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Michael Ratner, Prominent Human Rights Lawyer, Describes His Alienation From Zionism and Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2021

Michael Ratner, a prominent human rights lawyer who was president of the  
Center for Constitutional Rights, died in 2016 at the age of 72. His  
posthumous memoir, “Moving The Bar: My Life As A Radical Lawyer,” was  
published in May 2021. In it, he details his one-time commitment to Zionism  
and Israel and his growing alienation as he came to understand the manner in  
which Palestinians were being treated, which he characterized as  
In his legal career, he filed the first lawsuit in Rasul v. Bush,  
challenging wartime detentions at Guantanamo Bay. He was co-counsel  
representing the Guantanamo Bay detainees in the U.S. Supreme Court, which  
ruled for the detainees’ right to test the legality of their detention in  
U.S. courts.  
Discussing his memoir, Philip Weiss writes: “It offers an intimate  
narrative of his own transformation on the Palestinian question. 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 purse 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..”. (Mondoweiss, July  
8, 2021).  
Ratner was shaped by Jewish tradition. His family was committed to Zionism  
and to Israel. His family was engaged in fund-raising for Israel and  
invested in several Israeli projects. On his first trip to Israel in 1956,  
he writes, 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.”  
He visited Israel a second time as a young man and confessed that 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.” He  
recalled that no one in his world said a word about Palestinians. He  
regarded Israel “as the last refuge of a besieged Jewish minority fighting  
for its survival. I fund raised 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 ten members of his family were killed. Slowly,  
his view of Israel began to change. In 2009 when the U.N.’s Goldstone  
report detailed Israel's onslaught in Gaza, Ratner was stunned by its  
findings. He set about to commission a book on the landmark report and he  
flew with his family to Egypt to join the Gaza Freedom March. When he was  
prevented from entering Gaza, Ratner went on to Israel. He relates the  
shock to his readers: “If there was one moment when I finally let go of the  
connection I had with Israel since childhood, it came in 2010 on a visit to  
the occupied territories in the West Bank.”  
Ratner recalls that, “Deep down, like many American Jews, I still had a  
powerful emotional tie to Israel. That changed forever when at 66 years  
old, I finally saw the reality on the ground for myself.” On his return, he  
spoke at Judson Memorial Church in New York and recounted his visit to  
Ma’ale Adumim, the huge settlement several miles east of Jerusalem and  
described the fountains, swimming pools and the transplanted ancient olive  
trees taken from the Palestinians. He contrasted it with 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.”  
In his memoir, Ratner says he was shocked to see an apartheid state: “It  
was all so intentional, so cruel…what I still don’t understand is how  
anybody, whether Jewish or not, can defend these illegal, brutal policies.  
To truly honor and remember and honor the lessons of the Holocaust would be  
to end the apartheid system that is the Israel of today.” **

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