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.’”