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.”
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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.”
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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.”