The Israeli origins of Amitai Etzioni’s big ideas about community


(JTA) — “Although I was born in Germany, my formative years were spent in the early, idealistic days of the cooperative Jewish settlements, in pre-Israel, Palestine,” wrote Amitai Etzioni in his 2003 memoir, “My Brother’s Keeper.

In writing about his early years in a cooperative settlement called Kfar Shmaryahu, the Israeli-American sociologist and polymath provided the origin story for the big idea that made him famous: communitarianism. 

When Etzioni died May 31 at age 94, the obituaries noted how he came to Israel as a young refugee from Nazi Germany and fought in Israel’s war for independence. But few noted his early life in Israel shaped his life’s work. Nor did they note how far Israel had come — for better and for worse — in the years since he lived on a kibbutz, battled as a Palmach commando and studied at the Hebrew University. 

Communitarianism is a social philosophy that emphasizes the importance of society, as opposed to the individual, in articulating the good.”[W]hile individual rights surely matter, these rights must be balanced with commitments to the common good — for instance, by protecting the environment and public health,” Etzioni explained. 

He also held that the various liberation movements of the 1960s went too far in undermining authority figures and what he called “the accepted standards of upright conduct.” 

Because it proposed a “third way” between liberalism and conservatism, communitarianism was also embraced — and ridiculed — on both sides of the aisle. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were fans. Some labeled George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” communitarian.

Etzioni left Israel in his mid-twenties for a teaching job at Columbia University. He opposed the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race, activism that propelled him beyond the academy and into the role as a “public intellectual.” He taught ethics for two years at the Harvard Business School before launching into a hybrid discipline he called “socio-economics.” Hired by the Carter administration in 1979 as a senior adviser, he joined the faculty at George Washington University, where he taught international affairs for more than 30 years.

The theories behind communitarianism weren’t new, but Etzioni’s articulation came to wide public attention on the eve of the Clinton presidency, when, according to one profile, it was “supposed to be the Big Idea of the ‘90s, the antidote to ‘Me Generation’ greed and the cure for America’s cynicism, alienation and despair.”

“We need an awakening of values, of caring and commitment,” Etzioni told an interviewer in 1992. “The Communitarians are saying this is possible; in fact, it is inevitable.”

“It was as if I were growing up in a high school of communitarian theory and practice,” wrote Etzioni about his youth spent on an agricultural cooperative in Israel. (Courtesy of Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi)

Although communitarianism never did live up to the hype, Etzioni became a reliable commentator and theorist in a host of fields and causes, including just war, bioethics, national security and privacy.

Although he occasionally wrote about Israel, his roots there were rarely front and center in his work or public image. In his memoir he notes that a lot of readers thought he was Italian. (“Amitai” comes from the Hebrew word for truth; he took “Etzioni” from a folk tale about a boy who learns to protect nature from a tree – “etz” in Hebrew.) 

In his memoir, however, he delves deeply into his youth in Israel. “In those days, the country was quite different from what it has since become,” he writes. “[I]t was strongly imbued with the spirit of community (from which the term communitarian arises); most people were dedicated to serving the common good and to erecting a home for Jews escaping Nazi-dominated Europe. It was in that pre-Israel that I first knew the high that one gains when serving a cause greater than oneself.”

His parents were among the founders of the small farming community; a young Etzioni would attend co-op meetings with his father, where members would debate how cooperative they needed to be – a question, he writes, that was never settled. 

“It was as if I were growing up in a high school of communitarian theory and practice,” wrote Etzioni. 

He also discovered the limits of that practice after a year as a teen on Kibbutz Tel Joseph. He found the kibbutz “excessively communal,” with little tolerance for individuality or privacy. Communitarianism itself would often be attacked on the same grounds: Etzioni would later have a fierce antagonist in the American Civil Liberties Union, which felt some of his calls for limiting privacy and suspending individual rights in the name of the common good went too far

Etzioni wrote movingly about watching friends die in the fighting for Israel’s independence. Although he never wavered in feeling the war was justified, he lamented that the Jews and Arabs might have avoided the bloodshed had they agreed to the two-state partition that, in 2003, he still felt was inevitable. Nor did he regret Israel’s founding: “The Jewish people require a homeland to protect them not merely from physical annihilation, but also from cultural devastation,” he wrote in 1999. 

But perhaps the most fascinating influence on Etzioni’s thinking was the year he spent in a Jerusalem institute set up by Martin Buber, the Vienna-born social philosopher. The formidable faculty included Gershom Scholem on Kabbalah, Yeshayahu Leibowitz on biology and Nechama Leibowitz on Bible.

Etzioni imbibed Buber’s ideas about “I and Thou” relationships – the “unending struggle between the forces that pushed us to relate to other human beings as objects, as Its, rather than as fellow humans, as Thous.”

Etzioni would call this “moral dialogue,” as in his definition of democracy: “[O]ur conception of right and wrong are encountered through moral dialogues that are open and inclusive. It is a persuasive morality, not a coercive one.”

Etzioni’s memoir and his obituaries recall a more hopeful political climate, when right and left could briefly imagine common ground around the common good. They also recall a different Israel, before it largely embraced the free-market economics of the West and let go of many of its communitarian values. 

In 2013 Etzioni wrote about his own seeming irrelevance – he called it his “gradual loss of a megaphone” — after his brief flurry of influence. He had no regrets, nor loss of confidence: “Until I am shown that my predictions or prescriptions are ill-founded, or not of service, I will try to get out what must be said. I’ll keep pulling at the oars, however small my boat, however big or choppy the sea.”

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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