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Kafka in Jerusalem: Deciphering Strategic Meanings for the Jewish State

Opinion: Prof. Beres illustrates how current strategic matters of Israeli defense may actually be clarified through the uniquely Jewish lens of Franz Kafka. 


By Louis René Beres

“Many people prowl round Mount Sinai. Their speech is blurred, either they are garrulous or they shout or they are taciturn. But none of them comes straight down a broad, newly made, smooth road that does its own part in making one’s strides long and swifter.” (Franz Kafka, Mount Sinai)

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Gershom Scholem, long a noted authority on the Kabbalah, associated writer Franz Kafka with the “light of the canonical.” By focusing his remarkable beam of belief in very short parables, a unique genre in which he deployed image and motif with very strict economies of language, Kafka forced his readers to unravel deep mysteries in order to more meaningfully “understand.” A “heretical Kabbalist,” as Scholem had once called him, Kafka offered up, inter alia, a surrealistically secular glimpse of the sacred Jewish world.

Such a glimpse could still prove useful for Israel, perhaps even doing “its own part” in making Jerusalem’s strategic “strides long and swifter.”

More precisely, into this strange and holy world, encrypted words are sometimes permitted to intrude upon an otherwise reverential silence, but only without actually breaking this silence. For the specific benefit of modern Israel, these “encrypted” messages can now be decoded in various ways that are both permissible and productive. This special task could even be handled from the especially critical and converging standpoints of (1) Israel’s nuclear strategy and (2) Israel’s stance on Palestinian statehood.

Although perhaps counter-intuitive, these two seemingly discrete issues are mutually reinforcing and interdependent. They may also be authentically “synergistic,” at least to the extent that their plausible intersections could produce an overall security “whole” that is tangibly greater than the calculable sum of their two “parts.”

To wit, Israeli strategic thinkers (however unaccustomed to such an obviously eccentric genre) may consider, here and now, Kafka’s parable on Mount Sinai. Embedded in this multi-layered tale are certain potentially planning lessons and basic security truths. Still, it will be up to the individual thinker, obstructed by very grave conceptual difficulties and operational conundrums at virtually every philosophical turn, to decipher complex and many-sided meanings. Always, this strange and daunting effort – one assuredly not designed for the intellectually faint-hearted – must be preceded by a discernible theme.

This means a clearly lucid motif wherein the necessary strategic policy clarifications must eventually emerge.

Let all first agree that their combined analytic energies shall be directed toward the indisputably “big question” of Israel’s physical survival. Such a flagrantly no-nonsense Jewish focus would have intrigued and challenged Kafka himself. Imagine the scene. Franz Kafka, a keen student of Jewish religious texts who saw the destruction of Israel’s First and Second Temples as a cosmic catastrophe, is laboring painstakingly in Prague. Hunched over his meticulously crafted prose, this lonely and tormented Jewish writer would have been deliriously grateful for any personal opportunity to help preserve a reborn Jewish State. Among other things, he would have learned from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra what America has yet to learn about presidential leadership, and what could eventually have a dramatic impact upon Israel: “Do not seek the Higher Man in the marketplace!”

Clearly, the people who “prowl round Mount Sinai,” the emancipated Children of Israel, are starkly afflicted by their many wanderings. Although a “newly made, smooth road” might still be followed to the top of their holy mountain – and hence toward much-higher levels of national emancipation and safety – these people, all of these people, have somehow managed to avoid the better road. Lamentably, they remain situated uneasily at the base of their mountain, stationed, like castaway prophets, at the very outer margins of solemnity. Beyond further question, these people often stand perplexed, distressed, sometimes shrill and sometimes silent.

Always, they will experience very great (but fully understandable) difficulties in making national survival choices.

How could it be otherwise?

So it remains today, with the living People of Israel, struggling in roughly the same bad neighborhood, but now (1) with a reconstituted State to protect; (2) with a newly hostile Arab State called “Palestine” still screaming to be born; (3) and with a surrounding Islamic world that stubbornly embraces, more or less voluptuously, a deeply theological and ceaselessly recalcitrant annihilatory ethos. To make Israeli navigation matters even more difficult, this chaotic Islamic world is cross-cut by a number of vital and not always discernible cleavages, most obviously, of course, the core doctrinal split between Sunni and Shia camps.

Often, by confusing rough roads for safe paths, these contemporary “Israelites” (now Israelis) mumble, scream, shout, and, sometimes (albeit rarely), become mute. Daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, they search diligently for clear instructions. This time, however, or so it would seem, a national collective redemption will not spring forth dazzlingly, compellingly, ex nihilo.

This time, their strategists should surely calculate, there will be no helpful hints from a burning bush.

Still, Kafka might have understood. He might not have approved of all Israel’s current policy directions (for example, implicitly lining up with Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shi’ite Iran), but at least he would have understood. After all, Sinai is still the Jews’ sacred mountain. And the eternal Freudian conflict between Eros and Thanatos, life and death, cannot suddenly be called off or suspended, even by Israel.

