by Gilles d'Aymery
Frances & Philip Greenspan, Spring Valley, NY, May 22, 2005
© 2005 Susan Magnano
Reproduced by courtesy of the author
"I believe that most people are instinctively opposed to violence and war."
—Philip Greenspan, January 14, 2008
(Swans - February 25, 2008) It was early morning, Wednesday, February 20, 2008, when I learned the news that I did not want to hear, yet had been expecting for the past three weeks. It came in a short e-mail message sent by Jerry Rubenfeld, Philip Greenspan's son-in-law. It read:
"Dear Gilles: Philip Greenspan took his last breath early this morning at about 12:10 AM [EST]. The family has been very proud of him for his contributions to the peace (antiwar) and human rights movements. We thank you for encouraging him, and for giving his ideas such broad exposure."
There, in the midst of distress, Jerry encapsulated in a few words the very fibers Philip (Phil) Greenspan embodied. Not only had he found the time to notify me of Phil's passing, he was graciously acknowledging my work. Here is what I imagine Phil would have written had he been in the position to do so: "Dear Gilles: I'm sorry if I pain you and Jan or disappoint you, but I had to journey to the other side. I thank you so much for all you did for me. [And he may have added wittily,] We'll meet again! Warmest regards from Phil and Fran." (We never met en chair et en os...). Phil epitomized humanness, compassion, generosity, an innate sense of justice, a yearning for knowledge and moral worthiness, and the ever-embedded gratitude toward fellow human beings, all qualities that personify the soul and the culture of Judaism. In all the commentaries he wrote over a period of almost seven years -- 129 of them -- not once did one iota of bitterness transpire. Not once. Neither did he carry one ounce of meanness on his body. Love and that ever-elusive struggle for peace and social justice were his pain quotidien.
I won't relate here the early days of his involvement with Swans. Phil wrote about them in A Review Of Prior Thoughts on the occasion of our -- his -- publication's 10th anniversary, an article in which he demonstrated once again his modesty, generosity, steadfastness, and immense loyalty. However, his good-natured personality was matched with a free spirit, a steely yet fair-minded intellect, and a set of very strong convictions that he never hesitated to deploy either in his private or public writing. He certainly was not afraid to express his contrary views or objections when he disapproved of an editorial choice or a position taken by this writer. We had three main points of contention: Conspiracy theories, the Israel (or Jewish) lobby, and the validity of voting in US presidential elections. While we saw eye to eye on many issues, these three were like a friendly thorn in our respective sides -- and outlooks.
I recall his e-mail of July 30, 2002, in which he strongly objected to a piece I had written in the midst of a crisis on Swans. "I must respectfully disagree with some unexpected comments in 'Primum Non Nocere'," he began, before continuing with some pretty blunt assumptions that I had to have been "intimidated by the powerful Jewish lobby" and asserting that my views of conspiracy theories were erroneous, to say the least -- he who had already articulated his sentiments regarding 9/11 in Unlikely Suspect and would much later confess to being a "Conspiracy Theory Nut." I clearly remember that after having sent a strong rebuttal I remarked to co-editor Jan Baughman, "Hear, hear, we've just lost another contributor." (It's an unfortunate reality that the cause for many a contributor's disappearance has often been a disagreement with my views or editorial choices.) But with Phil I could not have been more incorrect. Three weeks later, he sent me his wonderful essay on Cuba that he had written in the wake of his and Fran's trip to the island. I quickly learned that a spirited disagreement did not mean disrespect or rejection of the holder of the opinion he opposed.
Far from separating us our divergences on those issues brought us ever closer in respect and affection for each other. But for an early-on exception, I never, ever refused his work (and if memory serves he did eventually re-write that rejected piece and it was gladly published). He was considerate enough to mostly stay away from conspiracy pieces; and while I did not agree with his views on the Israel lobby and his contention that voting was a waste of time, I let him express himself to his heart's content on those two issues, for his opinions were always well constructed and I respected them.
Phil Greenspan was not a born "writer" and he came to the craft late in life. It never bothered me. Early on Jan Baughman and I used to re-write some of his work, send the altered version for his approval, which he would grant...or not. Quickly enough he trusted our judgment and let us bring some TLC to his writing without pre-approval. Yet, he did not shy away from alerting us to the few misconstrued editing errors -- for which editors are so famously known. In the rare occasions he'd simply say: "Gremlins Have Attacked My Essay!" or "What you re-wrote was not what I meant. Kindly change..." And change I'd do in a hurry. Over time, his writing skills improved considerably -- we are talking about a man who was in his late 70s and early 80s! -- and we simply enjoyed his style and the unordinary amount of research he did for his essays. He consistently made us feel proud of the work we did -- a pride that was reciprocated wholeheartedly.
