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?
Illustration by Steve Brodner.
Illustration by Steve Brodner.

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

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 blog; in a regular column for the opinion site
Bloomberg View; and on news shows such as Meet the

“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

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
. 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

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

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

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

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

Goldberg, a frequent guest on Meet the Press is well known by decision makers in Israel, where he spent part of his twenties. Photograph by William B. Plowman/Getty Images.

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

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

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

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

“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.”

Fighting Words

Goldberg’s targets, antagonists, and sparring partners.

Roger Cohen

In his New York Times column, he described Goldberg as Benjamin Netanyahu’s “faithful stenographer.”

Leon Wieseltier

The New Republic’s literary editor says his former protégé Goldberg “badgers people” and “can be haughty.”

Peter Beinart

Goldberg said the former New Republic editor’s book, The Crisis of Zionism, was “filled with errors and omissions.”

Andrew Sullivan

A former colleague at the Atlantic, the blogger is a friend with whom Goldberg is continually fighting and making up.

Maureen Dowd

Goldberg called her out for, as he saw it, “peddling an old stereotype . . . of clever and snakelike Jews” in her New York Times column.

Stephen Walt

Goldberg said he writes “a Jew-baiting blog.” Walt says he’s outraged by “this vile smear tactic.”

Robert Wright

Goldberg’s colleague at the Atlantic came to Beinart’s defense. Wright and Goldberg had clashed before.

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

“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

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

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
—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

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

• • •

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

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

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
-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
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
, 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

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

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

“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
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
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

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

“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

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

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

“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

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
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

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

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.

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