivism, something he saw keenly (Spinner 2016, 17). Though, we can also read the usage of ‘wild’ or “noble savage” as racist. Kafka employs antisemitic tropes throughout his stories in a manner common among Jewish and Zionist authors of the time, which can be considered problematic (Bruce 2007, 135). Kafka believed that exposing antisemitic tropes for what they were would heal the ‘disease’ (Bruce 2007, 136). Nevertheless, this was only his intention, and it is entirely legitimate to read this as offensive. Whilst Kafka at points valorises Orthodox Jews, including from his father’s family, this could suggest his views are more inconsistent (Spinner 2021, 1).

How Kafka saw Orthodox Jews is crucial because it informs how we understand the next reading of Jackals and Arabs. Bruce suggests that the jackals represent Eastern European Jews who follow the law and wait loyally for the Messiah, who is the narrator (Bruce 2007, 154). The metaphor of religious jackals is further supported by how they focus on ritual purity and try to drain the camel’s blood before slaughter, a parody of shechita (Kafka [1917] 2009, 6; Bruce 2007, 154–155). The draining blood of the camel mimics a passage from Ritual Murder in Hungary, ‘blood contains the soul; therefore [...] you shall pour it on the ground like water’ (Bruce 2007, 155). The metaphor of religiosity draws on antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish people as subjects of ‘spectacle’, ritual murderers and incompetent tailors, so obsessed with their thirst for blood that they ignore their hatred of Arab people (Bruce 2007, 155–156). Meanwhile, the ‘enlightened’ narrator expresses how they are above the cruel acts of these beings, mimicking how Western Zionists often looked down on Eastern European Jews (Bruce 2007, 155–156). Kafka employs antisemitic stereotypes to demonstrate their absurdity, revealing how antisemitism transforms Jewish people into cruel animals.

Bruce also finds Zionist metaphors within Jackals and Arabs. The narrator from the north may represent Max Nordau, a proponent of “muscular Judaism”, who explicitly changed his name from ‘southern field’ to ‘northern meadow’ (Bruce 2007, 154). The conflict between Jews and Arabs could either symbolise ongoing land conflicts in the Levant or the status of Jewish people in a ‘host’ country, where they are ‘haunting the edges of culture’ (Bruce 2007, 154, 156). The outside perspective of the jackals can give us the perspective of Jewry from Zionists, too, as advocates such as Nordau and Bloch believed that there was something physically wrong with Jewish people, either as too studious or as ‘wild’ animals (Bruce 2007, 156). Often antisemitic and ideological Zionist discourse of the period overlap, something Kafka was not immune from (Bruce 2007, 150). Kafka parodies the antisemitic and Zionist concept of a Jewish ‘race’, taken to its logical extreme (Bruce 2007, 150). In later years, Kafka supported his sister Ottla marrying a Catholic against his father’s will, suggesting he took a more liberal position on these issues (Bruce 2007, 152). The metaphor of the jackals represents the ideological delusions of some Zionists and the ‘internal metamorphosis’ of the jackal form imposed on Jewish people (Bruce 2007, 157). Kafka posits that this demands a solution, but he rejects the ideological conclusions of some Zionists (Bruce 2007, 157)

Hanssen reads Jackals and Arabs as an anti-Zionist text, ‘the violent nature of Zionism’s designs on Palestine is countered by an Arab protagonist whose narrative [is] of resistance’ (Hanssen 2012, 169). Let us take Hanssen’s position and understand Israel as a violent settler-colonial state that treats Arab life as inferior. In this reading, Jackals and Arabs is an anti-colonial, anti-Zionist text (Hanssen 2012, 170). This reading contradicts Kafka’s plan to move to Mandate Palestine and his identification with Zionism, but it is a dominant view within academia (Bruce 2007, 69; Butler 2011, 12). The jackals describe the Arabs as ‘unclean’ and ‘poor’, akin to Herzl in Altneuland (Kafka [1917] 2009, 4; Hanssen 2012, 184). The narrator, in this case, would represent the British, and the jackals are Jewish people who see a short-term convergence of interests (Hanssen 2012, 184). The caravan leader explains that the ‘jackals’ attempt to instrumentalise the European’ (Hanssen 2012, 185). The problem with the anti-Zionist perspective is that it assumes Kafka would want to leave the reader a negative image of Jewry as blood-thirsty, manipulative, violent hounds rather than trying to impart questions about where these narratives lead. While Kafka wants us to empathise with the Arab characters, it does not necessarily imply he wants us to think less of the Jewish characters (Hanssen 2012, 186). Kafka takes a somewhat enlightened approach to life and sees people as having equal virtue, but this does not necessarily predicate opposing Zionism.

In Jackals and Arabs, Kafka raises questions about contemporary antisemitism and settlement in Mandate Palestine but leaves the answers ambiguous. Bruce describes how Kafka acknowledges that the position of the jackals is unsustainable; their adherence to the law is their only means of self-preservation. However, it also makes them disconnected from their environment (Bruce 2007, 157). What remains is not one of land maximalism but a way to find cultural cooperation whilst also finding a means to preserve both Arab and Jewish life peacefully.


