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.