On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Ratner tells Paul Jay of his journey – from seeing Israel as an extension of his Jewish identity to realizing Israel was a settler, colonial state.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
Welcome to part two of our series of interviews with Michael Ratner on Reality Asserts Itself. And Michael joins us again in the studio.
How are you doing, Michael?
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be back with you, Paul.
JAY: So, one more time, Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He’s chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s currently the American legal representative for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. And he’s also author of the book Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in 21st-Century America. And the whole biography of Michael will be down below the video player, at least a part of it. He’s lived way too much life to put it all there.
So we’re going to pick up our discussion, Michael. I want to pick up a thread of something that came from part one, the extent to which Israel, your Jewish identity, was part of your identity. Your–it was a piece of your psychology. Talk about just how much it meant to you growing up. And then we’re going to kind of go to how that started to change.
RATNER: I mean, my identity growing up was in part family. It was a immigrant family, so the eight brothers and sisters. Most of them lived in Cleveland. We ate dinner together every Saturday night, actually. And it was partly a security against being different than the other people around us, an immigrant family. Part of it was a heavy Jewish identity, for sure. We all went to temple. It was all part of our lives. It wasn’t orthodox, but it was a Jewish identity for sure.
JAY: Did your parents speak Yiddish at home?
RATNER: They spoke Yiddish till I was about four or five. And they spoke Yiddish always when they didn’t want us to understand. But they didn’t really–it’s one of my great regrets that I don’t speak Yiddish. I mean, of course, as most immigrant kids–. My wife is Italian. One of her great regrets is her parents didn’t teach her Italian. But that was the way it was. But they did. And, in fact, my mother, she used to tell me, when she first went to school she called a fork, I think, a /mAz’leI/, which is, I think, the Yiddish word for fork. She didn’t know any English when she went to school, I don’t think. So the Jewish identity was quite important.
And, of course, Israel became a state in ’48, and, you know, it was after the Holocaust, and that was something that at least a certain–not all Jews were involved in it. Some Jews didn’t think it was a good idea, even in Cleveland. But my family, we never had a discussion. It was just assumed Israel’s a good thing, we have to support it, we have to help it with, you know, its affairs, whether it’s business or giving money or putting money in that little blue box and planting trees and forests and all this.
And you never heard a word about Palestinians. I mean, not a word. I mean, you know, I had movies, black and white movies when I was a kid, ’cause we had a projector, and there were pictures that I remember of at least some tents that some Palestinians lived in that were in a refugee camp, probably in Gaza. But that’s the most that I recall.
And then the books we read–you know, at that point there was huge propaganda about Israel, I mean, what I now call propaganda. So I read Exodus, which is a Leon Uris book, which I stayed home from school to finish ’cause it was such a good book, in my view, then. But, of course, it’s about Palestinians, as I recall, you know, raping or abusing–I think raping, you know, a Jewish-Israeli woman. And it’s part of the whole propaganda narrative of that.
JAY: And that becomes a movie with Paul Newman.
RATNER: Right, and then becomes a movie, and etc. So this is a period when the state of Israel was pushed and pushed, and not just by Israelis, I think, I mean, not just by the Jewish people in the U.S., but by others as well.
JAY: It’s an important point. And you say you weren’t aware of it, and probably most Jewish families weren’t aware, but it was a real debate, the idea there was a big movement to allow Jewish refugees that were sitting in refugee camps in Europe to come to the United States. And there was a lot of anti-Semitic racist opposition to letting them in. But the Zionist organizations were against allowing Jewish refugees to come to the United States. And, in fact, there’s a quote from Truman where he says, I don’t understand it, I’m willing to stick my neck out–’cause he himself, I think, was fairly anti-Semitic, but surrounded by anti-Semites–and he says, I’m willing to stick my neck out and let the Jewish refugees in, and I’m meeting with the Zionist organizations and they’re telling me not to do it.
RATNER: And there’s a new book, apparently, about Truman’s relationship to how he was willing to recognize Israel, and it’s, again, a huge push by Jewish community people. He himself was probably not in favor of it.
And within the Jewish community there was some debate not just about the refugees, but there were Jews who felt this is not a good idea–why are we doing this, there’s another people there, this is going to hurt Jews in the whole world to do something like this. So there was debate. But we were not aware of it. Even in Cleveland there was debate, but not something that came into my family.
