Jeffrey Goldberg, Washington’s Most Pugnacious Journalist
He’s hilarious, hugely influential, and beloved by his many powerful friends. But Jeffrey Goldberg’s hotheaded attempts to referee the infighting over Israel make him perhaps the most polarizing journalist in town. Who died and made him Moses?
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.”
But it’s also true that Goldberg has a gift for generating controversy. He’s naturally contentious, like the onetime king of Washington polemicists, Christopher Hitchens, who died a year ago. “Hitchens loved to fight all the time,” Goldberg says. “I can’t fight all the time.” Maybe not, but he does have prodigious energy for conflict.
He stirs controversy partly because of his effort to play a role as a kind of umpire on sensitive matters involving Jewish politics and culture. One aspect of this self-appointed office is to determine which players and US policies can be deemed genuinely in Israel’s favor. Goldberg acts as “the keeper” of “the admission gate to the pro-Israel tent,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, a left-of-center pro-Israel group in Washington.
At first, Goldberg was reluctant to admit J Street, founded in 2008, to the tent, but after some sniffing and baring of teeth on Goldblog, he opened the flap and helped legitimate a role for the organization in the Israel debate as a competitor to the right-leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC and generally considered the most powerful pro-Israel group in Washington. In his 2011 book, A New Voice for Israel, Ben-Ami wrote that in 2009 Goldberg subjected him to “kind of an interrogation to determine if I passed pro-Israel muster according to Goldberg’s moderate brand of Israel boosterism.”
Goldberg supports an Israeli/Palestinian pact to establish an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. He doesn’t want to see Israel’s founding ideal as a democratic Jewish state undermined by permanent rule of a Palestinian population that could become a majority in a “Greater Israel” if current demographic trends continue.
That position puts him to the left of pro-Israel hawks who believe that all of Jerusalem should remain in Israel’s hands and who favor expanding Israel’s already extensive settlements on the West Bank—the heart of any future Palestinian state. At the same time, Goldberg is to the right of Israel critics who support tactics such as boycotting products made by Jewish West Bank settlers.
Ben-Ami more or less accepts Goldberg as a gatekeeper, but others bridle at what’s viewed as a heavy-handed attempt to police the discourse. There’s Goldberg’s penchant, for example, for calling out prominent people—including bigwig journalists—for, as he sees it, scapegoating Jews or using anti-Semitic tropes. Maureen Dowd received this treatment for a New York Times column in September in which she referred to an adviser to Mitt Romney as a “neocon puppet master.” (The adviser, Dan Senor, is Jewish, although Dowd didn’t mention that.)
Dowd’s column was published on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Goldberg titled his blog post happy new year, puppet masters. “Maureen may not know this, but she is peddling an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews,” he wrote. James Fallows, whose office is next to Goldberg’s at the Atlantic, sped to Dowd’s defense. MAUREEN DOWD IS NOT AN ANTI-SEMITE, Fallows wrote in the headline to a post on his own Atlantic blog.
“My basic theory of life places a lower emphasis on what are essentially tribal loyalties than Jeff’s does,” Fallows told me a few weeks after the dustup.
“I love Maureen,” Goldberg says. “I was just taken aback [by the column]. I read it, I reacted, I wrote about it.”
Invited to comment on Goldberg’s remarks, Dowd replied by e-mail: “Nah.”
But Goldberg can be more forgiving. In a Bloomberg View column in early January on the question of whether President Obama’s nominee for Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, was anti-Semitic, as suggested by some critics, Goldberg declared: “The short answer is no. The long answer is also no. Which is not to say that Hagel will soon win the American Jewish Committee’s Man of the Year Award.” He noted that some of Hagel’s views on Iran and Israel were shared by “left of center” Israeli politicians.
A frequent Goldberg target is his former Atlantic colleague Andrew Sullivan—a friend with whom he’s perpetually fighting and making up. Sullivan, who runs the blog the Dish, credits Goldberg with making him understand how important it was to the peace process for Israel to stop building settlements on the West Bank.
