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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Tom Hayden I knew

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After the death of Tom Hayden on Oct. 23, the media overflowed with tributes recalling his colorful, history-making life and his body of work. To many, he was the man whose anti-war campaign helped to end the Vietnam War; the ’60s radical Students for a Democratic Society leader and author of its Port Huron Statement; freedom rider; Newark, N.J., organizer; farm workers defender; and a member of the prosecuted Chicago Seven.

I never knew that Tom Hayden, for whom   a memorial service will be held Feb. 19 at Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA. By the time we met, he had recently begun a new journey, spending 18 years in elected office, amassing an impressive legislative compilation, becoming a teacher and lecturer whose ideas were esteemed in many world capitals, a noted author and a living role model of the principles of civil rights and social and environmental justice. He was nothing if not true to himself and his Catholic soul, which, to me often also seemed to be a Jewish soul. That particular observation would surely have caused the infamous anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin, the leader of Hayden’s childhood school and church, to turn over in his grave.   

Tom’s new life in Sacramento was barely beginning when he asked me to come work for him as his political director. He became my teacher, my colleague, friend and occasional intellectual challenger. But in my long career in politics and the nonprofit world, I never found a more democratic, thoughtful, fair and respectful boss than Tom Hayden. Once, during the First Intifada, we had a mighty disagreement about Israel. We were so angry at each other that we couldn’t even speak. So I wrote him a long letter laying out my argument. He sent back a 43-page epistle titled “Letter to my Jewish Friend.” It took many years before I finally realized that he was right. I never told him.

I recently looked through all of Hayden’s legislation during his 18 years in the Assembly and Senate. He walked his talk. On the Jewish side, he wrote and passed legislation protecting consumers of kosher meat; protecting students and employees from discrimination because of their observance of holy days; guaranteeing payment of Holocaust survivors’ insurance claims; providing state funding for teaching tolerance based on the lessons of the Holocaust; insurance compensation for former slave laborers living in California who suffered in Nazi Germany and Japan during World War II.

Once, a visit from Desmond Tutu, before he became a bishop or a Nobel Prize winner, touched off an argument about Israel at a dinner in Tom’s home. The discussion was the catalyst for the creation of an extraordinary project that brought Black South African workers from Soweto and the surrounding townships (before the end of apartheid) to the Afro-Asian Institute in Tel Aviv to train for their future leadership in a soon-to-be, post-white South Africa government. This led to a dramatic political and foreign policy turnaround — the end of selling arms to white South Africa, done quietly through the heroic efforts of a few very prominent people in Israel, the United States and South Africa. It all began here because of one heated discussion, and Hayden’s willingness to act on his commitment to Israel, which he loved and visited numerous times.

The world has lost a great warrior for peace. We will miss his voice.

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