Shibley Telhami Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Was it this background [of egalitarian tradition] that put you on the path to becoming interested in the study of international politics?
I wouldn't say so. It's kind of an interesting thing to look back and, obviously, one tries to make sense of one's life and the path that one takes. You wonder, always, whether you're just rationalizing a path or not. But I have always been interested, throughout my life, even in elementary education, in politics and in writing. Clearly, you couldn't grow up in that environment in the fifties, sixties, and not be interested in war and peace. I mean, that was what was around you.
And yet, I went through an educational system, which was really the Israeli educational system, although my high school was a private high school in Haifa, that essentially didn't give me many choices. It was rigid. If you were a good student, you went into science and math, and no one at the time who was considered to be a bright student would study things like history or politics. Those were all, you know, for people who are second-tier in that school system, which was unfortunate. I think things have changed -- at least, I hope they've changed since. As a consequence, of all the so-called sciences, I was drawn to mathematics, which is the most theoretical, because that was the way my mind worked. My focus was on mathematics, and my first degree was in mathematics.
When I was in high school, I began thinking about what I would do after high school. It was 1967, I was in tenth grade, I believe. And I remember exactly June 5, 1967, when I was taking the final examination for that school year. I was in the middle of all the exams, and this was a private Arab high school but had to fit into the Israel school system, and, therefore, the curriculum was defined by the school system in Israel. We were taking biblical Hebrew, and the exam was in biblical Hebrew. We had just taken the first portion of the exam. We came out to the break and we were ... It was a tense time already and we were all tuned to the news in the break, and we heard on the radio that was being [broadcast] by the custodian of the village that war had just broken out. And they cancelled the exams. We were all excited about canceling the exams, and went home to watch some of the Arab battles at night from the tops of the roofs. We'd find the aircrafts zooming and hear the bombings. But after that, after the war, I was contemplating, given the tension that was there, whether I would even have a future, given my own ambitions. And I began exploring the possibility of studying overseas.
When I applied to school, I had no idea about where to apply. In my village, no one knew a thing about it. A friend of mine from high school put me in touch with a small college in Nebraska called York College and I actually applied to it. I believe I got accepted, but I couldn't go because I didn't have enough money to go at the time. But it turned out to be a Bible college, of all things, which I had no idea at the time. It was sort of an accident, you know, incidental. But when I ultimately came after high school to study in the University of New York, Queens College, math was already pre-chosen for me in my own mind. It wasn't an issue of making a new selection, it was pre-determined. By the time I got to the end of that, I was beginning to come to terms with my own passions. I was beginning to ask questions about my own identity, about my own role, about my own interests. That's when it all started, the path that drew me, ultimately, to Berkeley.
Where you got your Ph.D., and where you worked with Ken Waltz, who is one of the major intellectual influences on your thinking about international relations.
No question about it. But, you know, it was not a direct path. When I finished mathematics, the first thing that I was thinking about was philosophy and world religions, because it was right after the '73 war. I was worried at the time -- and this is interesting, in a way, in my intellectual development -- at the time, I believed that the trouble in the Middle East might emanate from religious sources. That was the perspective I took as a sort of distant observer.
So it drew me to study a philosophy and religion, and I came to Berkeley, initially, not to the Department of Political Science, but to do a special program between the Graduate Theological Union and the Berkeley Philosophy Department. I worked with a number of people in the Philosophy Department who influenced me a lot. Benson Mates, who was then the chairman of the department -- I was drawn to analytic philosophy because of my mathematics, and we worked very closely. John Searle -- I took a lot of his courses on language, philosophy of language, because I was also interested in language.
But I was also drawn, through the connection with the Graduate Theological Union, to Søren Kierkegaard, who, despite my interest in analytic philosophy, fascinated me because of the focus on the division with the self, within the soul, and because of all the competing tensions that I was having about who I am as a newly, sort of increasingly American, but with these components -- the Arab component, the Israeli component, the Christian component -- all of that coming together. And, yet, I'm an egalitarian, and I don't want these. How do they come together? And the wonder of Kirkegaard, the fascination, was about the theory that the self is made up of many different parts that come together in a way that can be transcended.
So I took that, and I know I took that with the intention of somehow figuring out how to make sense of the Middle East. I went to the Middle East in 1976. I went to Egypt and Israel with the intention of tailoring a Ph.D. program, beyond the Masters, that would make use of these ideas that I developed here. And it was during that year, in 1976, in which I actually spent ... I'm on the ground thinking that I'm going to find links between religion and politics that are going to inspire me about how to proceed. Then I came back and I concluded that the causes were not religion, per se, that religion is a vehicle. That this is really about politics and economics, not about religion, and it wasn't about faith.
It was that conclusion, in 1976, that propelled me to come back here and change course, and to say that I'm going to become a political scientist. And it was here, then, that I came and pursued a political science degree at Berkeley and encountered Ken Waltz, who was really my first encounter with international relations theory. I had practically no background in political science, [only] math and philosophy. Political science was very nonexistent in my background. It was in my skin, but not in my background, the academic background.
My encounter with Waltz was very special, because I read, even before I met him, as I was preparing to look into what to pursue, I read the book Man, State, and War, which has been a classic book. That book influenced me a lot, intellectually, even before I met Ken, in large part because its style was so analytical, and I was drawn to the analytical because of my background. This is the way my mind works. So that, alone, fascinated me. It was a way for me to put an analytical framework into a subject that I'm very interested in. But it also, in part, because it provided answers that transcended these variables that I had already concluded are not at the core of the Middle East conflict. So I had already [decided] that this isn't about religion, this isn't about individuals per se, but it's about politics and political structures, and economic structures. So the Waltzian framework fit nicely into a conclusion that I had already made in my own mind about the Middle East.
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