Op-Ed: Kafka in Washington: Hidden Meanings, Deceptive Maps
Prof. Louis René BeresLouis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books, monographs, and articles dealing with Israeli security matters, nuclear strategy and nuclear war.
"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"
Gershom Scholem, a noted authority on the Kabbalah, and long before it was made fashionable by Madonna, associated Franz Kafka with the “light of the canonical." Focusing this illuminating beam of belief in very short parables, a unique genre in which he deployed image and motif with the strictest possible economy of language, Kafka forces the reader to unravel mystery after mystery in order to "understand." A “heretical Kabbalist,” as Scholem called him, Kafka also offers us a surrealistically secular glimpse of the sacred world.
Into this strange and holy world, encrypted words may be permitted to enter the reverential silence, but only without breaking it.
These “encrypted” messages can be decoded in various permissible and productive ways. Today, for example, they can be deciphered from the critical standpoint of Israel's incremental forfeitures before Washington’s Road Map, a geographic dead-end once better known as the Two-State Solution.
Let us consider, right here, Kafka's "Mount Sinai". Embedded in this exquisite parable are certain universal lessons and basic truths.
Still, it will be up to the individual reader, obstructed by very grave difficulties and conundrums at every philosophical turn, to decipher multi-layered meanings. Always, this daunting effort must be preceded by a discernible theme, a lucid motif, wherein the necessary elucidation may actually take place.
Also, let us now agree that our combined energies shall be directed uniformly toward the “big question” of Israel's physical survival, a question that has been on the world’s front burner, more or less, since May, 1948. Truly, such a flagrantly no-nonsense question would have perplexed and challenged Kafka himself.
Imagine the scene. Franz Kafka, a keen student of religious texts who saw the destruction of Israel’s First and Second Temples as a cosmic catastrophe, labors painstakingly in Prague. Hunched over his meticulously crafted prose, this lonely and tormented Jewish writer might have been deliriously grateful for any personal opportunity to help preserve a newly reborn Jewish State.
Now we must return to the original parable, and then to a prompt and suitable exegesis. No doubt, the people who "prowl round Mount Sinai,” the reputedly emancipated Children of Israel, are deeply afflicted by their many wanderings. Although a “newly made, smooth road” might be followed to the top of their holy mountain, and hence to yet much-higher levels of emancipation, these people, all of these people, manage to avoid the more direct road.
Instead, they remain situated uneasily at the base of the mountain, stationed, like castaway prophets, at only the very outer margins of solemnity. These people stand unheeded, distressed, sometimes shrill, and sometimes silent.
Always, they will experience, we should not be surprised to learn, very great difficulties in making their critical survival choices.
So it is 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 new hostile Arab state called “Palestine” attempting to be born, torn crudely from its own still-intact body; and
(3) with a surrounding Islamist world that embraces, more or less voluptuously, a deeply theological and ceaselessly recalcitrant anti-Semitism.
Overwhelmed by twisted maps and bad directions, some of it from Jerusalem (“…we will accept a demilitarized Palestinian state,” says the prime minister), some of it from Washington (where each “new” White House plan codifies increasingly absurd expectations of land for nothing), these battered citizens of a beleaguered State prowl this way and that, tentatively, always grouped round the outer peripheries of both safety and suffering.
Often, confusing rough roads for safe paths, these Israelis mumble, scream, shout, and, sometimes (albeit rarely), become mute. Daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, they search desperately for clear directions.
This time, however, or so it would seem, redemptive instructions will not spring forth dazzlingly. This time, there will appear no helpful hints from a burning bush.
Mount Sinai, the geographers can readily assure us, is not in Washington. Whatever else they may promise, however, large swaths of the Arab/Islamic world remain expressly committed to a Final Solution for the “Israel Question.”
Ironically, every successive American president, even those most explicitly identified as “pro-Israel,” in defiance of all binding obligations under authoritative international law, and in contempt of our own American political traditions, has found ways to implement new and better ways of training Israel’s existential enemies.
Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." These disingenuous ways have stood in stark defiance of binding national obligations under international law, and also, in consequence, of our own American domestic law.
In essence, the jurisprudential nexus here can be discovered at Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, which expressly indicates that all treaties properly entered into by the United States, shall be the “supreme law of the land.” It can also be discovered in assorted U.S. Supreme Court decisions, especially the Paquette Habana (1900), which extends the municipal “incorporation” of binding international rules to include customary international law.
Proudly, and for many years, even under President Barack Obama, United States military elements have trained Fatah “security” forces. Although conceived in this plan as our loyal sub-contractors against Hamas atrocities, in reality, Fatah represents only a consistently unhidden vanguard of future anti-American terrorism.
