Amitai Etzioni was born Werner Falk in Cologne, Germany in 1929 to a Jewish family. Etzioni's earliest memory is being thrown out of a car in Cologne, Germany in January 1933. Etzioni was only four years old when the car he was driving in made a sharp turn and in response, he grabbed a handle that opened the door. Etzioni was pulled back into the car at the last moment by his father, but as noted in his memoir, this memory foreshadowed the upcoming doom that would overtake his homeland during the Nazi rule. Later in 1933, Etzioni and his grandparents were walking through the forest next to Frankfurt when they came upon a forest fire. Suddenly, Hitler Youth ventured into the forest riding in two trucks. Etzioni's grandparents reacted by grabbing Etzioni and hiding behind nearby trees. The grandparents then took Etzioni and rushed down the hill without explaining to him what happened during their close encounter with the Nazi regime. When Etzioni had turned five, both of his parents had escaped to London to avoid the Nazi regime, which left Etzioni in the care of his grandparents. Etzioni was smuggled out of Germany soon afterwards to a train station in Italy by a non-Jewish relative who soon reunited Etzioni with his parents. Etzioni was stuck with his parents in Athens, Greece unable to enter Palestine since his family was awarded a bachelor permit instead of a family permit. The family was stuck midway between Germany and Haifa for a whole year. During this year, Etzioni attended a Greek school learning the language. When the paperwork was finally resolved, Etzioni found himself in Haifa, Israel in the winter of 1937 where he had to learn another language, Hebrew.
It was at this time he began to go by his first name Amitai instead of Werner since the principal of Etzioni's new school strongly encouraged that Etzioni introduce himself by his Hebrew name. Etzioni's Hebrew name was printed in the front of the family Bible, which was left in Germany, so he was given the name Amitai which means truth (emet) and was the name of Jonah's father in the Old Testament. Etzioni moved once again with his family to a small village, Herzliya Gimmel, which served as a base for a new emerging community called Kfar Schmaryahu. When Etzioni was eight, his family moved to the new compound, Kfar Schmaryahu, where his family was assigned to a small, boxlike new house that was used as a lot for farming. In the spring of 1941, Etzioni's father left home once again to join the Jewish Brigade, which was a Jewish unit formed within the British army. Etzioni, at the age of thirteen, was struggling at school, which then caused his mother to send him to a boarding school called Ben Shemen.
The Ben Shemen teachers, upon Etzioni's graduation, recommended that he enroll in a good liberal arts high school, however, Etzioni enrolled in a vocational school near his homeland of Kfar Schmaryaho. Etzioni intent was to become an electrician. In the spring of 1946, at the age of sixteen, Etzioni dropped out of high school to join the Palmach, the elite commando force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Jewish community of Palestine, and was sent to Tel Yosef for military training. During this time, young Amitai chose to fully distance himself from his past as Werner Falk and adopted the surname Etzioni.
During Etzioni's time in the Palmach, underground Jewish groups, mainly the Irgun and Lehi militias, and to a lesser extent the Palmach, were carrying out a violent campaign against the British authorities to compel them to allow more Jewish immigration to Palestine and leave the country to enable a Jewish state to be established. Etzioni participated in a Palmach operation to blow up a British radar station near Haifa being used to track ships carrying illegal Jewish immigrants attempting to enter Palestine. Etzioni's team managed to breach the fence protecting the radar station and plant and detonate a bomb, and escaped after the British shot their team leader through the head. After the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Etzioni's Palmach unit participated in the defense of Jerusalem, which was under siege by the Arab Legion. They sneaked through Arab lines and for the next few months, fought to defend Jerusalem and to open a corridor to Tel Aviv, participating in the Battles of Latrun and the establishment of the Burma Road.
