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Jewish Journal

Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg changing the world one story at a time

by Danielle Berrin

October 27, 2010 | 9:51 am

Jeffrey Goldberg. Photo by Liz Lynch

Jeffrey Goldberg. Photo by Liz Lynch

“It was Shabbat yesterday,” Jeffrey Goldberg said as explanation for why he had delayed an interview with a Jewish newspaper. But his next line pretty much foiled the excuse: “I had a lot of soccer games to go to.”

Jeffrey Goldberg: jokester.

The truth is that Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, probably spends just as much time thinking, speaking and writing about Judaism as do many rabbis. Among many in the American Jewish community — particularly among its leaders and those who are well-read — Goldberg, who is based in Washington, is considered one of the most influential Jewish journalists working in mainstream media. But though proud to be Jewish and a journalist, Goldberg is none too thrilled to be branded a Jewish journalist.

“It has a kind of ghettoizing implication that I don’t like,” he said. “I write a lot about Jewish subjects — but I don’t consider myself acting on behalf of the Jewish people.”

His readers might disagree. Goldberg’s first book, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” was an autobiographical account of his Zionist self-discovery (at summer camp, of course) and the years he spent living in Israel, where he served as a prison guard in the Israel Defense Forces and befriended Arab prisoners.

He has often written on Jewish topics: He began his career covering the Jewish community for The Jerusalem Post and The Forward before broadening his focus at The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. His most recent Atlantic cover story, “The Point of No Return,” in the magazine’s September issue, was a nearly 10,000-word report on the prospects of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The story sparked enormous controversy, with scores of journalists, media personalities and political officials weighing in on its claims, debating its veracity and praising its reportage. The piece also caught the attention of former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who subsequently invited Goldberg to Havana, then surprised the writer with empathetic remarks about Jewish suffering and what many interpreted as ideological support for Israel.

When he is not engaged in his “real work” — as Goldberg refers to his job reporting on world affairs and visiting with foreign leaders — he writes a well-humored, current-events blog known as “Goldblog,” which strives to be a voice of reason in the Wild West of Internet journalism. He is also at work on his second book, a biography of Judah Maccabee (yes, the hero of Chanukah) for Nextbook, and contributing political commentary to a new haggadah created by the writer Jonathan Safran Foer. For fun, he shuttles his three children, ages 10, 11 and 13, to and from school and organizes a Torah study class with his close friend David Gregory, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Jewishness, you could say, is an animating force in his life.

“I think you should write about what obsesses you. And I’m obsessed with these questions of Israel and the Arabs and Jewish identity, but I’m also interested in other things,” Goldberg said. “My longest piece this year was an 18,000-word story in The New Yorker about elephant conservationists in Africa.”

Jeffrey Goldberg: animal lover.

Before he became one of the country’s foremost Middle East correspondents, he wrote about politics and organized crime for The New York Times Magazine. Those were the days when journalism was flush, when a writer could earn a six-figure salary for producing four cover stories a year — which is all that was required of him; no blogging, no public speaking, no 24-hour news cycle. In a way, the transformation of the media world has brought Goldberg back to his roots as a niche journalist; when he isn’t writing about the Middle East, Israel and American Jewry, he is likely to be found speaking about related issues to Jewish groups across the country. In the past two weeks, he lectured at the Jewish Federation on Long Island, The Bronfman Foundation in Manhattan and the University of Denver.

“He’s among the most important journalists in America right now,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, who befriended Goldberg after inviting him to speak at Sinai Temple in February 2008 (Goldberg will return to Sinai in January). “You can’t actually understand what’s going on in the Israel-American relationship or the Jewish community without reading him.”

Goldberg was raised in an assimilated middle-class home in a mixed neighborhood on Long Island. Both of his parents were teachers and union loyalists, inculcating their son with left-leaning liberal politics but not much in the way of a religious education. Instead, Goldberg forged his Jewish identity in response to some schoolyard anti-Semitism whose traumas left him longing for the so-called muscle Judaism represented by Zionism. As a teenager, he voraciously consumed Zionist literature by Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau and Vladimir Jabotinsky, and chose to go to a socialist Zionist camp in the Catskills, where summer games like “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” and “Siege of Jerusalem” were imbued with historic seriousness.

