Earl Raab was known for many things. He was a progressive before his time, a champion of a free press, an activist for Jewish causes. And the longtime San Francisco community leader was also a writer, notably as a columnist in this very publication.
Now his writings are available once again, collected and organized by topic on a new website set up by the Jewish Community Relations Council, where Raab was executive director from 1951 to 1987.
“Watching Earl sit at his beloved Underwood Noiseless — and later on the computer — was equivalent to watching Picasso paint — both in quality and volume,” wrote Raab’s successor at the JCRC, Rabbi Doug Kahn, in a tribute on earlraab.jcrc.org.
Raab was also co-founder of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, and after retiring was the founding director of the Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy at Brandeis University.
But he was always a writer. In addition to numerous articles in publications like Commentary and Public Interest, Raab wrote and co-wrote many books, including “The Black Revolution and the Jewish Question,” “The Politics of Unreason” and “Jews in the New American Scene.”
Kahn wrote that Raab’s contributions to American Jewish thought were so influential, his ideas were known as “Raabisms.”
“Earl’s ability to portray the political landscape for American Jews is second to none,” Kahn wrote.
Born in New York City in 1919, Raab moved a lot as a child but spent his teen years in Brooklyn, then went to City College of New York, where he was a member of a Trotskyite club and became friends with writers Irving Howe and Irving Kristol. After a stint in the military during World War II, he became a journalist, a job that introduced him to San Francisco.
At JCRC, Raab championed Soviet Jewry, worked for civil rights and built interfaith connections.
“In 1952, we set up a Bay Area human relations clearinghouse,” Raab told J. in a 2004 interview. “Every week we had a meeting with representatives with the NAACP, the Urban League, Japanese groups, Catholic groups. This planted seeds.”
As proof of what grew from that, Raab cited the community response to the 1975 U.N. resolution equating Zionism and racism. “The JCRC had a rally in Union Square,” he said. “They all came: the Urban League, the NAACP, ministers, Catholics.”
But it wasn’t just the Jewish community he cared about. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown told J. in 2015, when Raab died, that at a time when black families were often prevented from buying homes in certain areas, Raab would help arrange for whites to buy the homes and then sell them to black families.
And his dedication to progressive values ran through his writings, as did his love of the Jewish people. In 1973, he wrote in the Jewish Bulletin (now J.) on the importance of a free Jewish press in a way that almost seems prescient.
“In modern society, there is no freedom without a free press,” he wrote. “Freedom of expression is obviously not the only asset a Jewish newspaper needs. That does not guarantee quality or sensitivity to the needs of the Jewish community. But neither can lack of quality or sensitivity be remedied by establishing controls. In this period of ferment, it is more important for a Jewish newspaper to be independent than for its opinions to be always ‘right.’”