June 10, 2009
This is the week to honor a Jew whose influence extends from your neighborhood council, to the field where your grapes are picked, to city halls from Los Angeles to Newark, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. This week, say a little Kaddish for Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the only surviving son of Benjamin Alinsky’s second marriage to Sarah Tannenbaum. He was the Johnny Appleseed of justice. Roots he planted 50, 40, 30 years ago — he died June 12, 1972 — are spreading like dandelions in dichondra.
Consider President Obama.
“Barack Obama’s training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness,” L. David Alinsky wrote to the Boston Globe following the 2008 Democratic Convention. “It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board. When executed meticulously and thoughtfully, it is a powerful strategy for initiating change and making it really happen. Obama learned his lesson well.”
“When [Obama] announced his candidacy for president last month,” Ryan Lizza wrote in The New Republic in March 2007, “he said the ‘best education’ he ever had was not his undergraduate years at Occidental and Columbia, or even his time at Harvard Law School, but rather the four years he spent in the mid-’80s learning the science of community organizing in Chicago.”
Alinsky was the scientist. In two best-selling books, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules for Radicals,” he laid out a step-by-step approach toward empowering the have-nots in society. There are two fundamentals: Clearly communicate the bedrock values of the movement, and organize around these values from the ground up.
“One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer — with one exception — and still be effective and successful,” Alinsky wrote in “Rules for Radicals.” “That exception is the art of communication.” The key to communication, he wrote, is speaking to people where they are, at their level, appealing to their self-interest. Communicating is half the equation, he believed. The other is rooting that message in common values.
Alinsky never lost sight of what his struggle — all successful struggles — was about: “the preciousness of human life ... freedom, equality, justice, peace, the right to dissent.”
In 1939, Alinsky first organized Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, helping the poor, slaughterhouse-adjacent residents win better wages and living conditions.
He applied the techniques he learned there to organize the residents of Rochester, N.Y., to train the activists who helped a young man named Cesar Chavez organize grape pickers in California; to galvanize Chicago’s all-black Woodlawn neighborhood; where religious leaders like Arthur Brazier fought the all-powerful Chicago machine for better living conditions.
In turn, Brazier and other 1960s community organizers influenced by Alinsky inspired and influenced a young man named Barack Obama to work as an anti-poverty activist in Chicago in the 1980s.
The right loathed Alinsky and continually tried to brand him as a pro-Stalinist communist (he wasn’t). The ‘60s left accused him of selling out because his focus was to help people make it in society, not to destroy society itself. But Alinsky’s lessons endure because they are rooted in one basic idea: “.... No ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare,’” Alinsky wrote.
I saw some of Alinsky’s genius incarnated last week when I moderated a discussion at UCLA Hillel between Rabbi Shmuely Boteach and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J.
After graduating Stanford University, Booker attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, where he met Boteach, then a Lubavitch-affiliated rabbi and founder of the L’Chaim society, a Jewish student union. Boteach made Booker, who is African American and a devout Baptist, the head of the society, to the dismay of the Lubavitcher movement. And the friendship endured, after Booker graduated Yale Law; after Booker, raised in a privileged Palo Alto home, moved into Newark’s worst projects and began organizing residents; after Booker beat an entrenched, corrupt Newark machine to become the city’s mayor.
The key to Booker’s success — beyond a fearsome intellect and enough charisma to make Obama look like Richard Nixon — is a burning desire to confront injustice through grass-roots organization — as Alinsky developed and taught it.
Our dialogue was about bridging America’s cultural and political divide. I asked Booker how such a feat is possible, considering how just days earlier a madman on one side of that divide had assassinated Dr. George Tilley, a Kansas doctor who, despite years of death threats, had continued to protect the lives of his women patients by performing abortions.
Booker said it’s a mistake and a waste of time to focus on the extreme right or left — the key is to find common values and language that will bring together the greatest number of people in the center. Booker, by all accounts, has done that in Newark, and Obama is doing it (again) with his Organizing for America, a reconfiguration of his grass-roots Organizing for Obama election campaign, this time aimed at bringing together a consensus for change in America’s health care system.
And it all goes back to Alinsky, the roots of whose passion for social justice and radical change are not all that mysterious. Until he was 12 years old, Alinsky, the son of Orthodox Jews, was steeped in Jewish learning.
“But then I got afraid my folks were going to try to turn me into a rabbi,” he told Playboy in 1971, “so I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit. Now I’m a charter member of Believers Anonymous. But I’ll tell you one thing about religious identity: Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say — and always will say — Jewish.”
If Alinsky rebelled — a very Jewish thing to do, by the way — he didn’t abandon the prophetic directives that are as plain as day in the ancient texts: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly. His entire life was motivated by belief in the dignity of the human being, by the idea that we are all created in the image of the Divine. And his life’s work was inspired by the awareness, embedded in the daily “Shema,” of universal oneness.
“A major revolution to be won in the immediate future,” Alinsky wrote, “is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all others.”
They teach Alinsky in some college courses, but I suggest his books become required reading in our Jewish day schools — in Hebrew schools, even. You can trace the words of the prophets from ancient times through this man’s life and writing to our modern-day leaders — and you will learn every thing you need to know about the Jewish contribution to civilization.