Sunday, July 15, 2007

So, There are Advantages in Visiting Israel

Anything but Shy

From David Fisher

In his essay on Fritz Stern, Thomas Laqueur also discusses the historian George Mosse (LRB, 7 June). As a former doctoral and undergraduate student of Mosse’s at the University of Wisconsin, and as someone who had a close relationship with him for several decades, I wanted to correct some inaccuracies in Laqueur’s commentary, while fundamentally agreeing with its thrust.

Laqueur describes Mosse as ‘homosexual, shy, and drawn to new homes in Israel and England’. Mosse was anything but shy. A brilliant orator, lecturing to as many as five hundred students, he was consistently thought-provoking, funny, self-deprecating and teasing of his audience. His voice, at once beautiful and booming, was clear and powerful. Mosse, unlike Stern, was rarely awed by other male intellectuals or academics, though he told me he was intimidated by Gershom Scholem, whom he described as a ‘force of nature’. He could be timid around articulate women, however, including his psychoanalytically trained sister Hilde.

As for his homosexuality, I am grateful Laqueur mentioned it; it has often been overlooked or minimised in appraisals of Mosse’s life and work. Many of his closest friends and students suspected he was gay, yet it was only at a banquet celebrating his 80th birthday that he openly admitted it. In his memoir, Confronting History, he said he believed that his outsider status in academia stemmed from the dual impact of his homosexuality and his Jewishness: both were significant parts of his identity; both gave his cultural politics and his method of doing history an unusual sparkle, relevance and originality.

Mosse’s relationship to Israel was also complex. While he insisted on the country’s right to exist, he was openly critical of its militarism and racism. He felt very much at home there, however, and came out in Israel as a practising homosexual before he did in the US. Mosse’s Jewish identity changed over the years and he often used his courses and subsequently his books to work out what it meant to be a secular, assimilated German Jew in the late 20th century without abandoning a deeply felt commitment to Bildung and without being co-opted through the acceptance of honours or awards.

David Fisher
Los Angeles

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