In 1956, I went to Israel for two months. I was 13 years old. It was obviously a bar mitzvah present of some sort. And I have nothing but incredibly wonderful memories of it. You know, it was a new country. You didn’t really see Palestinians. You just saw beautiful desert and ruins and big beaches. And, you know, I–and, you know, just it was–and there was all the places that I thought that my actual ancestors walked on. And it was–I was a 13-year-old kid.
JAY: So there’s a real sense of identity, continuity.
RATNER: I came back, really, romantically, you know, in love with the place. And anyway. So it was really important. I came back. I even painted a picture of a map of Israel on my room and I had all the songs and all of that. And that was not completely unusual for people of my generation who were Jewish.
JAY: You go again in ’61.
RATNER: I go again in ’61 with my family. I’m still pretty–I’m still quite involved in Israel–not in any sense thinking about it all the time, but I’m–still don’t have any politics around the issue. And I went with probably some cousins and some others. And that’s the one thing I do remember on that, and it’s still what Israel would say today. We went into the prime minister’s office, and just as a visit, I think. Just they took tourists or people in there. And there’s a map, really, that’s got to be 40 feet across and 25 feet high of the Middle East. It’s the Mediterranean and the Middle East. All the countries are a certain color, I think brown. Israel is, like, a dot in the middle and is blue. And, of course, what Israel–what that map is trying to say is, we are a beleaguered country, and everybody around us is trying to kill us, and that’s why we need support. Another way [incompr.] look at [incompr.] look at it today is this was an outpost of, you know, a Western settler colony in the Middle East that’s only going to face toward Europe. But that’s not what that map was about. This was something else. So that was ’61.
JAY: Okay. So how do you get from that kid to an adult sitting here who will say a sentence like that?
RATNER: With great difficulty, but not anymore at all, but with great difficulty during that period, because at the ’67 War, which was the war in which Israel took the occupied territories, took also Sinai, as well as the Golan Heights, I think, that’s the war that began to change my opinion. I didn’t really understand what that war was about, and I really didn’t understand the taking of Palestinian territory. I mean, they already took a lot in ’48, but that wasn’t something that I was conscious of. But in ’67 I was conscious that there were millions of Palestinians living in what we call the West Bank and now the occupied territories, and that Israel had just captured it and had captured Sinai; and that because I had an emerging sense, I think, that people have a right to self-determination.
JAY: Yeah, why didn’t you buy the–the argument was: this war was forced on Israel, and these occupation was necessary for defensive measures. Why didn’t you buy that?
RATNER: You know, it didn’t make any sense to me, because I just thought Israel was so powerful and that it didn’t seem right to me that they needed the entire West Bank for their defense. And I can’t say it was very well formulated. It was an intellectual feeling that this is wrong that they’re taking all these Palestinians and they’re making them into–and they’re occupiers, essentially. But that was an intellectual feeling. Emotionally, I couldn’t break with my attachment. It was very hard. And so–and I think what I would say–and it’s probably true of more Jews than we think: I was probably disabled from really speaking out because of that conflict, because I understood that what was going on in the Middle East and with Israel was wrong, that it was acting as a settler imperialist country. I may not have had the language at that point in ’67 to say that, but that’s what I understood. And my emotions were still so strongly tied to this is the land of my people–and probably the Holocaust, but particularly the land of my people–and I–we all have tons of relatives in Israel.
JAY: So how does that start to change for you?
RATNER: I mean, I think it starts to change when I put the U.S., and Israel in particular, into a broader movement, a broader politics that I began to develop, particularly, I think, around Vietnam, most likely, because Vietnam, as we talked about, starts–you know, it starts early in my career at college, it goes through law school and, you know, through mid ’60s and ’70s, and there was the first–my real awakening that the U.S. is just an immoral country. And perhaps–and the U.S. is at that point still a very big supporter of Israel. And I started now to examine some of the assumptions I had growing up, main one being that the U.S. is a moral country that’s going to do good for all people in the world.
JAY: The Kennedyesque vision.
RATNER: I guess I would call it the Kennedyesque vision. And there’s still much conflict about how accurate that view of his vision is. And I think that Israel then got filled in into that.
And as they developed over the next years, through the ’70s and into the ’80s, I really began to see Israel–I mean, I looked at what Israel had been doing. It was, you know, supporting apartheid in South Africa. As I worked in the ’80s in Central America, it was, you know, training, sending trainers into Argentina and other places to train people like the Contras who were fighting against, you know, the liberation movements in Nicaragua and then in other places. So I began to see that Israel’s role was one which I just found completely unacceptable from my broader anti-imperialist politics.
