The Afterlife of Moses
Exile, Democracy, Renewal
Michael P. Steinberg



For some forty years, my father opened our annual Passover Seder evenings with remarks in two parts. I know everyone around the table—he would begin, over time to four generations—is tired of hearing me repeat the same thing year after year. In fact, we were not. Our ages and states of rebellion notwithstanding, my father’s annual remarks affirmed our own orientations inside the family and out into the world. He would then continue with a brief summary of his own exodus story following the National Socialist accession to power in 1933. Sent alone in 1934 at the age of ten from Pforzheim, Germany, to the Collège de Saint-Dié in eastern France, he moved to Paris three years later and boarded at the well-known Lycée Janson de Sailly until his parents’ arrival in June 1938. When German forces occupied the city and the northern half of France in June 1940, he fled with his mother to the southern, unoccupied zone, while his father dodged repeated arrests and detentions. They were able all three to cross the Spanish and Portuguese borders and sail in late summer 1941 from Lisbon to Havana, Cuba, where they spent five years prior to their arrival in the United States in 1946. The point of this retelling was the unmediated importance to him of the Exodus story itself. The traversal of the Haggadah that followed was swift, as our collective linguistic and exegetical capacities remained limited. So did our varied performances of ritual observance. My mother and her side of the family, whose exile out of Germany—via Belgium, France, and Cuba as well—paralleled my father’s, continued, for example, to observe the ritual fast on Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement. My father and his parents had disavowed the ritual fast after Yom Kippur 1940, on which October morning my grandfather had been arrested in Bergerac, (unoccupied) France, following the passage of a swath of Vichy regime legislation subjecting both foreign national and Jewish men of working age to internment and forced labor. Late that day, my grandmother carried a bowl of soup to the police precinct, unsuccessfully entreating the authorities to have it brought to my grandfather following his twenty-four-hour fast. His internment as a prestataire, or “service provider,” lasted until August 1941. Disavowal of a tradition can become itself a tradition, an act of homage. At some point it occurred to most of us that the English in which my father was speaking to us was the fourth language he had learned out of necessity, itself a metaphor for the life he, my mother, and their parents had rebuilt in the United States. At the end of his remarks, my father urged us to do what the Haggadah text also instructs: to take the Exodus story personally.

My family history belongs within—and will occasionally punctuate—the larger argument of this book. As the child and grandchild of immigrants to the United States from Nazi Germany, I have been drawn regularly to the experiences and thinking of figures who faced upheaval and exile, immigration and renewal. These include the lives and work—often heroic even if on a modest or private scale—of “ordinary people” who were forced, or blessed, into exile and immigration. These publicly unremembered people shared both displacement and renewal with recognized and remembered heroic thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and—however late in his life—Sigmund Freud. All generated new beginnings from strong legacies despite (exceptions notwithstanding) scant material resources. All are predecessors of some sixty-five million displaced people in the world today.1

These concerns claimed renewed priority for me in 2016, when I began a term as president of the American Academy in Berlin. Founded in 1994 with the intention of replacing the recently departed US military presence in Berlin with an academic and creative one, the American Academy brings US-based fellows in the humanities, public policy, and arts to Berlin for a semester or a year of research and networking with German counterparts. It occupies a villa in the southwestern corner of (West) Berlin that belonged, until its Nazi expropriation, to the family of Hans Arnhold, the Weimar-era scion of the prominent German Jewish Arnhold-Bleichröder banking house of Berlin and Dresden. During the Cold War and the allied occupation of Berlin, the villa had served as a US Army recreation center. In the 1990s, the Arnholds’ New York descendants became key funders of the villa’s renovation and the Academy’s programs. Working in this environment so redolent of twentieth-century achievement, exile, and return was deeply moving to me. More specifically, I started my term in the aftermath of the German absorption (“welcoming,” in the official language) of nearly one million refugees from Syria and other locations—a kind of culmination of Germany’s assiduous reversal from its twentieth-century responsibility and reputation for expulsion and genocide into an agent of moral politics and social democracy.

