In Memoriam: Amitai Etzioni

GW’s first University Professor was a sociologist and intellectual known internationally.

June 13, 2023

Amitai Etzioni

Members of the GW community are mourning the loss of University Professor Amitai Etzioni, professor of international affairs in the Elliott School and founder and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. The American Israeli sociologist won world renown as the leading voice of the communitarian movement, which stressed the need to be guided by concern for the public good. He died May 31 at age 94 at his home in Washington.

Etzioni was the first University Professor at the George Washington University, noted Provost Christopher Alan Bracey, while lauding Etzioni’s achievements.

“Professor Etzioni changed the sociology landscape as a towering intellectual who became the leader of communitarianism,” Bracey said. “He was an impressive, productive scholar, a visionary leader of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Institute and was the very first George Washington University faculty member to earn the rank of University Professor—the highest regular active status faculty position, reserved for select individuals with stellar credentials and contributions to scholarship. This is a great loss for the GW community and all of academia.” 

Nicholas Vonortas, senior associate dean for faculty affairs and research initiatives and professor of economics and international affairs, got to know Etzioni over their years as colleagues in the Elliott School and remembered his outsized personality and influence.

“When I arrived at GW more than three decades ago, an aspiring economist with models, equations and equilibria in my mind, I had the chance to be down the hall from Professor Etzioni,” Vonortas said. “Our first encounter was an instant bond partly because he kept warm memories from the old country (Greece) where his family had settled once after escaping Germany. Much more came right after. He taught me that communities and personal relationships are key and that the world is more complicated than our constructs. He was certainly a huge personality who touched the lives of many people around the world.”

In 1975, Time magazine labelled Etzioni “The Everything Expert.” He wrote on many subjects such as foreign affairs, nuclear proliferation, the space race and morality and gave many press interviews. He was interested in policymaking and served as a senior adviser to President Jimmy Carter, later conferring with President Bill Clinton and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands. Etzioni also met with Barack Obama during the latter’s candidacy for the White House.

In 2001, he was named among the top 100 American intellectuals as measured by academic citations in Richard Posner's book, “Public Intellectuals.”

His many books include “The Active Society” (Free Press, 1968), which won him wide notice. In that work, he studied the role of action, power and consensus in determining the shape of history. His “Genetic Fix” (Macmillan, 1973) was nominated for an American Book Award. Some of his other titles include “My Brother’s Keeper: A Memoir and a Message” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), and “How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?: Freedom Versus Security in the Age of Terrorism” (Routledge, 2004).

“Dr. Etzioni’s transformational work will forever remain deeply appreciated and admired across the field,” said President-elect Ellen M. Granberg, whose academic expertise is in sociology. 

Etzioni described his communitarian philosophy as joining a conservative emphasis on personal responsibility with a liberal belief in social justice. He promoted policies guaranteeing parental leave but also advocated for increased drug testing and more restrictive divorce laws.

He opposed the Vietnam War and supported nuclear disarmament. He argued for a universal identity card system and on behalf of mandatory H.I.V. testing for infants.

Liberty and equality, Etzioni believed, depended on citizens who willingly shoulder their responsibilities to each other, in settings ranging from the family and schools to professional unions, churches, and governments.

“We have not just rights but also obligations to our family and country and even the global community,” he told the Washington Post in 2004.

Critics expressed the view that communitarianism threatened civil liberties and reflected authoritarian tendencies. Etzioni parried that authoritarian rulers aren’t interested in what their subjects think in private, but only what they do in the public realm. In “The Spirit of Community” (Touchstone, 1993), Etzioni wrote, “We hold that law and order can be restored without turning this country of the free into a police state.”

Etzioni was born Werner Falk on Jan. 4, 1929, in Germany. When the Nazis came to power, he went to Athens, where he spent a year in Greek school before his family immigrated in 1937 to the British mandate of Palestine. There, Etzioni adopted Hebrew names (Amitai comes from the Hebrew word for truth). He joined a Jewish underground defense force and later fought for Israeli independence, writing about his experiences in his first book, “A Diary of a Commando Soldier” (1952).

After making his way to the United States, Etzioni earned a doctoral degree in 1958 from the University of California at Berkeley. Later that year, he began teaching at Columbia University, eventually becoming chair of the sociology department. He later became president of the American Sociological Association and joined the GW faculty in 1980.

In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include four sons, two stepchildren, and 13 grandchildren.