Following the war, Etzioni spent a year studying at an institute established by Martin Buber. In 1951 he enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he completed both BA (1954) and MA (1956) degrees for his studies in classical and contemporary works in sociology. In 1957 he went to the United States to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a research assistant to Seymour Martin Lipset. He received his PhD in sociology in 1958, completing the degree in the record time of 18 months. Etzioni then remained in the United States to pursue an academic career.1958–78: Professor, Columbia University
1978: Guest Scholar, Brookings Institution
1979–80: Senior Advisor to the White House
1980–present: University Professor, Professor of International Affairs, and Director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, George Washington University
1987–90: Thomas Henry Carroll Ford Foundation Professor, Harvard Business School
1989: Founder and President of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-economics
1993: Founder and Director of the Communitarian Network
1994–1995: President, American Sociological Association
While studying sociology when he was attending University in Israel, Etzioni met a woman named Hava, who caught his attention for looking strikingly different from the other women. Notably, she had blue eyes, blonde hair, and peach colored skin that was dramatically different from the norm of dark featured Israel women. After studying for a year, Etzioni and Hava married in 1953. Etzioni and Hava relocated to the United States in 1957. They have two sons together, Ethan born in 1958 and Oren born in 1962. In 1964, Hava and Etzioni divorced when Hava wanted to move back to Israel in order to be near her mother whereas Etzioni wanted to remain in the United States, as sociologists were plentiful in Israel. After the divorce, Hava moved back to Israel with their two sons, however, Etzioni's two sons came to the United States during the summer and Etzioni spent Passovers in Israel. In his autobiography, Etzioni writes that the divorce was one of his "gravest personal failures. We should have found a way."
A year after the divorce, Etzioni met a Mexican scholar, Minerva Morales, who was visiting Columbia University. A year later, Etzioni and Morales married, where they would go on to have three sons together; Michael, David, and Benjamin. Morales was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism, which was Etzioni's practicing religion. On December 20, 1985 the radio reported that less than one inch of snow was expected. At the time, Morales and Etzioni had relocated from New York to Washington. On the way to the airport, Morales had gotten into an accident and was in the hospital in a critical condition. Their son, Benjamin, was also in the car, but was not hurt. Etzioni called the emergency room phone number, where the doctor said that Morales died instantly, her car shot off the icy road into a tree. Etzioni, in his autobiography writes, "I was utterly lost. I did not know how to sleep alone or how to talk out the day's problems with only myself. I could not find the pilot light of the heating system, the keys to the cedar closet, the office of the orthodontist."
Etzioni experienced a similar feeling of loss when his son Michael died in his sleep. Etzioni later wrote a New York Times article in response to his son's death, where he talked about his process of grieving, which was understandably similar to the grieving that took place during his wife's death in 1985.
Etzioni is the author of 24 books. In the 1960s, he was concerned with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arms race, the Vietnam War and the criticisms of Project Apollo's cost. His early works include his published work on complex organizations called Modern Organizations in 1964. He also published The Active Society in 1968 on social organization. In the 1970s, his interests turned towards bioethics and re-industrialization. In his later works, he dealt with the ideas of the Communitarian movement in The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society in 1996. Other influential books include The Moral Dimension (1988), How Patriotic is the Patriot Act: Freedom Versus Security in the Age of Terrorism (2004) and From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations (2004).
Etzioni frequently appears as a commentator in the media. He championed the cause of peace in a nuclear age in The Hard Way to Peace (1962), Winning Without War (1964), and War and its Prevention (Etzioni and Wenglinsky, 1970). His recent work has addressed the social problems of modern democracies and he has advocated communitarian solutions to excessive individualism in The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society (1993) and New Communitarian Thinking (1996). Etzioni has been concerned to facilitate social movements that can sustain a liberal democracy in The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and Political Processes (1968) and A Responsive Society (1991). He criticized civil libertarians' approach on privacy, claiming it had to be balanced against public order and that ID cards or biometrics technologies could prevent ID theft, and thus enhance, rather than deteriorate, privacy (The Limits of Privacy, 1999).