But Sullivan has since become an increasingly vocal critic of Netanyahu’s government for failing to confront the settlers and make peace with the Palestinians—a posture that in Goldberg’s view amounts to a blame-the-Jews mindset. “He thinks I’m a terrible Netanyahu apologist, and I think he’s a scapegoater of Jews,” Goldberg wrote of Sullivan on Goldblog in March.
When I call Sullivan, he starts by ladling praise on Goldberg: “An absolutely delightful and sweet human being. I love the guy.” Then he slices and dices, accusing Goldberg of reverting to “foul” tactics, aiming to control the public conversation on Israel and consigning to the sidelines non-Jews like Sullivan who have a less accepting line on Israel.
“Jeffrey really believes that there is a high-priest caste of journalists at a certain elite level, whose job it is to tell people what they need to know,” Sullivan says. “That is not being a journalist—that is being an operator.”
What’s more, he adds, Goldberg “is a Jewish journalist before he is a journalist.” What Sullivan, who is Catholic, seems to feel exasperated by is that Goldberg is so unrelenting in asserting a Jewish identity. Sullivan recalls the misunderstood jew phrase on Goldberg’s door at the Atlantic: “You can’t even walk into his office without seeing ‘Jew.’”
As he often does when hearing criticism of his perspective on Israel, Goldberg says detractors tend to have a simplistic view of an inherently complex situation. Sullivan, Goldberg says, has flipped from a “brittle” worldview that was “hyper-pro-Israel” to an “equally brittle” perspective that “Israel is the devil.”
“He’s trying to police me,” Goldberg says of Sullivan, “who, by the way, I love.”
• • •
Goldberg was born in Brooklyn in 1965 and grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, in Malverne, described as a “tribally Catholic, deeply American town” in his 2006 book, Prisoners. (The book focuses on his time living in Israel.) “I knew well that Jews were disliked—I knew this in an uncomfortably personal way,” he wrote of his childhood. “I didn’t like the dog’s life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people.”
When I meet with him at the Watergate, where the Atlantic’s offices are located, Goldberg elaborates on the bullying treatment meted out to him decades ago. He says he was “jumped” in middle school by “a bunch of little Irish pogromists.” (And “I remember their names.”) At first he retreated to the library, but eventually he fought back: “It was the black kids who taught me how to fight.”
“One of the ways you can create Jewish consciousness, obviously, is by not being around Jews,” he says. “And somehow my parents managed to find the one spot on Long Island that was free of Jews.”
He harbored dreams, nurtured by an experience at a socialist Zionist summer camp in the Catskills, of being a farmer in Israel. But once he was in Israel, his actual life there—which began as a grunt-level agricultural worker on a kibbutz—dispelled those illusions.
“We get the Arabs to clean up the shit” at the chick-en house, an Israeli foreman told him, as he recounts in Prisoners. “That’s why we have Arabs.” (Full disclosure: As a Member of the Tribe—an M.O.T. in Goldblogian vernacular—I performed volunteer duty a few years earlier at the same chicken shack on the kibbutz, Mishmar Ha Emek, where Goldberg lived. Also, I formerly was a staff writer at Atlantic Media, owner of the Atlantic, and have written for that magazine.)
Israeli Army training was more to his liking: “I was exceedingly happy—the rifle was electric with the promise of Jewish power,” he writes. But again, the reality of his service as a policeman at Ketziot, a large prison in the Negev desert, proved an affront to his Americanized liberal sensibility. “You can’t beat them enough,” one of his Israeli colleagues said of the Palestinian inmates. (Goldberg’s initial hope was for a career in a branch of Israeli intelligence, but he writes that he found out he “would never attain the topmost security clearances” because of his American upbringing.)
