Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, is one of the most thoughtful, fearless and respected journalists in America today. His work has long been associated with Israel, the Middle East and the war on terror, and he has a special affection for Jewish journalism.
A native of Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, Goldberg, 52, left student life at the University of Pennsylvania to move to Israel and live on a kibbutz — “every day is a long day in the chicken house,” he observed in our interview. He joined the Israeli army, hoping the experience would toughen him. He served as a military policeman in a Negev prison camp during the first intifada, and later wrote a book, “Prisoner: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide” (Picador), about his unusual friendship with a prisoner, a young leader of the PLO.
Goldberg spent three years in Israel, part of that time writing for The Jerusalem Post. He says that as a Labor Zionist, he loved kibbutz life but knew he wanted to be a journalist, and felt his lack of writing skills in Hebrew would make a career in Israel too limiting.
On his return to the U.S., he was a police reporter for the Washington Post before becoming New York bureau chief at The Forward, under its founding editor of the English edition, Seth Lipsky. Goldberg looks back fondly on that time, which he calls “the heyday” of the paper. “I learned a lot, and the rule was ‘no sacred cows, kosher or otherwise.’” He takes pride in having initiated The Forward’s annual report listing the salaries of top executives at Jewish nonprofits, and says he enjoyed getting angry calls from upset machers. “We were the definition of scrappy,” Goldberg recalled, praising Lipsky as a mentor, a role he says he strives to fulfill for young writers today at The Atlantic.
Before joining The Atlantic a decade ago as a national correspondent specializing in foreign affairs, he was a contributing editor at New York magazine, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a staff writer for The New Yorker for seven years.
In those posts, Goldberg was known for taking on the most challenging, and dangerous, foreign assignments, including on-the-scene reports on Hezbollah and the Taliban. He recalled a visit in Pakistan to a madrasa, a seminary where students memorize the Koran. “They took me to meet the headmaster, who told me that the world’s problems were not the fault of Christians like me, but of the Jews.”
When Goldberg told the headmaster he was Jewish, he says the man paused for a moment and then said, “You are most welcome here.”
He spent a month at the madrasa and reported on his experience.
But Goldberg became more cautious about his foreign travel after Wall Street reporter Daniel Pearl, a colleague, was kidnapped and later murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.
“Maybe I should have been scared before that, but I learned, gradually, that Danny and I and other American journalists traveled in an imaginary bubble, feeling safe. His murder was the message,” Goldberg said.
During the Obama administration, Goldberg had extraordinary access to the president for a journalist, and wrote frequently and incisively about the man and his policies. His Atlantic cover story, “The Obama Doctrine,” is considered the most illuminating report on Obama’s foreign policy strategy.
Goldberg also reported often on Benjamin Netanyahu, and particularly on the dramatic clash between the Israeli prime minister and President Obama on the Iran nuclear deal.
Unlike many who cover the Middle East, Goldberg does not fit in neatly to either the hawk or dove camp; he is a bit unpredictable, but, most of all, pragmatic.
“In my 25 years of reporting on Israel, I’ve seen every possible wart there is to see,” he said. But he remains a Zionist and said that over the years his views have “in some ways moved to the right — in part because at the outset I was so far to the left there was no place else to go.
“I believed the settlements were the root cause of the conflict,” he said, “but I can no longer say that. I think the settlements are a tragedy, in part because they divert attention from the true nature of the conflict.”
Asserting that “you can’t blame a century of conflict on the last 50 years [since the settlements began],” Goldberg believes that “the Jews are a people from a certain place with the right to a nation-state in their ancestral homeland. And I have yet to see that widespread recognition in the Arab world.”
He added that he is “not speaking ideologically” in pointing out that, in reference to the Arab position, “if you’ve been doing something for 100 years and it’s not working, it’s time to try something new.”
Here are some excerpts from our interview:
ON U.S. COLLEGE CAMPUS CLIMATE TOWARD ISRAEL:
“It’s complicated. We have to acknowledge that the government of Israel doesn’t make it any easier for advocates of Israel to make its case. But there is a toxic environment on some campuses, and Jewish students are being asked to make a choice between social justice issues and their support for, or even their ambivalence toward, Israel. This speaks to the failure of the Israel education the Jewish community is offering because many of our young people don’t know Israel’s history or why it exists.
“Most shocking to me in recent years is that some Jewish students are members of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that displays a homicidal impulse toward Israel.”
ON TRANSMITTING JUDAISM AND ENGAGEMENT WITH ISRAEL TO THE NEXT GENERATION:
“My kids are 20, 19 and 17, so I think about it all the time. I think the great mistake of the older generation, the one that directly remembered the Shoah and the birth of the state of Israel was that they didn’t communicate enough to the next generation the importance of Jewish life in their lives. Our experience at home is that if you communicate the joy and meaning of Jewish life to your children,
hopefully it will be internalized.”
ON THE TOXIC NATURE OF DISCOURSE IN AMERICAN — AND JEWISH — SOCIETY TODAY:
“The situation is worse than ever. It’s incumbent on Jews, based on our tradition, to be humble and have a lack of certainty. We should model it for others. I find that kindness is lacking. I’m guilty of it, too, but am becoming more aware.”
ON THE ROLE OF JOURNALISM:
“I like standing for democracy and freedom of the press at this moment. The Atlantic, which was founded in 1857 to advocate for the cause of abolition and the American idea, was made for times like these, when the country is trying to figure out just what it is.
“We are living in a post-truth age, and I am a bigger believer than ever in the power of journalism for good, for making life better. That applies to Jewish and general journalism. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant against corruption, and our community is strong enough to sustain scrutiny. As is America, and as is Israel.” ■