The Phish Factor

Trying to understand why so many lefties support Palestine.

I got more letters about a story I wrote for this paper three weeks ago—criticizing the Left for its unqualified and uncritical support of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians—than I have since 1995, when I spent a summer during college writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The topic then was a lot less important: a Phish double album. I got stuck reviewing it—despite my protests—because I was the only person on staff under 48 who didn't own Dockers and a polo shirt. I hate Phish and have a very low tolerance for fimo beads, funny knit hats, or stray unleashed dogs. The review I wrote, detailing my efforts over the course of several days to merely get through the album twice, reflected these biases. The subsequent deluge of several dozen enraged letters—which accused me of hating not just guitar jams but peace, love, and creativity (everything that Phish stood for)—astounded the editors of the arts section, who were not used to much attention.

In the intervening years, I've written on topics far more important and controversial than Phish—prisons, immigration law, and labor—but I've never received anywhere near that amount of letters or been accused of being opposed to the very notion of love.

In terms of predicting the amount of letters and quantity of vitriol therein, I've found it doesn't matter if what I've written is good, well researched, or wrong-headed; what matters is the Phish factor—the extent to which the reader's life and livelihood revolve around the issue discussed.

Phish fans followed the band from city to city and, with the help of mild hallucinogens, experienced feelings of connectedness and ecstasy at shows that they couldn't replicate elsewhere. Maligning a double album is an attack on their lifestyle and identity. It's not that 30 Phish fans read every issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and write in all the time. It's that if one reads an obviously ill-informed and obnoxious article about something that is so important to him, he'll pass it along to his friends, who all care as much as he does.

In the Middle East conflict, the Phish factor clearly applies to Jewish groups and Arab and Palestinian groups. No matter how innocuous or brief your mention of Israel—even if it's encoded in Pig Latin—you can count on two sanctimonious letters from mainstream Jewish organizations, one from a lefty Jew, and a couple from Arab-American lobbying groups or Palestinians living abroad. That's a no-brainer. But the majority of letters about my piece ("What Would King Solomon Do?" April 11) came from lefties whose ties to the region were not written all over their names. They also used the strongest language—calling me, for instance, a racist and a bigot. It took me by surprise, although it shouldn't have. The Palestinian conflict has become the Left's rallying cry: the cause they can all seem to agree on, the cause they see as making dissenters into racists. My question is: What's their Phish factor with Israel, the angle that affects and offends lefties personally enough to merit the time of a letter?

Is it that the Left has always vehemently protested attacks on Palestinians? Well, I haven't heard much recrimination from them against Kuwait's slaughter of around a third of a million Palestinians or Jordan's murder of thousands. Don't hear many attacks leveled against Lebanon, where Palestinians cannot apply for jobs, health care, or government services and are also extrajudicially killed. Certainly don't hear criticism of Arafat's own extrajudicial, televised slaughter of Palestinians thought to be informants.

Maybe the Left just has no tolerance for the occupation of Arab land? Well then, why no word about Syria, which controls far more land in Lebanon than Israel controls?

Perhaps Israel is the ally of the United States with the most egregious human rights violations in the Middle East? Pretty hard to compete with Saudi Arabia, where women are drowned in swimming pools in honor killings and thieves have their limbs cut off.

It must be that Israel is racist in a uniquely terrible way. Except . . . how? The people of Israel are Ethiopian, Iraqi, Russian, Spanish, French, Moroccan, and Tunisian. Anyone can convert to Judaism, so the idea of a Jewish state is hardly "racist" as the term is understood. Even if having a Jewish state were racist (in which case having all-black voting districts or special areas of sovereignty for Native Americans would also be racist), 30 other countries have restrictions on citizenship along ethnic lines.