After fulfilling his military obligation, Goldberg worked as a humor columnist for the Jerusalem Post. But his heart was no longer in a life in Israel. “In Israel, I discovered just how American I am,” he says, “and I decided to make my life here, where I’m from. I’m just dispositionally American, patriotically American.” He says he has decided to give up his Israeli citizenship.
“If Israel goes much further down the road I think it’s on and becomes more of a theocratic, totalitarian-style state,” he asks, “how could the liberal-minded American Jew support that?”
It’s a stark question. “Clearly Jeff is still struggling” with long-held, conflicting feelings about Israel, says Israeli ambassador Oren, and “that to me is one of the most admirable things about him—that he is struggling.” Oren adds: “Others have made up their mind” that Israel “can do no right.”
Goldberg’s Zionism remains intact, though. It represents his conviction in the necessity of a permanent Jewish homeland as a refuge for Jews. “I care about the continuity of the Jewish people,” he says. “If Israel had existed in 1939, there would not have been a Holocaust.”
Goldberg is a congregant at Adas Israel in DC’s Cleveland Park, but he isn’t strictly allegiant to Jewish observance or custom, such as dietary law, confessing, “I eat shellfish between Memorial Day and Labor Day if I’m within sight of a large body of water.”
• • •
Washington, with its manifold opportunities for a journalist of Goldberg’s interests and talents, has long been a magnet to him. After dropping out of Penn in the mid-1980s and before moving to Israel, he worked as a Washington Post police reporter. Post business reporter Malcolm Gladwell—soon to be a superstar at the New Yorker—shared an apartment with Goldberg in DC’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood and, as Goldberg recalls, “introduced me to the woman who would become my wife by telling me that he met the woman who would become my wife.”
But Goldberg’s ascent to his current station as Washington’s go-to journalist on Israel and the Middle East hasn’t been without bumps. An example—underscoring the perils and jealousies of journalistic life here—is his dramatically shifting relationship with Leon Wieseltier, longtime literary editor of the New Republic.
For years, Wieseltier—a kind of philosopher-king with long white hair and a daunting pedigree as a student of Jewish history at Harvard, a member of that university’s august Society of Fellows for “persons of exceptional ability,” and a reader of the Talmud in Aramaic—has mentored promising young journalists aiming to establish a name as commentators on Israel and related themes. Wieseltier and Goldberg inevitably found each other, and at first admiration was mutual. In Prisoners, Goldberg thanks Wieseltier for his “learned counsel,” and Wieseltier praises Goldberg, in a blurb on the same book, for his “vivacious candor.”
In 2007, Wieseltier invited Goldberg to review The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a controversial book by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt arguing that America’s misguided embrace of Israel was due to the influence of powerful, pro-Israel pressure groups in Washington. Goldberg responded with a 7,000-word article, the usual suspect, that appeared on the New Republic’s cover. The review called The Israel Lobby “the most sustained attack, the most mainstream attack, against the political enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father Coughlin.” Wieseltier recalls that he gave Goldberg the book to “demolish” it, and “he did demolish it.”
But over the past year, a rift has developed between the two. Wieseltier is taking barbed aim at his protégé, as in criticism of Goldberg’s contribution to a recently published version of the Haggadah, the book of prayer and commentary used by Jews at the Passover Seder. “His comments are delivered in the tone of noisy worldliness, of tough-guy sentimentality, that marks all his writing. His reliance on cliché is considerable,” Wieseltier wrote of Goldberg in the spring 2012 edition of the Jewish Review of Books, adding that Goldberg “knows more about politics than he knows about Judaism.” (The Haggadah, titled New American Haggadah, is edited by the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, brother of New Republic editor Frank Foer.)
Wieseltier’s dig at Goldberg rippled through the overlapping circles in which the two men move. When I call Wieseltier, he intensifies his disparagement of Goldberg. “He badgers people in what he writes,” he says. “He can be haughty, and he can be bullying. What he most aspires to be is a big shot—capital B and capital S.”
