This day in Jewish history |

1936: Activist Abbie Hoffman Is Born

On this day in 1936, outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman was born. His outrageous antics made him a polarizing figure but his social commentary was also said to be in the 'Jewish prophetic tradition.'

David Green
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Abbie Hoffman, second from left, and Jerry Rubin.Credit: Getty Images
David Green

On November 30, 1936, Abbot Howard Hoffman – better known as Abbie – was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. A self-styled revolutionary who was one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, Hoffman gained wide fame and notoriety for his provocative and often humorous pranks, and for being one of the “Chicago Seven” tried for alleged intent to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention.

Hoffman was the son of Florence Schamberg and John Hoffman. He had what he called an "idyllic" childhood in Worcester, but by 17 he had his first arrest – for driving without a license. In high school, he earned a reputation for impudence toward teachers, fighting and vandalism. In 10th grade, Hoffman was expelled from his public high school after he attacked a teacher who ripped up an essay he had written declaring that "God could not possibly exist, for if he did, there wouldn't be any suffering in the world."

He finished his studies at a private school then attended Brandeis University, earning a B.A. in psychology in 1959. A master’s in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley followed.

By 1967, Hoffman participated in the founding of the Youth International Party, known as the Yippies, who used street theater to convey their anarchistic, revolutionary, psychedelic sentiments. The Yippie flag featured an image of a cannabis leaf, and they organized marijuana “smoke-ins” in a number of cities.

According to a 2007 article by Yippie co-founder Paul Krassner, he and his comrades “had come to share an awareness that there was a linear connection between putting kids in prison for smoking pot in this country and burning them to death with napalm on the other side of the planet.” The group also ran a pig named “Pigasus the Immortal” for U.S. president in 1968.

In August 1967, Hoffman made a splash when he and other Yippies went to the gallery overlooking the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and began throwing dollar bills onto the floor, which some traders scrambled to pick up. The following summer, he and fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin were among a group of eight anti-war protesters arrested in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. The city had forbidden all but a minimal number of public protests, and wouldn’t allow them to take place near the convention venue.

When demonstrations spilled over beyond what was permitted, police responded with unusual violence, and there were significant injuries on both sides. Hoffman and his co-defendants were indicted on federal charges of crossing state lines to incite a riot. (Black Panther Bobby Seale had his case separated from the others, who then became the Chicago Seven.)

Hoffman in particular took advantage of the trial, which was held before federal Judge Julius Hoffman – no relation to the defendant – to mock and insult the judge (he called him to his face “a shande fur the goyim”), and in general to make political speeches. After a lengthy trial, in which such public figures as Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared as witnesses for the defense, five of the Seven were convicted of the incitement to riot charge, and sentenced to five years in prison each.

In 1972, a federal appeals court overturned all the convictions, and a federal commission that investigated the street violence that accompanied the Chicago demonstrations concluded that what had occurred was in fact a “police riot.”

The Chicago Seven trial probably marked the peak of Hoffman’s fame, though he continued with his public antics, and published a number of books, the most well-known of which was the 1971 “Steal This Book,” a guide for living for free, whose title deterred many bookstores from stocking it.

After a 1973 arrest on charges of distributing drugs, Hoffman skipped bail, had plastic surgery to alter his appearance, and remained in hiding under the name Barry Freed until turning himself in to police in 1980 – after prerecording an interview with newswoman Barbara Walters. He ended up serving a four-month prison sentence.

That same year, 1980, Hoffman was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In 1986, he was arrested with a group of 14 others, including Amy Carter, the daughter of former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, for an unauthorized demonstration at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to protest CIA recruitment efforts on campus. Their trial in federal court provided another opportunity for Hoffman and his co-defendants to bring “expert” witnesses about alleged illegal CIA actions; the trial ended with the exoneration of all the accused.

In an interview near the end of his life, Hoffman explained his worldview as aspiring to “the redistribution of wealth and power in the world ... universal hospital care for everyone... [and not] a single homeless person in the richest country in the world. And I believe that we should not have a CIA that goes around overwhelming governments and assassinating political leaders, working for tight oligarchies around the world to protect the tight oligarchy here at home.

Abbie Hoffman was found dead in his New Hope, Pennsylvania, apartment on April 12, 1989, with the remains of 150 phenobarbitol tablets, as well as alcohol, found in his stomach. His death was ruled a suicide, although some of his friends suggested that he had been murdered.

A week later, a memorial service for him was held at Temple Emanuel, in Worcester, the synagogue he had attended as a child. Some one thousand people attended. Rabbi Norman Mendell suggested in his eulogy that much of Hoffman’s public life had been “in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”  

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