This German transformation accompanied a sea change in the facts and perceptions of the United States and its place in the world. The Cold War narrative of the American rescue of Europe and European democracy has retained substantial currency in Germany, if long offset by critiques of American internal economic and racial inequalities and “the inner darkness in high places that comes with a commercial age.”2 The US election of 2016 and its eruption of xenophobia, anti-immigration fervor, and racism along with the delegitimation of science and the integrity of facts brought this “other America” into broad relief. As bears recalling, this malevolent face of the United States found its meme in the events since referred to as “Charlottesville 2017.” The violence, the uninhibited avalanche of racism and antisemitism, and most of all their combined presidential ratification shocked deeply in Germany, where antisemitism is illegal, where Holocaust memory is ingrained in mainstream discourse, and where the United States still signifies to many as the most likely agent of political reason and responsibility.

Those days in August 2017 found me in Cape Town, attending the annual meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, on whose board I had served for a dozen years. Cape Town itself intensified our political anguish. The city’s urban and creative vitality fades against the long-term memory of colonial slavery and the shorter-term memory and reality of South African apartheid and its difficult posthistory. My principal task there was a meeting with officers of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to initiate a grant proposal for the American Academy on themes of migration/immigration and “race in comparative perspective.” The two themes had reemerged after 2016 as salient, interrelated, and at the same time fundamentally different between the United States and Germany—and indeed Europe more generally. The flip side of German post-Holocaust and European postcolonial discourse has fixed a taboo on virtually any consideration of race, including as an analytical category, enabling the predicament that Etienne Balibar has called “racism without race.”3

After 2016, the political and intellectual ground beneath our feet and subject positions seemed to be caving. And for good reason in a political context where racism dared not say its name but found itself encouraged to raise its head at every opportunity. The election of Donald Trump and the regime of the “alternative fact” assaulted simultaneously the very possibilities of democratic politics as well as the foundations and future of human knowledge itself. The alternative fact is by definition antidemocratic, and as such the meeting point of the assault on knowledge and of racism itself. In such a climate, the demand for recognition coincides with the basic right to exist—the right to breathe in the literal and metaphorical language of Black Lives Matter. In this kind of predicament, the chestnut of “liberal consensus” exposes a hegemonic conceit that, by “including,” preserves the right to exclude and hence to inhibit the production of new, decentralized, yet at the same time coherent democratic subjectivities.

In this context, American intellectual and university life found itself in a state of similar destabilization. The malaise affected the university at its two essential levels: as an organ of free and open thinking and speech, and as a producer of new knowledge. On the first level, the university, its mission, and its demography form a microcosm of the larger spheres of public citizenship—such as nations, states, and their attending identity positions—those spheres that this book primarily addresses. The slow and salutary emergence after World War II of underrepresented voices in the US university as in the public sphere at large has required reconstitutions and rededications in both contexts. Since 2016, the self-identifying liberal university has largely taken up the challenge to continue and accelerate policies of access and representation, indeed with an increased sense of purpose when the dominant national discourse points in another direction. At the same time, however, the good intentions of the widespread current language of “diversity and inclusion” may harbor, I fear, the potential preservation of those traditional subject positions and discretionary capacities among those who select and include and, by implication, exclude as well. “Inclusion” thus hides potential echoes of “toleration” as well as the discredited discourse of the “contribution” of outsiders to spheres under the sustained control of a hegemonic majority. (More than once I have been reassured personally of the “Jewish contribution” to “German culture.”) To anticipate a problem that will occupy the middle section of this book, the language of diversity and inclusion deploys social categories to address problems that are in fact political ones and would be better addressed with the political language of plurality and representation. The existing language itself falls short of its declared politics because it is itself not political language. At the scale of grander public spheres such as the nation-state or any number of international bodies, the same principles of plurality and representation apply, requiring ever-urgent political bolstering if democratic citizenship has any hope of perseverance.