He sees Goldberg not as gatekeeper to the pro-Israel tent but as a would-be, journalistic equivalent of the mashgiah. That’s the Hebrew word for the supervisor—a rabbi or someone else of impeccable credentials—who makes sure everything going out of the kitchen at a kosher restaurant is truly kosher. “Goldberg is a little bit in the business of deciding who is kosher and who is not,” Wieseltier says. The problem, he explains, is that Goldberg fails to qualify for the role: “He’s a blogger. He’s not an analyst, he’s not a scholar.”
Such comments are wounding to Goldberg if only because of Wieseltier’s generally conceded brilliance. “Leon is one of the world’s smartest people,” says the Jewish scholar Erica Brown, who works for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and leads the Jewish study group in which Goldberg and several of his friends are members.
Still, as Goldberg partisans see it, this is a case of an insecure and spiteful Wieseltier turning on an acolyte who threatens Wieseltier’s own standing as a mashgiah. “There’s a lot of big-Jew-on-campus competition out there,” says a journalist friend of Goldberg’s.
Even Andrew Sullivan has sympathy for Goldberg’s plight. “Leon’s opposition to Jeffrey controlling the debate is that Leon should control the debate,” Sullivan—who has a long history of venomous clashes with Wieseltier—says with a hearty laugh.
Goldberg, characteristically, has a zinger for his former mentor: “I’d rather be mashgiah than the Malach Ha Mavet”—Hebrew for angel of death. “If I had two phone numbers in my phone and I was in serious trouble, and one was Leon’s and one was Andrew’s, I would go with Andrew in a heartbeat. And yet Leon and I are obviously closer ideologically.”
• • •
Trouble for Goldberg most frequently arises from hot-tempered posts on Goldblog. He credits Sullivan (“I watched Andrew for years”) for showing how blogging could be done successfully and has described Goldblog as an “organic extension” of himself and his interests—although it’s perhaps better thought of as a branch of his id. “He cares passionately about the things he cares passionately about,” says Frank Foer. “With blogging, he can be pugnacious because he cares.”
But another friend, New Yorker editor David Remnick, has encouraged Goldberg to give up the blog. “I would like to see him write more long pieces,” Remnick says, to showcase Goldberg’s talents as a magazine writer.
Part of the problem is that Goldberg—once the quarry of schoolyard bullies—has displayed a taste for punching at targets well below his weight, and in a no-holds-barred, ad hominem fashion. For example, he went after the not particularly well-known journalist Allison Benedikt for an article she wrote for the Awl, an online magazine. The piece was about Benedikt’s disillusionment, as an American Jew, with Israel—specifically about how she felt “sick” about a recent trip, with her non-Jewish husband, to an Israel that felt like a war zone.
In one post, Goldberg castigated her for her “stunning lack of curiosity” as to why Israel is besieged and attacked her “dickish husband” (who likewise blasted Goldberg in a tweet). The battering seemed so out of proportion to the offense that Goldberg pulled back, quoting a reader who had been following the episode: “Jeffrey, do you also like to kill little puppies for fun? Leave this girl alone.”
And yet, as Goldberg noted on his blog, about 60 percent of his mail was running in support of his assault on Benedikt. “Here’s the real psychosis,” says a Jewish journalist who knows Goldberg but asked not to be quoted by name for fear of his ire. “At some level, American Jews want that level of aggression in a spokesman” because of their history of oppression. And Goldberg “gets pleasure out of torturing people.”
Even when Goldberg is pursuing weightier figures, he can do so in a sophomoric style. In Goldblog, Harvard professor Stephen Walt, coauthor of The Israel Lobby, is baited as “Stevie.” Goldberg ramped up his campaign against Walt by calling out Washington Post-owned Foreign Policy, where Walt is a blogger, “for hosting a Jew-baiting blog,” as he told a reporter for Tablet, an online Jewish magazine.
Walt says he feels outraged by “this vile smear tactic” that “has made me somewhat radioactive in policy circles.” Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf says that in this instance Goldberg went too far. “It’s certainly not a Jew-baiting blog,” Rothkopf, son of a Holocaust survivor, says of Walt’s FP blog.
