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.
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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.”