At the level of its academic purpose and distinct from its own public sphere as well as other ones, the university consists of communities of domain, disciplinary, advanced, and indeed specialized knowledge. The advancement of such knowledge—the university’s research agenda—is contingent on academic freedom, which is in turn related to the general principle of freedom of speech but sustained by intellectual capital—in other words, by hard-earned scholarly knowledge and its credentials. In the context of social change and progress, the pursuit of knowledge has prompted a rigorous, ongoing debate over the definition of objectivity and objective analysis in their relation to the subject position of the researcher—whether humanist or scientist. Answers to questions—the advancement of knowledge—relate back to the nature of the questions and to who is asking them. Here is where epistemology and politics meet. The vocabularies of “critique” and the “critical” mark this mutuality of subject and object, as they mark the recognition that plurality and subjectivity—the life of the public sphere and the inner lives of individuals—are multiply related and infinitely complex. When knowledge is itself under attack, objectivity becomes more and more distinct from neutrality.

The experience of exile can inspire political as well as personal renewal. Moments of political constitution and reconstitution do not necessarily follow experiences of exile. They often do, however, just as they often but not always follow wars and revolutions, whether violent or not. If personal exile involves what Carlos Pereda has called “the art of self-interruption,” the same trope can be applied to the collective exile of polities. Not without danger, however, as periods of political disgrace—Nazism, fascism, and so forth—can become vulnerable to conceptual containment as mere interruptions of underlying and more authentic realities.4 No doubt, political renewals can also follow more routinized processes such as elections—assuming, of course, that elections are themselves allowed to proceed. Declarations of newness, of new beginnings, inevitably converge—consciously or unconsciously—with references to the past, its models, legacies, and archives. But they do not, or rather must not, rely on the past. Even less can they afford to fetishize the past. Fetishizing the past results from the confusion of myth with history, divine origins with human beginnings, cultural memory (as distinct from the memory of lived experience) with history. The failure of contemporary conservatism has resided precisely in such fetishization of the past, and perhaps most sharply in mythologies of origins at the expense of critical (and self-critical) histories.

Thinking with and through these issues during the last five years led me to reconsider the Moses and Exodus stories together with the refractions that form the four chapters of this book. The stories themselves have produced an archive of potent political possibility. Collected and redacted during a period of exile—the so-called Babylonian captivity of the sixth century BCE,—their account of the flight from Egypt is overtaken by that of the new political constitution established at Sinai. The full story carries an extraordinary quality of self-interrogation and an accompanying resistance to self-mythologization. Carlos Pereda again:

In 597 b.c.e. Jerusalem surrendered, and many Jews were forced to set out for Babylonia. Almost immediately, the outward displays of protest found in many of the Bible’s books are replaced by a desire for self-examination, that is, a withdrawal inward.5

Renderings of Moses from Michelangelo to Spinoza to Freud and beyond have seized on this self-interrogating capacity of the Moses and Exodus stories. The inward gaze that Pereda recognizes has also looked outward and forward. The modern afterlife of Moses becomes a fount of new beginnings.

The opening lines of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805) announce,

A captive greets thee, coming from a house

Of bondage, from yon City’s walls set free,

A prison where he hath been long immured.

Now I am free, enfranchis’d and at large,

May fix my habitation where I will.

What dwelling shall receive me?6

The leap into freedom begins with a reminder of exile, the uncertainty of where one can live. Wordsworth’s exhilaration exudes the optimism that a dwelling will be found: “The earth is all before me,” the verse continues. The political constitution of dwelling in freedom becomes the open and difficult question, the treacherous road into the future.


1. See David Miliband, Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).

2. E. M. Forster, Howards End (New York: Norton, 1998), 235.

3. For example, in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, nation, classe: Les identités ambiguës (1988), translated as Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991).

4. Carlos Pereda, Lessons in Exile, trans. Sean Manning (Leiden: Brill, 2019), especially chapter 2:2, “The Difficult and Infuriating Art of Self-Interruption,” 24–25. Concerning the ideology of political interruption, Benedetto Croce, for example, famously described the two decades of Mussolini’s rule as an “exception” to the more authentic liberal history of modern Italy.

5. Pereda, Lessons in Exile, 6.

6. William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), lines 6–10. In an essay called “Metaphors of Beginning,” Richard J. Onorato comments, “Wordsworth is being deliberately Biblical here.” See Wordsworth, The Prelude 1790, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1978), 615. Bondage as metaphor is clearly problematic in an age of slavery.