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Michael Ratner’s inspiring activist life culminated with dramatic change on Israel

Originally published: Mondoweiss on July 8, 2021 by Philip Weis (more by Mondoweiss)  | (Posted Jul 24, 2021)

My Life as a Radical Lawyer

by Michael Ratner
358 pp. OR Books. $23 or $10 for ebook.

How do American Jews shift their outlook on Israel? How do leftleaning Americans who have a special corner of their heart devoted to Israel give up that attachment in the face of unending human rights violations?

That is one drama of the very full life of Michael Ratner, the legendary human rights lawyer who died in 2016 at 72. Ratner’s posthumous memoir was published in May, and it offers an intimate narrative of his own transformation on the Palestine question. Not many people are capable of Ratner’s clear reasoning; but his difficult emotional path–from unbound love of Israel to the reluctant understanding in his 60s that Israel was an apartheid state from its early history of ethnic cleansings and he ought to pursue Israeli crimes in the memory of his own relatives who had died in the Holocaust– is one that other Americans, particularly Jews, should endeavor to walk.

Michael was a good friend; he steered my work and my wife’s prison organization, and his sharp wit and insights into character made him delightful company. But what defined his life was that he was an action figure. Ratner didn’t like armchair analysis or pontification. He understood from his own father’s death when he was a teenager that we’re not here very long and we should throw ourselves into the causes and concerns and communities we care about. There was an innocence about Michael’s engagement–I will never forget him saying, when Richard Goldstone recanted a key portion of his Gaza report in 2011, “In the end you can only count on the peasants and the workers”–but also a hardheadedness from his many years of practice at the fringes of the mainstream, including a lot of losses in federal court.

In this memoir, Ratner offers a frank and often humorous recounting of losses and victories in a long career in which he changed the meaning of human rights law.

A strong family background gave Ratner a foundation for his work but also surely held him back from criticizing Israel at first. The “close-knit ties of the Ratners–a sort of internal communism–had enabled my father and his siblings to take their first steps in business… And that unbreakable solidarity and family loyalty gave us all security,” Ratner writes.

The author’s father Harry Ratowzer was 18 in 1920, when he and most of his family immigrated from Bialystok to the U.S. because a communist government in Poland was going to nationalize the family weaving business. In Cleveland, the Ratowzers changed their name to Ratner, and Harry built a very successful business of his own–“housing complexes, shopping centers and mini-malls.”

The privileged upbringing gave Michael Ratner, who was born in 1943, an understanding of how the world worked. Police officers came to his father’s building supply yard and got free or heavily discounted supplies. “To the extent that my brother and I ever had trouble with the cops, it would always disappear very quickly,” he writes. And none of the six Ratner boys in the extended family went into the army during the Vietnam era. All received deferments.

The lesson was obvious: young men of privilege would not have to fight this war.

That moral awareness guided Ratner’s choices as a relentless advocate for victims of state violence. For instance, he threw himself into the Attica prison uprising and killings in 1971, but could not compel the state to do an investigation and prosecution, and the reason was obvious:

The prisoners killed were African-American and Latino. The killers were white.

Or when his colleague Judy Berkan trespassed on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico to document the American military base and bombing range there, she won her case on a technicality and wasn’t jailed. “[T]he court was reluctant to jail a respected white attorney,” Ratner observes.

Jewish privilege took longer for Ratner to examine. The oldest child of three, he was shaped by Jewish tradition. His family kept kosher, he went often to synagogue. Education was the highest value; young Ratner would go on to Brandeis and Columbia Law School. Israeli leaders visited the family house.

Fundraising for Israel never ceased in our household… By the time I was 13, our family had invested in several projects in Israel.

That was 1956, and Ratner’s first trip to Israel was consequential: he fell in love with the “intoxicating” country.

I thought of [Israel] as the home of my people. I had my bedroom ceiling painted with the seven wonders of the world and a huge map of Israel. I had no idea how my view of Israel would change later in life.

Ratner visited Israel a second time as a young man and confesses he had no idea “that the land I was walking on had just a few years earlier been populated by another people. I knew nothing about Palestinians.”

No one in his world ever said a word about Palestinians. So even as he was radicalized by the Vietnam War, Ratner regarded Israel as “the last refuge of a besieged Jewish minority fighting for its survival…. I fundraised for Israel in the wake of the 1967 war without a second thought.”

The Holocaust played an important part in this understanding. “Two months after my birth, Nazi soldiers destroyed the ghetto in my father’s hometown of Bialystok.” More than 100 members of his family were killed, including many people his father knew. Ratner was raised to “love, respect, and revere everything to do with our large Jewish family”–and hate all things German.

I remember my first visit to Ratner’s house in Greenwich Village when he pointed out the the large Leon Golub painting on his wall of soldiers committing human rights abuses and told me that Golub had once explained what it meant to be a leftwing Jew in America: you don’t ever look at Palestine.

Ratner delighted in Golub’s irony, but he was too serious a person not to look himself. In 2009 when the Goldstone Report came out on the Gaza onslaught of earlier that year, he was stunned by the findings and set about to commission a book on the landmark report (one that I helped edit). Three months later he flew with family to Egypt to join the Gaza Freedom March.

Then when we were prevented from entering Gaza, Ratner went on to Israel for the third time in his life. He relates the shock to his readers:

If there was one moment when I finally let go of the connection I’d had with Israel since childhood, it came in 2010 on a visit to the occupied territories in the West Bank…. Deep down, like many American Jews, I still had a powerful emotional tie to Israel. That changed forever when, at 66 yerars old, I finally saw the reality on the ground for myself.

