Seyla Behnabib Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Philosophic Iterations, Cosmopolitanism, and the 'Right to Rights': Conversation with Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, March 18, 2004, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Seyla, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Istanbul, Turkey. I came to the United States in 1970, but I was raised in Istanbul and went to school there, the English High School for Girls for secondary school, junior high, and the American College for Girls for senior high.

How and when did you family come to Turkey?

My family came to Turkey, as we say, in 1492, along with the Ottomans, when they conquered Istanbul from the Byzantium. My ancestor are Sephardic Jews who fled Spain in 1492 when the Inquisition was forcing Jews to convert, or decimating them, forcing them to go underground. At the time, the Ottoman Empire had a policy of giving refuge to the Jewish community escaping from Spain. Why or how this policy was there, whether it was an attempt, also, to capture Eastern Mediterranean trade, or whether it was some ancient rule of hospitality, in any event, as far back as we know, we came to Turkey at about 1492.

How do you think this family history shaped your thinking about the world?

It makes me aware of the fragility of good political institutions. I never take them for granted. I am always attentive to the ways in which, particularly, collective ideologies of purity -- be it religious purity, racial purity, or national purity -- can go wrong. I mean, 1492 is also the period that is referred to in Spanish history as the "second reconquista," or the reconquering of Spain from the Muslims. It is the consolidation of the Catholic kingdom of Spain and authority, and at the same time, its consequence was first the decimation of the Jewish minority, and also to a lesser extent, the triumph over the Muslim community.

So this makes me very distrustful of collectivist ideologies of any kind. It makes me very attentive to what I would like to call practices of good governance and state-building, and makes me realize how fragile and unpredictable the course of history is. So it may be not an accident that in the last decade I have been writing more and more on questions of refuge, asylum, citizenship, and cultural conflict, multiculturalism, and nationality, because I have so much that I can also bring to this. My nerve ends are constantly sensitive to these issues.

Let me ask you about your parents. How do you think they shaped your views of the world? Did they just build on this history that we just discussed?

The family background is in some ways quite typical for Jewish communities. I have a grandfather who was a rabbi, but my father could not even complete his studies, as the Second World War broke out. My parents were married in 1939. My father was for a brief period inducted into the Turkish army, and then it turned out that Turkey stayed out of the war and declared neutrality, and my father subsequently became a businessman.

My mother's history is that she was educated in a French elementary school, and then she went to an Italian high school, so we grew up with a background of multiple European languages at home. At any one point in time, we could shift from Turkish into French, into Ladino, and then came English, and my mom also spoke Italian. So what I would say about the family background is that we were very much part of Europe, that all these European currents of thought -- literature and ideas -- went through us. Even though we were living in a primarily Muslim, and to many understandings, quote/unquote, an "Oriental" community, we were part of this legacy.

My mother was someone who could have studied further if the circumstances of being a woman at that point would have permitted. My mother's mother never went to school. She didn't know how to read and write, which is always a remarkable fact for me when I think back; that her granddaughter is a professor, and yet my grandmother did not know how to read. But my mother was offered a scholarship by Mussolini's Italy to go and study the history of art. Of course, my grandmother said, "You are going absolutely nowhere," and then she was married off the next year. So I come from this mixture of "Oriental" and Western values, where women were educated, but then married off at the age of nineteen or twenty, where you went a certain [level], but you didn't go all the way. You didn't push the envelope all the way.

This diversity, which you must have lived every day in the Istanbul community, must have been an amazing experience in terms of sensitizing you to issues, concerns, and sensibilities that we're just now encountering in big parts of the United States.

Istanbul, itself, was . . . I think it's lessened now, but it was one of the big cosmopolitan centers of, in a way, the old Europe. We not only had this diversity of languages and affiliations in the family, but at the schools that I went to, there were a lot of girls of Greek origin, ethnic Greeks, who had remained in Turkey; I had Armenian friends growing up. This is something that people who know about the Armenian massacres, for example, do not realize, that there were still a substantial number of Armenians who remained in Turkey. I do not have the exact numbers, but I believe they were probably in size as large as the Jewish community, which was about 100,000 when I was growing up in the 1950s. And there were also children of various foreign diplomats, teachers, embassies. Istanbul was a city in which you heard five or six different languages; you could encounter [many] neighborhoods, varieties of food and taste. So the very concept of cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, there's also that aspect of it in the older metropolis. A city like Istanbul was quite remarkable.

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