Goldberg’s fulminations have contributed to stresses and strains at the Atlantic—a publication founded by Boston Brahmins in the mid-19th century and not known for verbal fisticuffs.
Tensions ratcheted up last March upon publication of a book much anticipated by followers of Israel: The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart, a former New Republic editor. Beinart called for a boycott of products produced by Jewish settlers as a means to pressure Israel to get out of the West Bank.
Goldberg rejected the boycott idea “because I find economic warfare targeting Jews so distasteful, for obvious historical reasons,” he said on Goldblog. “And to be completely blunt,” he added, “I’m not that interested in debating Peter’s new book, which I’ve just finished reading, because I find his recounting of recent Middle East history one-sided and filled with errors and omissions. The Middle East crisis is complicated, except in Peter’s telling.” As for the errors and omissions, Goldberg didn’t cite any.
Hours later, Robert Wright, a senior editor at the Atlantic, weighed in on his own blog: “With Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism only days away from publication, the attempt to marginalize Beinart has begun.” Wright and Goldberg had clashed before: In Wright’s pre-Atlantic days, Goldberg had branded Wright, in a Goldblog headline, as a “genocide denier” for allegedly saying that the Kurds were not victims of genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Wright, who vehemently disputes Goldberg’s accusation, declined to comment for this story.
Andrew Sullivan jumped in on his Daily Beast blog with harsh criticism of Goldberg’s dismissal of Beinart’s book. On Goldblog, Goldberg shot back: “As we’ve learned over time here at the Atlantic, there’s no arguing with the guy.” Outraged that Goldberg was now claiming to speak for the Atlantic, Sullivan complained directly to Bennet. Goldberg then changed his blog post to make it clear he was speaking only for himself.
Bennet and Goldberg offer a contrast of type—Bennet is cool, reserved, and laconic, while Goldberg is excitable, disarmingly frank, and voluble—and the juxtaposition seems to amuse them both.
In Bennet’s corner office at the Watergate, we chat about Goldberg. “I can imagine he’s a lot to handle,” I say.
Bennet laughs: “You can, huh?” He offers no argument to the proposition that Goldberg sometimes falls short of the Atlantic’s standards of editorial fairness—such as when Goldberg dismissed Beinart’s book as “filled with errors and omissions” without listing any. Bennet agrees: “If you’re going to call somebody out, you should be able to back it up.”
At the same time, Bennet disputes the notion that Goldberg tries to police the discourse on Israel—as does Goldberg himself. All such commenters, including Leon Wieseltier, Bennet says, are only expressing their opinions. If Goldberg “has more credibility and more authority, it’s because he has more credibility and authority, and he’s earned that,” Bennet says. “The test is the body of work. I would put Jeff’s body of work on the subject of Israel, the broader Middle East, and Iran up against anybody, certainly in this country—actually anywhere.” Bennet, whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, can appreciate the intensity of Goldberg’s commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.
Bennet makes a good point about Goldberg’s having earned his authority. It’s fair to note, as Wieseltier acidly does, that Goldberg isn’t a scholar of Jewish history or of the Jewish spiritual and philosophical traditions. But it’s also true that Goldberg has personally immersed himself in the cauldron of the Middle East and has thus acquired a street-level knowledge of the region superior to Wieseltier’s—and for that matter Sullivan’s and possibly anyone else’s in Washington.
For a prescient piece for the New York Times Magazine, published a year before the 9/11 attacks, Goldberg managed to enroll himself in a Pakistani madrassah at which a next generation of jihadists was being groomed. “The only enemy Islam and Christianity have is the Jews,” the master of the religious school tells him in greeting, to which Goldberg responds, “I’m Jewish.” There is “a moment’s pause,” and the master says, “Well, you are most welcome here.” A pair of 11-year-old boys take to hiding behind trees and surprising him with shrieks of “Osama!”