Ratner’s speech at the Judson Memorial Church when he returned was memorable for its emotional directness. There was never any pretense or digression in Ratner’s speeches, no need to hear his own voice. On that occasion he recounted his visit to Ma’ale Adumim, the huge settlement a couple miles east of Jerusalem, and described the suburban feel of the place, the fountains, the swimming pool, the transplanted ancient olive trees taken from Palestinians–and contrasted it to the ghettoized neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem and the frightening military checkpoints. That led to a political understanding: There was never going to be a Palestinian state. Israel had made that determination.

Again, this was after one visit. I wish liberal Zionists had even a fraction of Ratner’s presence of mind.

In this memoir, Ratner says he was shocked to see an apartheid state. “It was all so intentional, so cruel.” It was “difficult” for him to acknowledge, he writes, that Israel never wanted peace with the Palestinians, but to “eliminate” them from the Jewish state.

What I still don’t understand is how anybody in the world today, whether Jewish or not, can accept or defend these illegal, brutal policies.

To truly remember and honor the lessons of the Holocaust would be to end the apartheid system that is the Israel of today.

Of course, Palestine was but one aspect of Ratner’s career. His love of action began when he was a law student working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and showed his boss his Chemical Bank credit card statement, which failed to disclose interest rates. LDF sued Chemical Bank with Ratner, on behalf of a class of 130,000 people, and though Chemical Bank was found to have violated the law, the federal court denied the class action and Ratner won only token fees for the lengthy effort.

He learned a life lesson.

When I saw a serious legal violation that interested me, I pursued it swiftly and relentlessly, rarely hesitating even if the case was not the strongest on the law. I almost always believed it was better to act than not to act.

At that time, Ratner was radicalized by the New York police crackdown on the Columbia student occupation. The Vietnam war was so devastating and wrong “that mass demonstrations had to be supplemented with civil disobedience and a refusal to allow business to continue as usual,” he writes.

This memoir serves as a guide to other activists because Ratner is so honest about personal complexities. He was never able to resolve the clash between his pacifist personality and his militant sympathies, or between his bourgeois lifestyle and commitment to economic justice. “[M]y sympathies were with the most militant students, especially the Weathermen.” Though he makes clear:

I didn’t believe in every action the Weathermen engaged in, and I have never countenanced killing people… But I had no problem with symbolic bombings in which no one was injured.

The understanding that the U.S. was the bad guy in global events guided his work, Ratner would later tell me. The thread is plain in this memoir. If he had any doubts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that the U.S. was “‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,’ by June 1968 they had been decisively dispelled.”

Ratner joined the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and worked there for more than 40 years, on many legendary cases. For instance, he filed a suit against the federal government over its racist set of laws allowing outsiders to buy up lands in the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. Working with Winona LaDuke, Ratner was able to return 1200 acres into Ojibwe/Native American hands.

He also pursued the military dictator Hector Gramajo of Guatemala for human rights violations, serving him with papers at the Harvard graduation. (Gramajo was at the Kennedy School.) Ratner represented a young Guatemalan in California who had barely escaped the slaughter of his family in 1982. “Just re-reading the affidavits gave me nightmares.” Ratner won $47 million for the plaintiffs that Gramajo never paid; but the case ended Gramajo’s bid for the Guatemalan presidency.

Ratner sometimes felt he was tilting at windmills, but one morning when he was sleeping on a couch at Yale Law School doing an all nighter on a case for Haitian refugees, he overheard two professors agreeing that Harold Koh, his co-litigator, was “too involved as an advocate. He has lost his objectivity.” That elitist aloofness confirmed Ratner on his path.

At the end of the Haitian case, he was at the airport as a plane flew in from Guantanamo with the refugees who had survived nearly two years of miserable detention, suffering from HIV.

When they saw us, they pumped their triumphant fists in the air, and I cried.

At other times he laughs at himself. In Cuba in 1973 he came to see himself as “part of this worldwide struggle for socialism and equality–and though it may seem naive today, we thought we were winning.” He thought U.S. imperialism was on the decline.

That outlook made him doctrinaire at times. Ratner faults himself for opposing the American Indian Movement’s support for the indigenous people who were combating the Sandinistas. As president of the National Lawyers Guild, he condemned them. “The actions of some people in AIM and on the Atlantic coast [of Nicaragua] are harming the revolution during a war. You are an enemy of all humankind.” The lawyer was being “intemperate and dogmatic, to say the least,” he reflects.

His hero Daniel Ortega turned out to be self-aggrandizing and opportunistic. And Ratner came to realize that “broad social movements and grassroots groups make change, not charismatic heroes.”

Ratner’s focus shifted after 9/11, as did America’s. The “war on terror” meant that the U.S. took its eyes off Latin America and Central America. “Only after the attacks of September 11… were some of the countries in Latin America able to establish governments that benefited their people,” he notes.

Toward the end of his career he was advocating for Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond, “truthtellers” who Ratner says admiringly were able to do with leaks what CCR was unable to do in the courts, where federal judges dismissed suits and discovery motions again and again.

The Middle East is where Ratner’s legacy is most palpable for me. In the last years of his life, he helped Dima Khalidi establish Palestine Legal, a formidable force in the pursuit of anti-Palestinian racism in the U.S. “It is no exaggeration to say that Palestine Legal exists because of Michael,” Khalidi wrote at his death five years ago.

His prescient recognition of the growing need for a legal response to the intense backlash against advocates for Palestinian rights in the U.S. led to the founding of Palestine Legal.

To do so, Michael Ratner needed to examine his most personal political adherences and cast them aside. Facts had broken in on his childhood beliefs; and he was honest and in the moment. That transformation was an epiphany in an important life, and a charmed one too.

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