Saul Alinsky was a controversial political figure, to say the least. However, few would disagree that he was a genius at what we now call “grass roots” political organizing. Through the magic of Google I found an interesting story about his Chicago upbringing, as well as his experience as a Jewish marksman:
PLAYBOY: Did you encounter much antisemitism as a child?
ALINSKY: Not personally, but I was aware of it. It was all around us in those days. But it was so pervasive you didn’t really even think about it; you just accepted it as a fact of life. The worst hostility was the Poles, and back in 1918 and 1919, when I was growing up, it amounted to a regular war. We had territorial boundaries between our neighborhoods, and if a Jewish girl strayed across the border, she’d be raped right on the street. Every once in a while, it would explode into full-scale rioting, and I remember when hundreds of Poles would come storming into our neighborhood and we’d get up on the roofs with piles of bricks and pans of boiling water and slingshots, just like a medieval siege. I had an air rifle myself. There’d be a bloody battle for blocks around and some people on both sides had real guns, so sometimes there’d be fatalities. It wasn’t called an urban crisis then; it was just two groups of people trying to kill each other. Finally the cops would come on horses and in their clanging paddy wagons and break it up. They were all Irish and they hated both sides, so they’d crack Polish and Jewish heads equally. The melting pot in action. You don’t have that hostility in Chicago anymore; now Italians, Poles, Jews and Irish have all joined up and buried the hatchet — in the blacks. But in those days, every ethnic group was at each other’s throat.
I remember once, I must have been ten or eleven, one of my friends was beaten up by Poles, so a bunch of us crossed over into Polish turf and we were beating the shit out of some Polish kids when the cops pulled us in. They took us to the station house and told our mothers, and boy, did they blow their tops. My mother came and took me away, screaming that I’d brought disgrace on the family. Who ever heard of a good Jewish boy being arrested, she moaned to the cops, and she promised the sergeant I’d be taken care of severely when I got home. When we left, my mother took me right to the rabbi and the rabbi lectured me on how wrong I was. But I stood up for myself. I said, “They beat us up and it’s the American way to fight back, just like in the Old Testament, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. So we beat the hell out of them. That’s what everybody does.” The rabbi just looked at me for a minute and then said very quietly, “You think you’re a man because you do what everybody does. But I want to tell you something the great Rabbi Hillel said: ‘Where there are no men, be thou a man.’ I want you to remember it.” I’ve never forgotten it.
I think Alinsky was an interesting character, and suggest reading the entire interview as well as his “Rules for Radicals.”