Goldberg journeyed to the Kurdish lands of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; he once was held hostage by gun-toting Palestinian militants in Gaza. He could have ended up a Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent kidnapped in Karachi in 2002 and beheaded by Islamic fanatics who released a graphic video of the “slaughter” of a “Jew.”
“There is a kind of courageous exposure of self” in Goldberg’s insistence that he’s a Jewish journalist, says an old friend, Jonathan Rosen, an editor for whom Goldberg wrote back in the 1990s at the Forward, the New York City-based Jewish newspaper. “It can look like a natural path to prominence,” Rosen says. “But there are many Jewish journalists uncomfortable writing about these things. You have to be willing to brave that proclamation of identity. That’s as dangerous as walking around the madrassahs of Pakistan.”
Goldberg, who told me he erred in his treatment of Beinart’s book, takes criticisms offered by his friends to heart. “He’s right,” he says of Remnick’s point about how his time might be better spent on long-form articles. “Blogging is in many ways a disaster for journalists,” Goldberg says, noting that “it’s all glandular.” At the very least, he’d like to moderate his style. “I used to be hotter. Now I’m trying to be cooler,” he says, sounding as if he means it.
• • •
Goldberg is mischaracterized, probably willfully, by some of his fault-finders. A staple reproach is that he’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s “faithful stenographer,” as Roger Cohen asserted in a 2009 New York Times column. That perception is sufficiently ingrained in Washington that Barack Obama himself directed a jest of this sort at Goldberg at an off-the-record meeting in May at the White House with a crew of foreign-policy journalists.
When a question about a policy position of Netanyahu’s government was raised, Obama turned to Goldberg and said, according to a leaked version of events confirmed by several participants, “You should ask Jeff. He knows a lot more about this stuff than I do.” Goldberg played along. “I’m not authorized to talk about that,” he said, one-upping the President in the kidding-around department.
But Goldberg does pan Netanyahu at times. BIBI: THE MIDDLE EAST’S WILE E. COYOTE was the headline on Goldblog for a post about Netanyahu’s speech in September at the United Nations, when Israel’s prime minister displayed a “cartoonish drawing,” as Goldberg called it, of an Iranian nuclear bomb. “He insulted the intelligence of his audience” and “people are laughing at him,” Goldberg declared.
From pro-Israel voices to the right of Goldberg comes the complaint of “diligent cheerleading” for Obama, as made by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary. Goldberg does seem to have a soft spot for Obama, who is reviled by conservative opponents in the US for a supposedly anti-Israel bias and isn’t especially well liked in Israel itself. Citing Obama’s “many Jewish mentors, colleagues, and friends,” Goldberg has praised him on his blog as “the most Jewish president we’ve ever had (except for Rutherford B. Hayes).”
But Goldberg isn’t a cheerleader. “Obama’s record in the Middle East suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty,” he wrote in an October Bloomberg View column. “Perhaps Obama isn’t quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is.”
Nor is Goldberg a “neocon,” as he’s been called by Andrew Sullivan and others. He did support George W. Bush’s war in Iraq—but not for the standard neocon reason of spreading democracy. Goldberg’s perspective on the Middle East tends to emphasize its tragic elements. “Saddam Hussein is uniquely evil, the only ruler in power today—and the first one since Hitler—to commit chemical genocide,” against the Kurds, Goldberg wrote in Slate in 2002, before the war. “Is that enough of a reason to remove him from power? I would say yes, if ‘never again’ is in fact actually to mean ‘never again.’ ”
Never again. No other phrase packs more power in the modern Jewish lexicon. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and that was only 70 years ago—not long at all in historical time. Goldberg is perhaps best understood as a “never again” journalist. IS IT POSSIBLE TO THINK TOO MUCH ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST?, a Goldblog headline asked. His reply: “No, the answer is no—it is not possible to think about the Holocaust too much.”
