Michael Ratner, who died yesterday in New York, cared only about action. He had no interest in people who weren’t trying to change society structurally. He was outgoing and could talk to anyone anywhere but he didn’t like liberals or puffery or trivia. He surrounded himself with people who were committed to real change, and had a sense of humor, and he pushed them to action. He was the opposite of big talk. He enjoyed laughter and teasing and the human comedy and his wife Karen’s garden. But when it came to work he was completely serious.
This site would not be here if he had not been there early on and later on too: to tell Adam and me, when he wasn’t teasing us, that we were filling a need. When he read the Goldstone Report seven years ago and saw the repeated references to indiscriminate bombing and actual targeting of civilians he grasped the landmark moment and called us to some diner and said we had to make a book of it, and so we did. He was the exact opposite of Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power who at every turn brag about their work against the biased Goldstone Report. He saw the truth and held it up for others to see. He took his kids to the Gaza Freedom March too.
He was hard on liberalism, because he said it didn’t make the difference. He got angry at me when I supported the Libyan intervention in 2011 and never let me forget it. He said there was a flaw in my thinking that I could support such a thing. He wanted to go over it with me again and again. He was like a bulldog; he sensed the bourgeois wishywashy compromiser in me. His rule was that it was never good when the United States got militarily involved in a foreign country. He had seen it in South America and Central America and in Asia too. He was clearthinking and fascinated by the world and on issues of principle you couldn’t bend him.
Much more than his big obit in the New York Times today, it would make Michael happy to know that an inmate in Eastern Prison who called our house this morning said Michael was beloved in upstate prisons for his radio show Law and Disorder. He got my wife into prison work five years ago through his connections to the Bard Prison Initiative, and when her best student got thrown in solitary on arbitrary grounds and the program couldn’t take a stand, he said of course you have to leave, and he helped her take up the case and start her own initiative working with prisoners. They got that man out of solitary. For a few weeks I heard my wife and him on the phone every day. Then not. That was Michael. He liked action. He helped others to walk their talk.
Michael became a big deal by sticking to his work for so long, but he never acted like it. I met him ten years ago and we walked the anti-Zionist path together, with humility. He gave me permission to speak in a way that my family was incapable of doing. He was emotional when he related something his friend the late painter Leon Golub said. Michael had a monumental painting on his wall of human rights atrocities in El Salvador by Golub and he said that when someone asked Golub what is a Jewish artist, he said, An artist who says nothing about Israel. Michael was resolved not to be that way. He came from a big Cleveland family that had played a role in the foundation of Israel, but that was not going to blinder him to reality. When he went out there and saw the splashy fountains and the stolen 500-year-old olive trees in East Jerusalem Jewish settlements, he was staggered and upset and gave a wrenching speech about apartheid and the death of a dream at Judson Memorial Church. He saw years ago that there was just one state. He was open about the differences in his own family, and by being honest, he took away the power of those bonds on his thinking. You can see what he said about his journey here.
Today it is hard for anyone to say what his greatest accomplishment was, apart from his closeknit family and friendships. All the obits are struggling to pick one thing. In the last couple of years he helped start Palestine Legal because he saw the next frontier. That is a huge legacy right there. He didn’t have even latent Jewish snobbery; he believed in diversity. “Getting to know Palestinians was very important on [my] adventure,” he said; and he was determined that others should have that experience. He helped build a community of values and support.
When friends disappointed him he was straightforward about it but forgiving too. When Richard Goldstone recanted part of his report and I called Michael in helplessness, he sighed and said, Look, you can’t count on elites, Lenin said, in the end it is the peasants and the workers who will be with you. Later he was agonized and outraged about his alma mater Brandeis University’s decision to sever relations with Al Quds University– and quit a board over it. He didn’t like it when people made excuses for Brandeis, or tried to argue their side. He had clear lines, and he hated backroom arrangements; he was interested in public stands and accountability.
Michael was layered. He understood that he was from a privileged background but that only gave him an obligation to help others. He knew life was complicated, he knew how to enjoy himself. At his place upstate he had street signs on the trails from his childhood neighborhood in Cleveland. He knew Holocaust history but he knew it was history. He was always getting to his memoir but he reckoned that he was less important than Julian Assange and Kathy Boudin and Dima Khalidi and the work of his children Jake and Ana.
The desolating thing about Michael’s death personally for those who counted him a friend is the loss of this valiant and humorous soul. He was always fun to be around. I will miss that like hell. But for people involved in social change the wider loss is his public spirit and generosity to others’ causes. He believed in doing things not contemplating them. He was idealistic: he actually believed he could leave the world a better place than he found it, and he did.