Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, 2015-16 Thanks To Scandinavia Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania
Originally from Sweden, Benjamin is the recipient of the 2015-16 Thanks To Scandinavia Scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. Benjamin is working towards his Ph.D. in History with a focus on East Asia and North Korea.
Could you tell me how the TTS scholarship came about?
It’s actually thanks to people in my university administration who have kept their eyes open for these opportunities. I became aware of the scholarship when they informed me that my university had nominated me for it, which I very much appreciated. My family’s background story, having come to Sweden, fleeing religious persecution in the Baltics and Hungary, was an important part of my application to the University of Pennsylvania, since it’s one of the main reasons for my interest in history. I suspect that the university remembered this from my application, and thought that the connection between my Scandinavian-Jewish background and the purpose of the scholarship made me seem like a suitable candidate.
You have been a journalist in Svenska Dagbladet – do you focus on special interest or general topics?
I have worked as a political editorial writer for the paper for some time, and still contribute to the editorial page as a guest writer whenever the opportunity arises. I also recently became a columnist for Göteborgsposten, another Swedish daily newspaper. I often write about my area of focus, East Asia, but I also like to draw upon lessons from the study of history to better understand contemporary issues.
You are currently working on your PhD in history with focus on East Asia and North Korea. What kick started your interest in global affairs?
Being the descendant of people who have experienced ethnic and religious persecution, I could never really help but being interested in global affairs. My family background has given me a strong interest in understanding wars and conflicts.
What made you focus on North Korea?
I have always had an interest in how to explain human suffering, war and oppression. North Korea is perhaps the quintessential example of the latter: while other communist systems have crumbled, political control in North Korea has remained remarkably persistent and severe. In short, I first became interested in North Korea because I wanted to understand political oppression and how people live under it. This interest seemingly came out of nowhere about 10-12 years ago and hasn’t left me since. My focus is North Korean history, but as any country, contemporary North Korea can never be understood separately from its historical roots.
You are currently studying at the University of Pennsylvania. Was studying in the U.S. an obvious choice?
Yes. In no other country can you find such a vibrant academic environment. There is also an interest in North Korea here that you can find in few other places.
How is a Swede perceived at Hankuk University?
Very well, I would say. Sweden still has a relatively good reputation globally. Many in South Korea seem to see Sweden as the best example of a well-functioning European welfare state, though I’m sure the government’s current grappling with the migrant crisis will contribute to changing that picture over time.
What are you passionate about?
The obvious answer here would be my research and my academic work, but the truth is that family is more important to me than anything else. Without them, I would never have had the courage to get to a place like UPenn. I love living in the U.S., but being away from my family in Stockholm is very difficult. I’m very lucky that they like to travel to visit me, and that we live in a day of age when anyone is only a small tap on a smartphone away.
Has the Holocaust been part of the conscious narrative within your community?
In Sweden, absolutely. It’s a very positive thing. In the late 1990s, for example, the then prime minister Göran Persson took the initiative to create research institutions like Forum för Levande Historia and overall worked hard to increase historical awareness of the Holocaust. However, I sometimes worry that the Holocaust is becoming more and more of a mythical comparison in our narrative rather than a real historical event. It worries me whenever people compare current events to the Holocaust, because it risks devaluing it to just one event among many.
What is your most critical concern in the current political debate domestically and internationally?
In democratic countries across the globe, I think political polarization is a bigger problem than we sometimes realize. Both in Sweden and in the US, the willingness to understand one’s political opponents seems to be smaller than it has been in a very long time. For example, as the psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt demonstrated in The Righteous Mind, the available data indicates that political attitudes and beliefs are much further apart in the U.S. than just a few years ago. This, I am afraid, will hamper the ability of our societies to come up with answers to current and future challenges.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I wish I knew! I can only say what I hope. My goal would be this: to be living with one foot in the United States and the other in Sweden, and to still be researching the topics that I am so fortunate to now get to study on an everyday-basis. I want to be able to maintain strong connections both with academia and the private research sphere. I also hope that by then, I have come a little closer to understanding how political oppression really works from the point-of-view of those who experience it. And, of course, that I have completed a dissertation that I feel proud to put my name on!
Interview conducted by Liv Tchividjian Grimsby
Photo by Willy Silberstein