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Amitai Etzioni, Theorist of Communitarianism, Dies at 94

Amitai Etzioni, the Israeli-American sociologist who drew wide attention and storms of derision by fathering the Communitarian movement, a vision of society in which people are asked to care less about their own rights than about one another and the common good, died on Wednesday at his home in Washington. He was 94.

The death was confirmed by his son David.

Born to German-Jewish parents who fled from Hitler to Palestine, Mr. Etzioni fought for Israeli independence, moved to the United States in 1957 and became an influential academic and political figure. He wrote prodigiously, taught at George Washington University, testified before Congress and advised presidents, prime ministers and other Western leaders on foreign and national policies.

Barely a decade after landing in America, Mr. Etzioni was famous, writing books and articles far afield from the turgid corners of sociology — provocative commentaries on the nuclear arms race, European security, the Vietnam War, America’s racial and educational problems, energy and inflation policies and popular worries over pornography, student unrest and topics ranging from sex therapy to Hollywood hoopla.

“Sometimes Amitai Etzioni seems to be a one-man profession,” Time magazine said.

He was appointed to commissions and advisory panels, invited to join editorial boards and television debates and showered with fellowships, awards and honorary degrees. He argued with Wernher von Braun on the Soviet-American space race, helped Betty Friedan in 1974 start an Economic Think Tank for Women, as it was called, to consider women’s “hidden economic power,” and was invited to lead a state investigation of a nursing home scandal in New York involving substandard conditions.

But of all Mr. Etzioni’s pursuits, none hit home with greater force than “communitarianism,” which he named, interpreted and promoted for two decades, starting in the early 1990s. It was not novel — liberals and conservatives had debated an unnamed middle ground for decades — but it captured imaginations with its sermonizing, political rhetoric and dashes of old-fashioned needlepoint virtues.

Communitarianism, with its emphasis on community, not the individual, staked out ground between liberal advocates of civil liberties and welfare rights on one hand, and conservative champions of laissez-faire economics and traditional values on the other. It never became a mainstream political movement, but it won significant followings in America and Europe.

Though the idea seemed simple, its implications spread out in all directions. Individual liberty and equality were the foundations, he said, but these depended on the good character of people who willingly embraced the responsibilities of citizenship. These, in turn, depended on healthy communities and institutions like the family, schools, neighborhoods, unions, local governments and religious and ethnic groups.

Read entire article at New York Times