WASHINGTON—Israel wants to expropriate the part of Franz Kafka’s manuscripts under the control of two sisters whose mother received them as a gift from the author’s executor. The courts there should prevent the government’s nationalization of a literary treasure.

Kafka, a Czech Jew who wrote in German, left his papers to Max Brod with instructions to burn them. The executor published most of them, making Kafka a literary icon of the 20th century. Brod later escaped the Nazis and ended up in Tel Aviv—then part of the British Mandate of Palestine—where eventually he gave some of the papers to his secretary and companion, Esther Hoffe, as a gift; the others were sent off to major Western universities. Hoffe’s daughters, who inherited the papers, sold the manuscript of “The Trial” and other documents, and kept many others in safe deposit boxes in Israeli and Swiss banks. In recent years they negotiated a possible sale to the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany. That museum’s collection already includes “The Trial.”

In 2008, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz unearthed the story with a sensational revelation: The house where some of the literary treasure was supposedly kept by the Hoffes functions as a shelter for stray cats and dogs. The stench has drawn complaints from neighbors and the humid conditions inside the house could endanger the papers.

Enter the state of Israel. The authorities and the National Library in Jerusalem sued the Hoffes, claiming that they had not fulfilled Brod’s will and that the papers should be handed to them. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu thinks the documents “are valuable for the history of the Jewish people and the state . . . the state archivist is of the opinion that it is better that these materials not be removed outside of Israel.”

Kafka, whose writings are an existential indictment of authority in any form, must be turning in his grave. The author of a novel about a bank clerk executed for crimes for which he has never been charged after a crushing journey through judicial bureaucracy, and of another novel about a land surveyor driven to death by the village authorities who won’t let him get on with a simple task apparently commissioned by a local count, could end up nationalized as if he were a natural gas field in Bolivia. The legacy of the author of a tale about a man turned into an insect who is led to perish by his own family could end up collectivized by a government, the coldest of families. The man who penned a moving testimony of individual fear of paternal authority in a letter to his father could have his legacy controlled by a paternalistic master who thinks the national interest is best served by not allowing his papers to travel.

The notion—invoked by some academics—that Kafka’s relations with Yiddish theater in Prague toward the end of his life mean that the Jewish state is the rightful owner of his bequest is twisted and unfair. Twisted because it turns a man devoured by uncertainty and spiritual solitude into an enlightened Zionist, and unfair because it disregards the author’s profoundly individualistic wish—that his work be destroyed.

The conduct of the Hoffes has indeed seemed weird and selfish. Esther and her daughters should have made sure long ago that the literary treasure be preserved for posterity by a respected institution. But the Hoffe sisters, not the state of Israel, are the owners of the remainder of Kafka’s papers. In 1974, an Israeli judge who rejected an earlier attempt by the government to dispute Esther Hoffe’s inheritance stated that Brod’s will allowed “Mrs. Hoffe, for the rest of the life, to proceed at (her) own discretion.”

The court has now forced the Hoffe sisters to disclose the contents of Brod’s estate, including Kafka’s papers. This week the Hoffes presented the court with letters sent by Brod to their mother confirming the gift. And since Brod’s larger will did not specify what Esther should do with the papers save expressing a vague wish that they be eventually handed to an institution in Israel or abroad, the court should follow the 1974 ruling. This would clear the path for the manuscripts to end up at the museum in Marbach. Any other ruling would constitute a colossal violation of private property.