How, precisely, shall Israelis now attempt an obligatory climb to Sinai’s summit? “Show restraint, compromise,” say some, even after suffering yet another bomb, shooting or rocket attack.

“Commit even more fully to Palestinian statehood,” say those prominent journalists and television pundits who may loathe both history and logic, and who always too insistently revere the senseless.

“Climb slowly,” and with intermittent “goodwill gestures,” say some of the most taciturn academics, for they generally ignore Nietzsche and remain unshaken in their glibly Platonic convictions that human life is fundamentally predictable, rational and reasonable.

Alarmingly, none of these available roads is an aptly smooth one, and none is predictably capable of making the country’s sweeping security “strides long and swifter.”

Where, then, shall Israel find this road, the shorter and surer path to the top of the metaphorical mountain? It exists, to a point, but it is also very far from the contrived route favored by Israel’s alleged allies in Washington and elsewhere.

Constructed by those who still remember more serious meanings of “civilization,” it is discoverable not by the Many (nothing important is ever discoverable by the Many), but only by the Few. Aware that smooth roads can turn out to be rocky, and that seemingly smooth paths are often treacherous, this Few may still hold the most hidden and hence the most vital strategic messages of Sinai.

Hear, O’Israel, look beyond the crowd, beyond “experts,” beyond the politicians, beyond journalists, beyond financiers, beyond geography, beyond maps. Look in secret places, look where no one else is looking, look even where looking is “forbidden.”

Look to some roads “newly made,” and even to some roads not yet even imagined. Above all, look not for ease or painlessness, but rather for destination and enduring access. Look not to Washington, or perhaps even Jerusalem, but only to Sinai’s original voice.

Sinai’s summit, a convenient representation of Israel’s ultimate survival, is accessible only to those who will heed this bewildering injunction. Detached from those time-dishonored policies that are rooted in intellectual error, alert strategic climbers must now consider more-or-less obscure roadways that are harder to identify, or that might even still need to be built. Although there are certainly no guarantees that more open Israeli minds will see clearly, it is certain that those minds habitually closed by a ritualized obeisance to American voices or to corollary political cliché can never bring the sovereign People of Israel closer to the mountain’s summit.

Sinai’s crown is still blocked by unchanging enemy intentions and armaments, some already deployed, some soon to be placed, and by certain relentless enemy convictions that may never conceivably bow to reason or negotiation. In part, these convictions center on an utterly core and indissoluble connection between violence and immortality, especially anything that can enhance the incomparable promise of “power over death.” For Israel’s enemies, it ought never be forgotten, there can never be any greater or more hideously seductive form of power.

Recall, always, that the enemy suicide bomber “kills” himself in order not to die.

Always, the “heroic death” that he or she plans to suffer represents a merely momentary inconvenience on a convincingly-promised propulsion into life everlasting.

In essence, when operating against Israel, the Islamic suicide bomber – whether as individual or as collective adversary – is convinced that killings Jews as a “martyr” will buy himself free from the penalty of dying. Here, the otherwise insufferable death fear of the ego is conveniently relieved by the blessed sacrifice of “infidel Jews.” If, at some point, such terrorists would be armed with weapons of mass-destruction, the expected consequences of enemy “martyrdom” could quickly become wholly intolerable for Israel.

But first things first. We were trying to ascend Sinai.

To reach this blocked summit, those who prowl round the base of the mountain will inevitably have to contend, intermittently, with increasingly formidable obstructions. If necessary, they will also need to prepare for a protracted or perhaps even a nuclear war. In this connection, significant decisions have yet to be made in Jerusalem on maintaining Israel’s longstanding posture of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” It is not entirely difficult to imagine that the “broad smoothly made new road” to Sinai’s summit will soon have to be “paved” with far more carefully worked-out foundations of incremental nuclear disclosure.

Looking ahead, in other words, keeping Israel’s “bomb in the basement” could threaten the stability of the entire “House of Israel.”

Sometimes, yet again, Israel will have to strike certain enemy leaders or positions first. Sometimes, Jerusalem might have to respond to particular enemy first strikes with overwhelmingly destructive reprisals. In some instances, pertinent decision-makers will also have to let both state and non-state enemies know selected elements of this defensive and retributive plan in advance, maybe even when no expressly nuclear strategies are involved.

From a jurisprudential or justice-centered perspective, rather than a narrowly strategic point of view, Israel will sometime need to be reminded that the Lex Talionis, the ancient law of exact retaliation, was born upon Sinai’s very mountain.

Ultimately, however, Israel may reluctantly learn from Kafka, in a sorrowful but indispensable awareness, that Sinai’s summit can never really be rendered fully or permanently accessible, that all roads, including the smoothest among them, will always need to be temporary, and that even the most conspicuously “broad” and “newly made,” while necessary, must inevitably remain only partially navigable. Nonetheless, such learning should occasion no tears of lamentation, no sadness or bitter regret, but instead only sincere gratitude for the opportunity to finally see strategic things with a more exquisite clarity.

In matters of Israel’s defense, the Jewish Genius of Prague should have a respected and proper place.


This article was first published at Israel Defense

Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.



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