This mindset helps account for Goldberg’s fixation on whether Israel will launch an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. That country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has vowed to “wipe the Zionist entity off the map” and has referred to Israel as a “black and dirty microbe.”
“I see it as the foremost immediate American foreign-policy challenge,” Goldberg told me of the Iranian nuclear threat, “and I see it as the biggest challenge to Israel’s existence.”
That may be right on both counts. But in forecasting, on multiple occasions, a high degree of likelihood of an Israeli air strike (which he doesn’t necessarily consider a good idea), Goldberg has exhibited a degree of certainty that perhaps no outsider can possess.
In a much-debated Atlantic cover story in September 2010, the point of no return, he reported “a consensus” of Israeli decision makers and others who believe “that there is a better than 50-percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.” What Goldberg didn’t know was that at the time he was reporting the likelihood of an air strike, there was a top-secret US/Israeli initiative, known as Stuxnet, to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities by means of a cyberworm.
It’s conceivable that he was deliberately misled by Israeli policymakers. Or it might be that he placed too much confidence in his reporting. His most unforgiving critics suggest that he was willing to be used by Israel to present the bluff in the pages of the Atlantic. In any case, the story wasn’t quite on target, as conceded even by a Goldberg admirer, Dennis Ross, the veteran diplomat who at the time of publication was President Obama’s chief adviser on Middle East issues. “He drew a conclusion in terms of timing that I thought was overstated,” Ross says.
“He’s a journalist” who is “not privy” to state secrets in Israel, Israeli ambassador Oren says in defense of Goldberg, so he can only do his best to interpret the incomplete information he has.
But that seemingly chastening experience didn’t stop Goldberg from writing in his Bloomberg View column last March that “I’m highly confident that Netanyahu isn’t bluffing—that he is in fact counting down to the day when he will authorize a strike against a half-dozen or more Iranian nuclear sites” and still again to predict in his column in July that Israeli leaders “may very well decide” to launch a strike before the American election on November 6.
Nope and nope. It could be that the only thing off is his timing. But he risks sounding like a broken record.
• • •
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided humankind into hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who know many little things. In these terms, Goldberg “is clearly a hedgehog,” says his friend Walter Isaacson, an author and the president of the Aspen Institute. (With his varied biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson sees himself as all fox.)
Goldberg, though, pushes back against the hedgehog designation, and he has a good case. Years ago, he covered the Mafia for New York magazine. Last summer, he wrote a long article for the Atlantic, jersey boys, about New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s eternal love for Bruce Springsteen—and Goldberg’s own. “If the E Street Band at full throttle doesn’t fill you with joy, you’re probably dead,” he wrote. And one of his best pieces ever was a globetrotting 16,000-word opus for the New Yorker on a pair of American elephant conservationists gone amok. In a riveting narrative that shifted from Zambia to Idaho, Goldberg more or less solved a murder mystery.
Nor are his literary tastes as predictable as you might think. He’s fond of the poetry of T.S. Eliot, he says, even though “Eliot didn’t like Jews.”
It may be, Goldberg suggests, that he’s a hedgehog in having to meet an “expectations trap” of his own design for what he’s supposed to write about. He feels he has in a way led his core readers to expect him to focus tightly on Israel and the Middle East—and now feels bound to fulfill that self-imposed obligation.
“The only joy in journalism for me is the stories that have nothing to do with this,” he says of his specialty in Israel and the Middle East. “There’s no joy in writing about the Middle East. It’s not a joyful place.” The subject “is too fraught for me—it’s too serious, too consequential.”
Beneath the torrent of ready jests is angst that events in the bloody patch of the planet he covers could get a lot worse. The God of the Jews is a God who can perform miracles to alter the course of history—as in parting the Red Sea to let the Israelites escape from bondage in Egypt—but Goldberg, even though he’s a believer, isn’t expecting any such feats in today’s time.
“Do I believe in God? Yes, I believe in God,” he says. “I think he’s busy doing something else right now.”
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.