Some of Israel's treatment of Israeli-Arabs is discriminatory, but a lot of that has to do with Israel having been at war with surrounding Arab states from the day the U.N. voted for partition of Palestine. Arab-Israeli citizens have the right to vote, to form political parties, to practice their religion freely, and to purchase land, which is a lot more than Jews have in most Arab countries. It's great to be vigilant about Israel's discrimination against Israeli-Arabs, but how about a little concern for Jordan, where Jews are not allowed to own land; Saudi Arabia, where they can't even enter many areas; and the Palestinian territories, where the sale of land to Jews is forbidden and those who do so have been executed?

Speaking of racism, a lecturer at King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia recently wrote in the newspaper Al-Riyadh that Jews make cakes out of Christian and Muslim children's blood, and The New York Times reported that a Jordanian government high-school textbook describes the Jews as "masters of usury and leaders of sexual exhibitionism and prostitution."

The evils of the rest of the world do not excuse anyone else's evils, and I think a lot of the Left's criticism of Israel is valid. I just can't help but wonder what the Phish factor is: why the Left doesn't apply any of this scrutiny to far worse cases of oppression and genocide, particularly in countries that are embroiled in conflict with Israel.

Or hell, to their own countries. Freaky-deaky ethnocentric European nationalism is on the rise and has been for a long time. And as far as I can tell, most American lefties live happily on soil taken by force from the Native Americans whose campaigns to regain sovereignty of their holy sites continue today, ignored. The American Left is far more directly culpable in this injustice and could apply a great deal more pressure at home if it cares so much about land seized in war, occupied, and not returned. And if the Left is so concerned with the civilian deaths incurred during retaliation for terrorism, why not head to Afghanistan, where our own terrorist retaliation (whose long-terms benefits are as questionable as those of the Israeli retaliation) happened safely from the sky instead of the ground?

Taken with the Left's silence about the outbreak of anti-Semitism internationally—the synagogue burnings in France and Tunisia; in Europe, the attacks on Jews in the streets, Jewish schools, and kosher butcher shops and the defacing of Jewish graves with swastikas—the vigilance about Israel is a bit disturbing.

Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote a piece about the anti-Semitism in Europe and discussed a particular Italian protest. It featured activists dressed like suicide bombers, holding photographs of Israeli leaders with swastikas drawn on their foreheads; Bishop Hilarion Capucci attended and lauded the "martyrs."

Fallaci said, "I see in all this the rise of a new fascism, a new Nazism that is much more grim and revolting because it is conducted and nourished by those who hypocritically pose as do-gooders, progressives, communists, pacifists. . . . "

It is probably emotionally satisfying for Europeans and Americans to claim that Jews, whose mass slaughter the Western world thoroughly ignored, are now engaging in the same practice they feel guilty for tolerating. I think that's at least part of what's going on when Berkeley's Students for Justice in Palestine stage their protests on Holocaust Remembrance Day and when "Fuck Jews" graffiti starts appearing on Berkeley's campus. But I don't want to assume the Phish factor is anti-Semitism. Doing so seems to negate the legitimate complaints against Israel, and anyway, it's too damn depressing.

But casting about, I don't find another great explanation for the disproportionate amount of attention, all of it negative, that the Left heaps on Israel. I'd like to believe that all the Left's passion about Israel and Palestine is related to my passion about it, which comes from a heightened sense of connectedness and awareness I feel in its deserts, churches, mosques, and synagogues, under its flashing skies. I'd like to believe the Phish factor can be attributed to the intensity or holiness of that space where the monotheistic tradition, so central to European and American culture, emerged.

But I am quite sure that suggestion would probably make many people on the Left puke on their shoes.

So I don't know what the Phish factor is. I do know that in the late '70s when a band of German radicals employed terrorist tactics for their cause, the lefties there—Gerard Richter is one example—were able to criticize the activists' use of violence while sympathizing with their concerns. I don't see why the Left can't harness its considerable energy and devotion to the Palestinian cause into a more similarly nuanced defense of it—one that acknowledges brutality and ugliness beyond Israel.

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