JAY: Speaking out as a Jew openly critiquing Israel, especially–. When do you get to New York?
RATNER: Oh, by 1966, I’m in New York, ’67.
JAY: Yeah. So, I mean, particularly in New York, to be a Jew going through law school, to speak openly and critically of Israel, it’s not an easy thing to do, even now, but especially then. At first you describe being kind of confused yourself or a little ambivalent or trying to make sense of it. But when it starts to get clear for you, when do you start to speak out, and how big a deal is that?
RATNER: Well, you know, even today, as you said, it’s still–New York can be very difficult, and people get harassed for it or they get their speaking engagements canceled. I’ve just seen two or three this week, but in New York, where they just say, we’re not going to have this speaker, you know, we’re going to have to wrap it in this or that and with another speaker. So it’s still very difficult.
When I started really speaking out with knowledge, I would say probably not till quite late, probably till the ’80s, where I felt I was, you know, smart enough to really–knew enough to really be able to speak out. Getting to know Palestinians was probably very important on that, you know, on that adventure, and also because I was in such a progressive community by that time of anti [incompr.] call them anti-imperialists, and, you know, particularly around the Central America wars, that I think that that allowed me a certain sense of freedom, because I had a community that would protect me. It wasn’t just me going out there and speaking. It was a community of people [crosstalk]
JAY: Is there a moment where you can remember or a period where you kind of really let go of that part of you?
RATNER: [incompr.] that I really let go of it. I really–I mean, I mean, this is a strong issue for me. I mean, you know, I think the final–I mean, it was way before, because I had tried to go on a trip to Gaza, maybe ten, seven, eight years ago, and we couldn’t get into Gaza. I was with Code Pink, one of your former people here. Actually, Medea led the trip, Medea Benjamin. And we couldn’t get in. And so I was with my children, who always were raised very progressive on Israel. So by that time it was obvious from the beginning my kids were 25 and 24. So that means at least 25 years ago, when they were born, they never heard, really, anything good about Israel or about what it was doing or what the U.S. was doing to Israel. But we took them. They wanted to go to Gaza. We couldn’t get in. We flew to–it was the first time I’d been–we flew to Tel Aviv and then went to the West Bank, went to Jerusalem and went to the West Bank. And they were–I never spent any time in Israel itself. And that was astonishing. I mean, if there’s–if you ever want to talk to anybody about Palestine and Israel, just send them to Hebron and see one of the most discriminatory, outrageous treatment of human beings you will ever see, with small little pockets of Israeli Jews in the middle of a huge, thriving Palestinian community and what it has done to that Palestinian community. People threw rocks at us. We were there with a Palestinian, and they threw rocks at my children. And my children talked to other young kids who had the heck beaten out of them by the few Jewish settlers that were in Hebron. And from that point on–I mean, before then, obviously, I was quite incredibly progressive, but now, I mean, I don’t think there’s any rational argument to make about what Israel has done, not just in the occupied territories, but of course in Israel itself.
JAY: And we interviewed Michael when he came back from that trip, and we’ll put a link to that interview somewhere around this video box.
RATNER: I forgot that, Paul.
JAY: Yeah, we–I think it was just within a few weeks we had–and we had all your photographs and such.
JAY: So that was the final moment for you?
RATNER: I think going to Hebron was the final moment where I felt really confident enough having seen it to write about it and to really talk about it.
JAY: How did it sit with your siblings (you have a brother, a sister who grew up in the same household with the same kind of influences) and other parts of your family?
RATNER: I mean, it–you know, my family is very varied. It has everybody from–you know, I have a huge family. I’d say probably 100–you know, I had eight brothers and my father had eight brothers and sisters, so there’s 25 first cousins just on my father’s side. There’s probably–you know, there’s 100. And so it varies like any community varies, I think, and you have people who, you know, have a heavy belief in the state of Israel and the Jewish state of Israel, and then you have people in the middle who believe in–you know, that it’s completely–the occupation being–is just outrageous, but Israel itself should be able to be there and it’s not so bad and it is a democracy there. And then you have people, fewer, like me, that are–you know, that just believe–ultimately believe that [incompr.] one-state solution, that this should be an equal–equal citizenship for every single person there and it will go back to ’48 and what happened in ’48 when 700 villages were cleansed and all that. So I’d say like any family it varies–particularly Jewish families–it varies along a wide spectrum. And I would be, certainly, on the far end of that spectrum. Within my immediate family, I’m quite liberal about the issue.