The present location of much of Kafka’s writings, notes and letters has been subject to significant controversy (Kershner 2019, 2). Before Kafka died, he left his life’s works to Max Brod, with a letter stating, ‘Dearest Max, My last request: Everything I leave behind me [...] to be burned unread’ (Butler 2011, 18). Max Brod refused to follow through and instead emigrated to Mandate Palestine with the records, requesting that in his absence, they should go to a ‘public Jewish library or archive in Palestine’ (Kershner 2019, 2). After Max Brod died, Kafka’s works went to his secretary Esther Hoffe, who began selling them (Butler 2011, 1). After her death, the records belonged to Hoffe’s daughters, where more was ‘stolen’ and later found on private markets - so Israel sued (Kershner 2019, 2). During the case, the German Literature Archive in Marbach also entered legal disputes about whether to keep other records by Kafka (Butler 2011, 5). The question of his records centre on the basis that Kafka comes from an empire that has now collapsed, writes in a language he detests, describes a longing to escape to Palestine, and comes from a family that was almost entirely murdered (Bruce 2007, 8). The debate of who owns Kafka falls into the broader controversy surrounding Zionism and the state of Israel (Gelber 2019, 86). Ultimately, Kafka’s records ended up in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem (Kershner 2019, 1). The contained records include drawings from Kafka, including the “Blue Notebook”, along with other notebooks, drawings, letters and diaries (Bar-Hama 2021a).

The difficulties of archiving Kafka’s works extend further once we consider the omissions through the decades. Whilst Jewish academics have explored Kafka through the years, there exists an absence of German scholarship after the Shoah due to a reluctance to raise Kafka’s ‘specifically Jewish characteristics’ (Bruce 2007, 5). Readings of his texts are also complicated by how Kafka internalised antisemitic tropes about Jewish people and projected them onto himself, which many read in a modern context as him harbouring a hatred of Jewish people (Bruce 2007, 7). Hatred could not be further from the truth - Kafka, throughout his life, embraced Jewish life in all its forms, in art, faith, literature, philosophy and politics. What exists in Kafka’s life and the development of Zionism in Prague contains gaps lost from the Shoah, making many areas challenging to account for (Bruce 2007, 6).

Within Kafka’s archives are significant new contributions to his Zionism. Primarily, there is the “Blue Notebook”, Kafka’s writings in Hebrew (Bar-Hama 2021b; Malul 2019, 1). This is an important indicator, as ‘the very act of learning Hebrew on the part of educated and highly acculturated Central European Jews in the first quarter of the twentieth century needs to be understood as a revolutionary Zionist act’ (Gelber 2019, 91). Kafka documents his recollections of teacher strikes in Jerusalem and his progress in learning Hebrew in Prague (Malul 2019, 1–2). Additionally, we can stake out his belief in Zionism by records of his contributions to Zionist papers Selbstwehr and Der Jude - Kafka was a passionate advocate for Jewish literature, believing that he ‘need[ed] to raise Jewish consciousness among educated Jews in Central and Western Europe’ (Gelber 2019, 89, 87). Within all these records, there is a common thread of Kafka’s advocacy for Jewish cultural life and Zionism.

One exciting reading of Kafka’s notebooks is in performance art (F. Rokem 2017, 177). The performance begins with the white box, emulating the discovery of Kafka’s stories, allowing audience members to listen to excerpts or look at pictures and writings (F. Rokem 2017, 178). The second is a more traditional performance on a stage, where actors retell Kafka’s stories whilst reading related words from his Hebrew notebook (F. Rokem 2017, 178–179). These include words such as ‘glance’, ‘judgement’ and ‘illogical’ (F. Rokem 2017, 181–182). The words can bring new interpretations to stories, such as how ‘mabat-stam’ (glance-illogical), which relays the story of Before the Law, a man who glances into the gate of the law, only to find himself in a state of confusion (F. Rokem 2017, 189). These retellings help explore two sides of Kafka, one the ‘utopian dream’ of life on the kibbutz, the other the terror of nationalism and the world of his writing (F. Rokem 2017, 179). The result is a surrealistic and abstract retelling of Kafka’s aspirations to move to Palestine, and the fears and hopes contained.

Kafka’s archives open up new scope for discussion of his engagement with Zionism and Jewish life, more than can be told through second-hand accounts and interpretations of his stories. These records show Kafka actively considered the questions of emigration to Palestine and thoughtfully considered the issues relating to Zionist cultural development. These records also provide scope to learn more about Kafka’s engagement in Yiddish, including his ‘Lecture on Yiddish’ at the Bar Kochba society, relaying his admiration for Jewish life in Prague (Bruce 2007, 44).


Kafka’s connections to Zionism, and specifically cultural forms of Zionism, can be demonstrated in a myriad of ways. Primarily, we can look at first-hand material in his writings, diary notes, letters and notebooks. These writings show that Kafka thought about Jewish life and was deeply worried about the collective future of Jewish people. Further, Kafka shows admiration for Palestine to his friends. Kafka’s novels and short stories provide evidence of his thinking on the state’s role, the rise of nationalism, and the status of Jewish people in Europe.

Kafka’s Zionism is distinct in that it is centrally rooted in his life experiences over religion or ideology (Bruce 2007, 71). Kafka was innately sceptical of any illusions that Zionism would immediately solve the struggle of Jewish people to live without fear of persecution. Instead, Zionism was an opportunity to address the economic disparities of Jewish people, to engage with the concerns of both religious and secular Jews, and to provide the world with a distinct culture. Kafka imagined a new culture based on a transnational history from the diaspora but located in a Jewish homeland, ‘to build and be built’ (Suchoff 2011a, 37, 2012, 1). Kafka would then provide the world with Jewish literature that, a century on, is still revered.


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