Jeffrey Goldberg is a natural and irrepressible funnyman. Drop a name, a topic into the conversation and the deadpan ripostes are immediate and unceasing.
On his editor at the Atlantic, James Bennet, known for being taciturn: “A man of many words.”
On dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s: “I’m on an extended leave of absence.”
On how he would describe his (somewhat heavyset) physical appearance: “You mean fat?” A first stab: “Omar Sharifian.” A second, more realistic attempt: “Somewhere between Polish peasant and Wisconsin dairy farmer.”
On the slight Long Island accent detectable in his voice: “Are you calling me Jewish?”
Well, yes. But the word comes to mind not because of his accent, and not even because Goldberg is, ethnically and religiously, Jewish. It’s because Goldberg, as a matter of personal and professional identity, is proudly and insistently Jewish. This is, after all, a fellow who used to hang a paper on his office door at the Atlantic with the words the misunderstood jew, a sly reference to what certain irreverent wags call Jesus.
“I think journalism is a very Jewish profession,” he says in a podcast, “Life as a Jewish Journalist,” recorded for the Partnership for Jewish Life & Learning. “Jews are very interesting. I think pound for pound we are the most interesting people in the world. There’s 12 million of us, and we make so much noise. And we’re so controversial and everybody is in everything and it’s absolutely fascinating. What’s the famous expression? We’re like everyone else but more so.”
It has been a long, hard climb, but Goldberg, who is nothing if not noisy, has made himself the most influential journalist in Washington—indeed in America—writing on Israel and the broader Middle East. Nobody gets bigger “gets” when it comes to newsmaking interviews—he has scored exclusives with both President Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Goldberg’s frequent pronouncements on whether Israel will attack Iran to keep the mullahs from obtaining a nuclear bomb are tracked at the White House and beyond. His reportage and commentary on such subjects are everywhere—in long pieces for the Atlantic; in Goldblog, his Atlantic.com blog; in a regular column for the opinion site Bloomberg View; and on news shows such as Meet the Press.
“In terms of people who really specialize in the Middle East, Jeff probably is in a class by himself,” says David Rothkopf, a close friend of Goldberg’s who is CEO of the FP Group, publisher of Foreign Policy magazine.
Goldberg’s influence derives in part from the perception that he has many close sources in Israel, where he’s well known and generally esteemed by decision makers. He moved there in his twenties, becoming an Israeli citizen (while retaining his American citizenship) and serving a stint in the military.
“He has put himself at risk for his beliefs” in the Jewish state, and that makes him one of a kind—“sui generis”—among Washington journalists, says Michael Oren, the American-born Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Oren, too, is a good friend of Goldberg’s. “We just schmooze about things,” the ambassador says, especially when “I need a good laugh.” Goldberg, he notes, has a gift for attracting friends by being “exceedingly, almost excruciatingly funny.”
Another friend is David Gregory, host of Meet the Press. Goldberg and Gregory are part of an informal Jewish-studies group that includes other Goldberg buddies such as Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic; David Brooks, the New York Times columnist; and Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel.
Goldberg is not only hilarious but also warm-hearted—“an exceptionally menschy guy” who “enjoys playing a rabbinic role” as a counselor to his friends, says Foer, who consulted Goldberg last year while debating whether to return to the editor’s seat at the New Republic.
Bennet, Goldberg’s Atlantic editor, is an old friend whom Goldberg helped show the ropes years ago when Bennet became Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times. (Goldberg was offered the job to succeed Bennet but turned it down, in part for family reasons, he says.) And the Atlantic’s owner, David Bradley, swears unending devotion: “If Jeff ever leaves me, I will be wherever Jeff goes.”
Bradley wooed Goldberg to the Atlantic by sending ponies to Goldberg’s home in DC’s American University Park neighborhood for his three young children to ride in their back yard. (The family has since moved to the District’s Forest Hills.) It took Goldberg a few years to make up his mind, but in 2007 he finally left the New Yorker, where he was a staff writer. Goldberg’s wife, Pamela, proved the key. “She and I effectively decided, and then she told Jeff,” Bradley says.
Goldberg, in turn, has played to Bradley’s admitted appetite for “journalism tourism.” Last May, at Goldberg’s invitation, Bradley joined him for a trip to the Middle East highlighted by a luncheon interview with King Abdullah II of Jordan and a sit-down with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. (A lowlight was watching Netanyahu and an aide fumble trying to get a remote control to turn on a wall-unit air conditioner. “And this is the country that is going to stop the Iranian nuclear project,” Goldberg stage-whispered to Bradley.) It’s remarkable, Bradley says, how well Goldberg knows all the top players.
“I love David Bradley,” Goldberg returns in kind. “He’s a gentleman, a deeply moral person.” Besides, Goldberg says, unable to resist, “some of my best friends are gentiles.”
• • •
Yet even with all these important friendships—and many more—Goldberg is chronically embroiled in disputes. He’s quite possibly Washington’s most polarizing journalist—no easy feat. “You write about the Middle East, you’re just going to get it in the neck,” he says. “The emotions run so hot, the stakes are so high, and the various hatreds are so deep.”
In part, Goldberg generates heat because of his background—in particular, his past service in the Israeli Defense Forces as a military policeman at a prison housing Palestinians arrested in an uprising against Israel. Although he can be quite critical of Israel, his reflex is to take its side when Israeli lives are on the line.
“The media is biased against Israel,” he declared in a blog post in November as Hamas fired rockets at Israeli cities while the Israeli Air Force targeted Hamas sites in the crowded Gaza Strip. With his prominent media platforms and his resolute support for the primacy of the US/Israel friendship, he’s a lightning rod for anti-Zionists as well as for out-and-out haters of Jews.
Much of his unsolicited e-mail is anti-Semitic, he says: “You can always tell the real Nazis because they can’t spell.”