Shibley Telhami Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Shibley, welcome back to Berkeley.
My pleasure to be back, absolutely. I feel like this is a home for me.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in a little village, an Arab village near the city of Haifa. It's on the highest peak of Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean in a wonderful setting. Although it's only about fifteen minutes from the city of Haifa, when I grew up in the fifties -- I was born in 1951 -- in those years, the village was highly underdeveloped. The road to Haifa made Haifa seem like a continent away. The village didn't have running water, did not have electricity. It was very much a village, and it was rare that I, as a child, would go to Haifa. Transportation existed but not on a regular basis, and typically, children did not make it into the city very often.
So you were an Arab, and your faith was Christian?
That's right. The majority of the people in the village were Druse. Druse are a derivative of Islam, but they have their own independent religion. In the village, there was also a Christian minority and also an Arab Christian minority, of which my family was a member, and there was also a very small Muslim community as well.
But you were a citizen of the state of Israel?
That's right. I was born after Israel was created in 1949. I was born in '51, and so I grew up as a citizen of Israel, until I came to this country.
How did this experience of growing up in this setting affect you?
In the village itself ... it's very interesting to look at this. There is no question that ethnicity was very important, especially during that period, because the entire conflict was defined as an Arab - Israeli conflict. Arabs in Israel, up until the mid-sixties, did not have citizenship. It was a community that had its own life in the villages, but they did not have full citizenship in the state. Many of the Arab community had relatives who had become refugees in the Arab countries, so there was tension and there were questions about identity. In this particular village, there was less tension. There was less tension, in part, because it was a secluded village and it had not really been party to the war in 1948. Very few people within the village were directly affected. Certainly not the Druse, because the Druse were not considered to be Palestinians per se, and had actually worked with the state at various stages, had a different status. But even the Christians [were relatively unaffected].
My mother's family comes from Haifa. Haifa was affected by the war. Some of her uncles became refugees. Her own father happened to have a house in the village, and so they did not leave; they stayed in the house in the village. But other than that, people who were from the village were not directly affected by the war, except to the extent that, obviously, they had loved ones or friends and so forth outside that they knew about, who were involved. And to the extent, also, that some of the land was taken by the state in the 1950s that belonged to them, around the village and down in the valley.
So in this context, did the isolation of the village preclude you being subjected as a child to much discrimination?
Yes, there's no question about it. It was really an ordinary village life. There was not a sense of confrontation in it. There was a sense of tension, there was a sense of questions about identity.
I also grew up in a very egalitarian family. My father had been the first person from the village to ever get a high school education, and had to go far away and stay in a boarding school to get it. So he was considered to be an educated person -- in fact, in some ways, the most educated person. During the war in 1948, he actually got another person, who had just gone to high school, and, together they opened a school to keep the kids out of trouble during the war -- on their own, with no compensation. And so they started the school system there.
So there was this sense of the importance of education. There was a sense of civic duty and a sense of egalitarianism. In part, it was because of my father's own education out in a British-style boarding school on the border between, then, Palestine and Lebanon, that he considered himself sort of a child of enlightenment. He was going through his own "age of reason." And so to him, identities didn't matter. They mattered only politically, but to him, in terms of the moral view of who he was, he didn't think of his [identity]. He was not a religious person, so he didn't think of his Christian identity as an identity. He didn't differentiate in the village context between Jews and Muslims and Christians. In fact, he was highly respected by all. And, in fact, he became a community leader and at some point was the deputy mayor of the village. He, himself, comes from a family of leadership that was also considered egalitarian. His father was the muhktar of the village. the equivalent of the mayor of the village. And Druse and Christians and Muslims related to him in the same way.
They all had Jewish friends from Haifa -- very, very close Jewish friends -- prior to 1948, that were completely unrelated to politics. There was a sense of close friendships that are still ongoing, by the way, that sort of transcended politics from the thirties, forties, until now. Very, very close, meaning, people who you could count on in hardships, to whose weddings and so forth you go, and you expect the same; people who would stay overnight at your home.
So there was a sense of egalitarianism that no doubt affected me personally in my own upbringing early on, both in terms of my emphasis on the importance of education and in my focus on egalitarianism, even as I am very aware of the competing tensions in my own identity.
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