Following his parents’ divorce and an aimless year at the University of Pennsylvania, Goldberg moved to Israel, where he remained for the next several years, living on a kibbutz and serving in the army. Guarding Palestinian prisoners — many of whom were terrorists or would-be terrorists — might have bolstered his hawkish side, but Goldberg’s curiosity and need for connection led him to engage his charges, even befriend them. But his ceaseless journalistic quest to ferret out the humanity of the other shouldn’t be confused with naiveté; if anything, Goldberg’s time in Israel softened his idealism.

“I don’t think it’s that controversial to say that much of the world has a pornographic interest in Jewish moral failure,” he said. “The only thing that’s interesting to the world about this conflict is the Jews — let’s face it. I have a lot of Kurdish friends who bemoan the fact that their enemies aren’t Jews. We’re talking about the creation of the 23rd Arab country,” he said, referring to the possibility of a Palestinian state. “No one really cares, but because the enemy, the adversary of this group of people, have fascinated and transfixed and repulsed and spawned the two largest religions in the world by the way, that’s what’s so interesting.

“Look,” he continued, “Every couple of weeks, America mistakenly drops a bomb on some target in Afghanistan and kills 10 or 20 or 30 civilians, and nobody cares about that. China’s been waging cultural genocide against Tibet for God knows how long; nobody cares. In the Congo, 2 million people die in civil war; no one cares. And, by the way, there’s dysfunction and violence across the Arab world, all sorts of terrible things happen, but nobody cares about Muslim civil wars — or they care only to a certain degree. But this — this conflict with the Jews? That’s interesting.”

While Goldberg attributes the world’s preoccupation with the conflict in part to anti-Semitism, he also believes Israel bears some culpability for the perpetual failure of peace talks. He describes the Israeli government as “dysfunctional” and cites the recent passage of the Jewish loyalty oath as emblematic: “Why don’t you just hand the future of Israel over on a platter to its enemies?”

Goldberg is well versed in Israel’s existential threats. He spent five months investigating the likelihood of a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, more or less concluding that a U.S.-sanctioned Israeli strike could occur within the year. He has since revised his timeline, because in the weeks following the publication of his story, Iran’s nuclear facilities were infected with the powerful Stuxnet computer virus, which is believed to have impeded Iran’s progress. 

The story has been both widely praised and reviled. Critics accused Goldberg of warmongering, framing the piece as a question of who would invade Iran — Israel or the U.S.? — rather than challenging the sense of another Middle East incursion. Charges that he was, yet again, prepping America for war stem back to a 2002 piece he wrote for The New Yorker, in which he claimed to have found evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda. The piece was widely interpreted as an endorsement for the Iraq war, which, on some level, Goldberg regrets. He now admits having been wrong about Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction “like everybody else” but maintains the dignity of the story. “I will never regret taking a stand against a genocidal fascist,” he said. “Do I regret the atrocious manner in which the Bush administration prosecuted the war, and its aftermath? Of course.” Citing a report conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, he defends his claim connecting Hussein to al-Qaeda.

But the more insidious critique came when others denounced him for peddling Israeli propaganda, charging him with a deep, subconscious bias. As if somehow his Jewishness makes him unfit to write fairly about Israel.

James Bennet, Goldberg’s editor at The Atlantic, staunchly defends the writer’s objectivity:  “I challenge his critics to find evidence in his writing where his biases overwhelm his reporting or the clarity of his thinking,” Bennet said in a phone interview. “Jeff’s great strength as a journalist is his extraordinary versatility; he is, first and foremost, a great reporter, and on top of that, he’s obviously a great writer — a serious writer, a writer of narrative, a very funny writer — he can do it all.” Bennet noted that Goldberg’s blog has become a draw to the magazine’s Web site and added that Goldberg also writes the magazine’s advice column.

