A recounting of Amitai Etzioni’s experience with conflict and his dedicated mission towards peace.
Professor Etzioni’s aversion to violence was forged — his videographer shows — when he was a Jewish child subject to Nazi brutality in Germany. Later when he joined those who were seeking to drive the British colonial power out of Palestine, he refused to join the Irgun who used force and instead lined up with the Palmach who engaged in a “headlines war.”
He deeply regretted the casualties on both sides that resulted from the Israeli war of Independence, in which he did participate. Ever since he demonstrated, testified, wrote in support of peaceful resolutions of conflicts, which got him into deep trouble.
Watch the full The Making of a Peacenik video here.
For greater detail about Professor Etzioni’s life, pick up a copy of My Brother’s Keeper: A Memoir and a Message.
Recently I’ve been concerned that the United States will get into blows with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and so I came up with a strategy which I thought could prevent that war. I testified before Congress. I wrote an article trying to convince my colleagues on the campus. I did some op-eds. I did some television.
Amitai Etzioni to BBC: We badly badly need China’s help getting North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
Amitai Etzioni to Channel 8 Midday Report: One place we may get off this without real war is if China really leans to North Korea, and we need to incentivize, not punish trying to do so.
Typical of what I have been doing for the last 60 years and being an activist professor. On one hand, doing my classes, doing my research. On the other hand, mixing in there and trying to make the world better. So I ask myself sometimes, how did I get to that? And what kind of runs through all those many attempts that have been made in nuclear weapons. The war in Vietnam was kind of an underlying theme which runs through all of them, and my aversion to war is the answer. But how I got there I need to take you to the very very beginning.
I was born in 1929 as a Jewish child in pre Nazi Germany and things fairly soon got very very rough. The Nazis did not completely dominate yet but they were already starting beating up Jews on the streets and breaking into the shops. For me as a four year old, all I knew is I wasn’t allowed to go to kindergarten, and all the adults around me were whispering all the time and there was a thick anxiety there. And then my parents abandoned me. My father got permission from the Nazis to go to London for some kind of class and he of course, he didn’t come back. And then my mother got permission to go and visit him for the weekend in London and she didn’t come back. But nobody could find an excuse to get me out of there. So there I was with my grandparents and aunt and uncle for a whole year as a child feeling very much left behind.
A relative from the family, who was not Jewish, had a motorcycle with a sidecar and he put me in a sidecar and covered me with a blanket. And he drove to Switzerland, to Greece, to Athens. So then finally we arrived in Palestine and my parents, together with four other families set out to start a new community. And they didn’t know anything about farming but there they were moving boulders and making room for a new settlement in this really rough environment. And now we’re in 1946. All over the world the old colonial empires are collapsing. India is killing its independence. Everybody’s trying to push out the French, the Germans, the Dutch. The equivalent of what, the Jews in Palestine tried to get the British to move out, who were dominating the area, in order to form a Jewish state.
I decided at 16, in tenth grade, to drop out of high school and join the drive to drive all the British. There were two organizations who are fighting the British. One associated with the right wing, known as the Irgun, which believed that they way to do that was to kill the Brits. And on of their famous high points was when they blew up a hotel, the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, which was full of British officers. The other organization, known as the Palmach, it decided that the way to do that was to grab headlines but not kill anybody. I joined that group. We planted bombs in those police stations which try to capture the refugees, but after he planted them he called them and told the personnel to evacuate and gave them 20 minutes to evacuate and then we blew up the building. And it made all the headlines. At one point, we blew up 10 of the bridges, of the 11 bridges which connected Palestine to other countries, but we did it late at night when there’s no traffic.
There’s a debate which we’ll probably never settle: what made the British leave in the end. Was it the horror of the terror or was it our headline-grabbing, which embarrassed and mobilized the British public? Frankly, it may be both. But I was on the side of the lease violent opposition. May 15, ’48, a Jewish state is born. And, as most people know, seven Arab armies attacked on the first day. When well-trained armies attack you, you go for your musket and you try to save lives. From my viewpoint, it was a just war. And I terribly regretted it. And I wrote a book immediately after the end of the Israeli War of Independence of how horrible war is, and that all the time, I and my friends felt if we could just sit down with the Arabs, we could work these things out. There was room in Palestine for both people. And at the same time, horrible mistakes led us to kill each other, which we did.
After the war, I went to study at Berkeley. And then I got my first position at Columbia University and I started looking for a new cause in effect. And somehow I hit the nuclear weapons. If there was anything threatening peace and life, surely nuclear weapons were a major threat. So I did again what I did there from then on. I wrote two books against nuclear weapons. I wrote an article. I demonstrated, which most professors did not do. And that got me the first time into trouble.
Now, what happened, is I was called to the Chairman’s office. And I had at that time my first so, I had of course debts and had signed a lease. And the chairman said that, you know, arguably I had some talent but I had to stop this nonsense if I wanted to have any career and if you wanted to stay at Columbia University. And I said “Okay but what did I do? I mean sure but what did I do?” he said “Well, you want a movie review, and we want research in science, and we don’t want you off writing movie reviews.” Well the movie I reviewed was called Hiroshima mon amour. This was a movie against nuclear weapons and I didn’t discuss the artistic merit or the performing of the actors. I discussed the message of the movie as one more way of agitating against nuclear weapons. Went home and I asked myself, what am I gonna do? Will I give up on my calling or lose a job at a university I very much respected, and God knows where I’m going to end up with a young child and my debts? And a line came to me which actually is the one which belongs to Luther in which he said, “I can do no other.” And I realized I really did not have a choice. I could not give up on my calling. But I also decided that I’m gonna work my academic back off to make it much more difficult for them to fire me.
And that, in effect, is what happened over the next 60 years by now. I believe I paid my academic dues. I’ve done all kinds of academic work, I got tenure 2 years after that. But I continued to be very active in the war against nuclear weapons. I demonstrated in Trafalgar Square. I participated in events with students. An above all, above all, I was very active in the movement against the war in Vietnam. As I’m turning 89, and I’m looking back in my life, I failed miserably. War is all over the place. Every time I tried to stop it, I did not get there but I feel I did my share. I did the best I could. I saw a calling and I put my shoulder to the wheel and that’s all I can ask anybody to do.