Here, the Road Map, drawn more outrageously from the theater of the absurd than from any comprehensible dramas of diplomacy, emerges as just another conspicuously convenient mantra for Israel’s annihilation.
Kafka would have understood. He would not have approved, to be sure, but he would have understood. After all, Sinai is still our sacred mountain. And the eternal conflict between Eros and Thanatos cannot be called off or suspended.
How, precisely, shall Israelis now attempt an obligatory climb to Sinai's summit? "Show restraint, compromise" say some, even after suffering the latest bomb or rocket attack of screws, bolts, razor blades, and rat poison.
"Commit even more fully to the Road Map,” say those prominent journalists and television pundits who openly loathe history, and who insistently revere the senseless.
"Climb slowly,” and with "good will gestures," say some of the taciturn academics, for they remain unshaken in their professional conviction that any real intelligence and courage must always be taken as an unforgivable personal liability.
Alarmingly, none of these roads is a smooth one, and none is genuinely capable of making one's strides “long and swifter."
Where, then, shall Israel find this road, the shorter and surer path to the top of the mountain? It exists, to a point, but it is far from the contrived route favored by Washington, and by the blurred, garrulous, shouting and taciturn people.
Constructed by those who still remember the true meaning of “civilization,” as the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption, 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 messages of Sinai.
Look,O' Israel, beyond the crowd, beyond "experts," beyond the politicians, beyond journalists, 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 an enduring access. Look not to Washington, or even present-day Jerusalem, but only to Sinai's original voice.
Sinai's summit, a convenient metaphor for Israel's ultimate survival, is accessible only to those who will heed this complex injunction. Detached from those time-dishonored policies that are rooted in cowardice and error, alert climbers must now consider obscure roadways that are harder to identify, or that might even still need to be built. Although there are certainly no guarantees that open minds will see clearly, it is certain that minds closed by ritualized obeisance and cliché can never bring us to the mountain’s summit.
Sinai's top is blocked by enemy armies and armaments, both already deployed, and soon to be placed, and by relentless enemy convictions that may never bow to reason or negotiation.
Above all, these convictions center on an utterly core connection between violence and immortality. Anything but a fearless "lover of death," an heroic image repeatedly encouraged throughout the Islamic world, the enemy suicide bomber actually "kills" himself in order not to die. Indeed, the heroic "death" that he or she plans so carefully to suffer is merely a momentary inconvenience on a promised propulsion into life everlasting.
The suicide bomber can operate either as an individual terrorist, or as a murderous state, that is, as a suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Either way, when operating against Israel, he (or she, or it) is convinced that killings Jews as "martyrdom" will buy one free from the penalty of dying. In essence, the otherwise insufferable death fear of the ego, individual or collective, is relieved by the blessed sacrifice of the "infidel Jews."
For the intended murderers, there is also a deeply satisfying knowledge that any such sacrifice will occasion millions of fellow Islamists to gleefully raise their heads regally over the newest field of Jewish corpses, to smile broadly into the sun, and to unhesitatingly reaffirm God's consequent greatness to all the world.
But 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 protracted war and "suicide" terror. Because these enemy armies and armaments might ultimately reach a level that could indefinitely prevent any successful ascent upon the mountain, Israel, from time to time, will still have to use its available forces, creatively and disproportionately.
Sometimes, Israel will have to strike enemy leaders or positions first. Sometimes, it might even have to respond to certain enemy first strikes with overwhelmingly destructive reprisals. Importantly, in some instances, it will also have to let both state and non-state enemies know particular elements of this defensive and retributive plan in advance.
After all, the Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation, was born upon this very mountain.
Sometimes, however, it may also become apparent that even the most tactically-refined killings are occasionally purposeless. The growing terror threat now faced by Israel resembles the mythic Hydra, a monster of many heads which was difficult to remove because every time one head was struck, by Hercules, two new ones grew in their place.
Sometime, there will simply be too many terrorists to kill. Then, effective counterterrorism will have to lie in very different directions to Sinai's summit. Here, the enemies of Israel must be made to face a compelling threat of authentic suicide, of the knowledge that planned explosions of Jewish targets will produce not an instantaneous and ecstatic entry into paradise, but rather an irreversible slide into the eternal darkness, into fire, into ice, into real death.
Ultimately, we may reluctantly learn from Kafka, a sorrowful but immutable awareness, that Sinai’s summit can never be fully accessible, that all roads, including the best among them, will have to be temporary, and that even the allegedly "smooth road," while indispensable, will remain only partially navigable.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES, the author of many books and articles on international relations and international law, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). His work on security matters is well-known to Israel's senior political, military, academic, and intelligence communities. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of the War, on August 31, 1945. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003).