His numerous, highly controversial essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were a case in point for my admiration. He often was vilified as a vicious anti-Israel, self-hating Jew for the positions he took, when, in truth, he was a highly self-loving Jew, but utterly antagonistic to political Zionism and the dire consequences Zionist national and colonial expansion exerted (and exerts) on the well being of Palestinians. While he never addressed the raison d'être of his fierce opposition to Zionism, except, perhaps, tangentially in The Dream That Turned Into A Nightmare, one can surmise that beside his long-held sense of social justice -- the defense of the weak against the powerful -- his stand was rooted in the ancient values of Judaism. I think Phil was deeply, personally offended by the repressive, violent, and expansionist policies of all the successive Israeli governments since 1948. They were anathema to his notion of being Jewish. Not only did he consider that post-1973 Israel was detrimental to the Diaspora, I would contend at the risk of falling into facile caricature that he was ashamed by his brethren for having betrayed the tenants of his Judaic culture -- again, humanness, compassion, generosity, an innate sense of justice, a yearning for knowledge and moral worthiness, and the ever-embedded gratitude toward fellow human beings. I admired his courage and his tenacity in denouncing the injustice perpetrated against other human beings in the name of a fallacious narrative (or multiple narratives).
Affection, respect, admiration aside, I also envied him tremendously for his activism, a proactive pursuit that I've shamelessly (talk about facile caricature) never joined. Phil, from the day he retired in 1995, became an unabashedly political, antiwar, and peace & justice activist in the tradition of the old Left. There was no demonstration he would miss, no pamphlet he would not distribute, no video he would not showcase, no local politician he would not engage, no Letter to the Editor of his local paper he would not write, no article for Swans he would pass. He was relentless in his advocacy for a better world in which the people would prevail against all the powers that be -- the democracy of the people, as he would dub his calling. Rain or shine, hail, snow, or scorching heat would not stop him from walking the streets of Spring Valley, New York, the bowels of the Big Apple, or the mall of Washington D.C., to display one of his favorite signs, "PEACE Takes COURAGE." A strained wrist, a bad fall resulting in a damaged knee, a cataract surgery, the broken hip of Fran, his wife of 50-some years, would not stop him. "Here is my submission, Gilles. Sorry, it's not as polished as it should be and may not be up to par, but I had to confront a small inconvenience..." I suppose he must have apologized for being late to his weekly antiwar standup meeting -- "sorry friends..." But he sure was there, as he was filing his latest submission. Nothing stopped him. Nothing.
When I showed remorse for not being an activist, Phil would affectionately chide me and point to the work Jan and I did on Swans. "If this not activism, then my name is not Phil Greenspan," he'd write or tell me in our occasional but too rare phone conversations. Phil actually was the closest personification of the type of relationship I had envisioned, or hoped for, when I launched Swans in May 1996 -- that people of various walks of life all over the world would come together to advance an agenda encompassing peace & justice, and would work for a social order that would benefit all life, not just the very few at the top of the food chain. Yes, I know, it looks rather naïve, and its realization has been spotty at best or did not turn out as expected, but Phil was a living proof of that possibility. Over the distance, past the mounts and valleys of the struggle, in total respect and with the ability to compromise, Phil demonstrated time and again that the odds were on our side. In the long chain of life the link with Phil was made of an indestructible bond, but for the Grim Reaper.
It is said in our macho, patriarchal barbwired world that behind a (great or not) man stands a woman and, sure enough, here was Fran, always standing at his side (or was he standing at hers?). Phil did not just love his wife he revered her. He called her the "Boss." She was his pillar, the foundation upon which his house of thoughts and actions was built. Nothing he'd write would be sent to Swans without Fran's green light. A piece he felt feeble at most would find its way to my e-mail box because the Boss said it should -- and the Boss was inevitably correct. When Fran suffered a fracture hip on the third day of a cruise they were taking from Canada to New England in late May 2003, Phil did not miss the beat. He contributed another piece as Fran wanted him to do. She recuperated, though was straddled with arthritis. Never mind, she was walking the streets with the aid of a cane. Together they walked, together they talked, but if Phil was the writer Fran was as much a guardian of Swans as Phil ever was. Love is as genderless as it is timeless and functionless.
In the past six to eight months Phil became increasingly busy. He was running all around to share his message of peace and justice. His submissions were coming all right, but increasingly with the caveat that he had not had sufficient time to refine his work. His rush was evident and I kept asking him to take it easy, to contribute once a month instead of every fortnight. Perhaps he sensed what I could not know...
How could I have foreseen on January 14, 2008 when I wrote "Only death, imprisonment, or bad illness would stop them from being there" (the northwest corner of Route 59 and Middletown Road in Nanuet in Rockland County, New York, to protest the war in Iraq) that a week later he would be hospitalized and gone within one month?
On February 11, 2008, Phil gave me a last treat I shall never forget. He was back home from the hospital. I had called to get the latest assessment on his condition. He could not get to the phone right away. Fran asked me to hang up and assured me he would call back as he wanted to talk to me. He did within minutes. His voice was crisp and as always joyful. He seemed (I emphasize "seemed") hopeful that everything would be fine, that he would beat the scythe of the Angel of Death. Time and again, as I was relating my affection, he kept thanking me for everything I had done for him. He said we'd talk again soon, when he gets better. Ever young he was, still dreaming -- always ever generous.
I've done so very little to bring him to the fore that it's more than past time someone would tell him the truth. Allow me to be that one. Thank you Phil for all you did and represented. You were a magnificent, inspirational, and loving human being. THANK YOU!
Here the night is peaceful, the sky cloudless, the moon shining to her fullest. There, on her bright face, I can swear I saw Phil waving at me, smiling... It must have been a dream.
Au revoir, mon bon ami.