Israel and the Kafkaesque

15/08/2016 12:53

It was itself a pretty Kafkaesque headline: "Kafka's papers seized by Israeli judges", declared the Times earlier this week.

News that Israel's Supreme Court had ruled that a cache of unpublished Franz Kafka letters and manuscripts should be removed from the possession of a family which had inherited them from the secretary of Kafka's close friend and legal executor Max Brod had an initial tinge of ... well, of the arbitrary exercise of unaccountable power against the little man or woman. Valuable documents belonging to a family sincerely entrusted with them years ago suddenly ripped from their grasp by the obscure decision of a powerful court.

Or maybe not. The ruling was expressly that the documents are to be given to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. This is what Brod had wanted - that his friend's writings went to a major library or university. Instead for years they'd languished in the private safety deposit boxes of a family that had already sold the original manuscript of The Trial for nearly $2m. David Blumberg, the National Library's chair, has said the library will now be making the materials "accessible to the general public".

Justice of a kind then. Not something Israel's courts always dish out. In particular, not its military courts which, among other things, order so-called "administrative detentions". These are something Kafka in his prime might have dreamt up. With the severity and remoteness of judgements from the sinister authorities in Kafka's novel The Castle, these are six-month-long detention orders handed down without the bother of an actual trial. Instead of gathering evidence that is properly scrutinised - and properly contested - in open court, individuals said to pose "a security threat" are simply put behind bars on the basis of evidence that is withheld from them and their lawyers.

And when I say "individuals", I mean Palestinians. As of the end of April, 692 Palestinians were held by Israel in administrative detention, 13 of them children. Probably the best known administrative detention case (and one I've blogged about before) is Mohammad Faisal Abu Sakha's. He's the 24-year-old from the Palestinian Circus School in Birzeit in the West Bank, who (of all things) teaches children circus skills. Without providing evidence, the Israeli military has apparently decided that Abu Sakha poses a "danger ... to the security of the region". And with this open-and-shut case in front of it, a military court imposed a second six-month administrative detention on Abu Sakha in June, meaning he's now due to be held until December.

No-one doubts that Israel has legitimate security concerns, but secret pseudo-trials based on unchallengeable allegations. This is ... well, this is like something from a Kafka novel. In Kafka's brilliant The Trial, the bank employee Josef K.'s usual 8am breakfast doesn't appear one morning and instead two strangers step into his bedroom announcing that "proceedings" have been instituted against him. K.'s ominous, nagging accusers - "Wilhelm" and "Franz" - are themselves just the inscrutable agents of a higher force, come to arrest him. They're relatively humble but unyieldingly certain about their tasks:

"... we're quite capable of grasping the fact that the high authorities we serve, before they would order such an arrest as this must be quite well informed about the reasons for the arrest and the person of the prisoner. There can be no mistake about that. Our officials ... never go hunting for crime in the populace, but, as the Law decrees, are drawn towards the guilty and must then send out warders. That is the Law. How could there be a mistake in that?"

How indeed. Except that's what criminal processes are supposed to be about. About testing the evidence, about allowing challenges to accusations, and about ensuring that people aren't snared in the kind of sinister bureaucratic traps that Kafka's work is so full of.

It's become a particular kind of cliché to call things "Kafkaesque", but that's surely what Israel's administrative detention system is. And as a country which has set up well-maintained roads on Palestinian territory that only Israelis may use, which operates a complex - and ever-shifting - network of security checkpoints and temporary road closures on Palestinian territory, whose border policemen do petty and inscrutably hurtful things like throw an eight-year-old girl's bicycle into bushes, and which of course has built entire Israeli-only towns on illegally-occupied Palestinian land, Israel is something of a past master of the Kafkaesque.

To paraphrase Kafka's most famous line, one might almost say that one day the country of Israel awoke to discover it had been transformed into a gigantic security state which routinely sets aside basic human rights. Except that no such sudden metamorphosis has taken place. In truth Israel has been acting this way for a very long time.