NBC’s Gregory, who befriended Goldberg after reading his book, believes Goldberg’s passion for Jewish subjects does not compromise his coverage of them. “He draws on the experiences of his life that inform certain beliefs or passions that he has, certainly a love of Israel that he has, but none of that is hidden,” Gregory said by phone from Washington.

Goldberg’s core beliefs are laid bare in his writing; anyone who reads “Prisoners” can easily glean his ideological support for the existence of a Jewish state, or his apparent pride at being Jewish.

“These are big things; I get that,” Gregory said. “But he’s honest about them — it’s part of who he is — and it doesn’t get in the way of his ability to look at these things critically. I do believe he is intellectually honest on these matters.”

Goldberg himself admits, “You disrespect the community if you soft-peddle your coverage,” citing the Jewish imperative for critical inquiry.

“The best journalism comes from a strong point of view,” Wolpe agrees. “It’s not as though this is a guy who has just seen Jerusalem; he has contacts all over the Arab world, and the reason is because he takes all the various views seriously, and he doesn’t parrot the government line.”

Goldberg is also, according to Gregory, uncommonly funny. “What I think is underappreciated about him is how incredibly funny he is; to read his humor is to laugh out loud.”

Goldberg’s wry, subversive humor is most evident on his blog, or if, on occasion he chooses to serenade you with a Chabad song. Last week, after NPR fired political analyst Juan Williams for suggesting people on airplanes who dressed in Muslim garb made him “nervous,” one of Goldberg’s readers asked if he, too, feared Muslims on airplanes. Goldberg replied: “I’m pretty sure that if I had been seated next to Muhammad Atta on Sept. 11, 2001, I would have engaged him in conversation ... and, if he had responded, I would have spent the time before he cut my throat asking him about various restaurants in Cairo. ... I’m actually writing this while waiting for the Delta Shuttle at LaGuardia, and I see a lot of people who look like they have terrorized the American economy, but no one who looks like an al-Qaeda terrorist.”

One of Goldberg’s gifts is that even on serious subjects, he can exhibit a healthy amount of silliness: “If he wasn’t someone who you knew was very well-known, you’d think he was the guy who sat behind you in shul,” Wolpe said. Which is probably also one of the reasons Goldberg doesn’t take it too seriously when, in the span of a single day, his critics call him a “Castro apologist,” “a fawning American intellectual” or “The Atlantic’s resident warmonger.” Goldberg said he knows he’s done a good job if the same story prompts accusations of neocon fascism and self-hating anti-Israel Islamic jihad. In a sea of right- and left-wing ideologues, Goldberg is politically centrist, a nuanced voice whose views are rarely a foregone conclusion. Which is why those who tout party line are fond of denigrating him: The Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick has called him a self-hating Jew, and Fox commentator Pamela Geller, who fanned the flames of the Ground Zero Islamic Center controversy, often refers to him as “Jihadi Jeff.”

“The Web is a remarkable place,” Goldberg joked.

But it’s also responsible for his recent visit to Cuba, where, over the course of three days, Castro expressed empathy with Jewish suffering (“I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews”), support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (“Si, sin ninguna duda” — “Yes, without a doubt”) and repudiated — though he later qualified — the Cuban model of socialism (“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore”). A few weeks after Goldberg reported on these issues, the Cuban government announced plans to cut 500,000 state jobs by April 2011.

And yet, Goldberg is the last one to overestimate the power of his profession or his own personal impact.

“Things that I should be writing about come to me in dreams,” he said, in a moment of self-reflection. “I’ve been sucked into the Middle East story, in a way. I mean, it’s an urgent story, it’s a big deal, but there are things that I should do that I’m not doing because of it.”

Judaism, after all, would insist he shine a light in dark places. “I think journalism is a very Jewish job,” he said. “Judaism demands that its followers be dissatisfied with the state of the world as it is and work to make it better. And journalists are always digging up the rocks, and looking underneath, and seeing what’s wrong, and then writing about it with the idealistic hope that you can change something.”

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