Etzioni's main communitarian thesis is that individual aspirations should be protected and cultivated into community efforts. Etzioni thus coined the movement Communitarianism to reflect the importance of the role the individual has within the community. He argues that communitarian thinking developed in reaction to the "me-first" attitude of the 1980s, which stressed the importance of individual wellbeing over the community. Etzioni, witnessing the deterioration of the community in response to the rise of capitalist mindsets, advocated for the agenda of communitarianism. The agenda of communitarianism is to create stronger communities that are more reflective and responsive to the needs of society, as once individuals are collectivized into their communities, the citizens are more apt to act in responsible ways. Etzioni also urged the movement to attempt to establish common ground between liberals and conservatives, thus bridging that division. In his book Radical Middle, author Mark Satin identifies Etzioni as a radical centrist communitarian.
In the early to mid 1980s, communitarianism was restricted to the disciplines of Philosophy and Political Science, where the information presented concerning this new idealism was only available to those well-acquainted with sociological theory. Communitarianism took shape in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc where laissez faire economics gained popularity. Amitai Etzioni and William Galston, noticing an emphasis on individualism, started holding meetings to begin applying their communitarian ideals to broader social problems. Together, in 1991 the group published the quarterly journal "The Responsive Community" and formed the "Communitarian Network" in 1993. Etzioni founded the Communitarian Network, which is a nonprofit think tank based in Washington D.C. that serves as the biggest intellectual organization for the communitarian agenda.
In Etzioni's view, the communitarian movement works to strengthen the ability of all aspects of the community including families and schools in order to introduce more positive values. In addition, it aims to get people involved in positive ways in all levels of the community and ensure that society progresses in an orderly fashion. These works written between 1990 and the present have given Etzioni his greatest successes and satisfactions in the public realm. He also articulated an early reason-based critique of the space race (in the book The Moon-Doggle) in which he points out that unmanned space exploration yields a vastly higher scientific result-per-expenditure than a manned space program. Amitai Etzioni also coined the word "McJob" in a 1986 article for the Washington Post in which he criticizes the low skilled fast food jobs as being detrimental to youth.
In Simon Prideaux's "From Organisational Theory to the New Communitarium of Amitai Etzioni", he argues that Etzioni's communitarian methods are based upon earlier functionalist definitions of organizations. This is because his methodology fails to address any possible contradictions within the socioeconomic foundations of society. Also Etzioni's communitarian analysis uses a methodology which existed before the development of an organizational theory. According to Prideaux, Etzioni has taken the methodological influence of structural-functionalism beyond the realms of its organizational branch and fabricated it into a solution to solve the problems of modern society. Etzioni's arguments on the creation of a new communitarian society are restricted to the strengths and weaknesses he witnesses in the American society in which he has lived since the 1950s. This bias "neglects and denies the importance of differences within communities and among communities in different countries." Thus, Etzioni makes the assumption in suggesting that only single identities or homogeneous communities exist. Prideaux calls Etzioni guilty of imposing his Americanized version of community on the rest of the western world.
Elizabeth Frazer, in her book The Problems of Communitarian Politics: Unity and Conflict, argues that Etzioni's concept of the "nature of community" is too vague and elusive, in regards to the idea that the community is involved with every stage of government policies. Warren Breed's The Self-Guiding Society provides a critical overview of The Active Society. David Sciulli's Etzioni's Critical Functionalism: Communitarian Origins and Principles evaluates Etzioni's functionalism.1960–61: Fellowship at the Social Science Research Council
1965–66: Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences
1968–69: Guggenheim Fellowship
1978–present: Appointment as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
1987: The Lester F. Ward Distinguished Contributions Award in Applied Sociology
1991: The Ninth Annual Jeffrey Pressman Award (Policy Studies Association)
2001: John P. McGovern Award in Behavioral Sciences
2001: Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
Recipient of the Seventh James Wilbur Award for Extraordinary Contributions to the Appreciation and Advancement of Human Values by the Conference on Value Inquiry
Recipient of the Sociological Practice Association’s Outstanding Contribution Award
2016: Officially became a member of the National Academy of Medicine.