This is one of a continuing series by Yakov Hirsch (@YakovHirsch) on Hasbara Culture, the social construction of reality by pro-Israel writers led by Jeffrey Goldberg, and its impact on the U.S. discourse and policy. You can find his other articles here.
I have been writing from a different perspective on the Jewish community. And from that vantage point there are some interesting side stories that understandably no one is talking about given all else that’s been going on. This column tells one of those stories. It might be a little bit gossipy, but some light distraction could be used right now.
The “Never Trump” movement is unleashing a Jewish power struggle. This article will try to relate the drama and the important parts of the story.
I am referring to the relationship and the competition between the two most influential Jewish-qua-Jewish journalists in America: the CNN, Haaretz, and Atlantic journalist Peter Beinart and his boss the new editor in chief of the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg. They are both strongly anti-Trump and have a large following. One of them will ultimately become the most influential Jewish voice opposing the Donald Trump presidency. And I wish I could place a bet who the winner is going to be, because:
I predict Goldberg’s long reign as the most influential American Jewish journalist is about to end. Peter Beinart is about to replace him.
But that’s only part of the story. Because Beinart has been waiting a long time for what’s about to happen. While this is going to be a light-hearted article, more than personal egos are on the line when it comes to who becomes President Trump’s most recognized Jewish critic. So it will be difficult to entirely avoid some serious issues.
As I’ve written before, from a distance Goldberg and Beinart seem to hold similar views. But upon closer inspection they couldn’t be further apart.
Goldberg and Beinart are very different Jews, and they want different things for American Jews. Beinart shares a lot of the values with and is respected by the Sanders supporting Jewish millennials, while Goldberg represents a more insular part of the Jewish community. Before I get into the dirty laundry between Goldberg and Beinart let’s review what we have already learnt about the two.
Recently, I used BDS, the Palestinian campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, to show what the ideological differences between Goldberg and Beinart look like in practice. Even though Beinart is a Zionist, it didn’t stop him from realizing there is another side to the story. Beinart doesn’t demonize or dehumanize his Palestinian opponents. Peter Beinart is capable of “agreeing to disagree” with Palestinians who are willing to agree-to-disagree with him back. Beinart doesn’t experience anti-Semitism every time a Palestinian gives their perspective.
Jeffrey Goldberg is another story entirely. As argued by Ezra Klein (who called Goldberg a “fearful tribalist”) and Paul Starobin (a “never again journalist”), Goldberg experiences the world differently than most other Jews. In the “social construction of reality” that Goldberg has made with many friends, Palestinians are depicted as fixated with Jews just as much as Jeffery Goldberg himself. (Jeffrey should realize how difficult that is to do!)
Whereas Beinart sees the Palestinians’ claims and narrative making sense on their own terms, and from their own experience, Goldberg believes ultimately that it’s really always about the Jews. He experiences Palestinian resistance to Israel and Palestinian nationalism as Jew hatred.
The whole sociologically-fascinating story of how a 21st century editor-in-chief of the Atlantic magazine can be so ethnocentric is one I will tell over time. But Goldberg’s ethnocentrism is so strong that he can’t imagine that Palestinians can be ethnocentric too. Goldberg thinks when Palestinians look out into the world, it’s from Jeffrey Goldberg’s own Jewish perspective and not a Palestinian one. Goldberg’s extreme ethnocentricity is what I call “hasbara culture” (and I encourage my readers to look at my latest articles, here and here, to mull the different examples of Goldberg’s inability to role-play, and instead to experience Jew haters everywhere).
But now let’s get to the juicier part of the Goldberg/Beinart story.
Recall that Peter Beinart was all the rage a few years ago. The “intellectual wunderkind” was fresh off his New York Review of Books bombshell, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” and was driving the conversation in the Jewish community. The anticipation of his 2012 book “The Crisis of Zionism” made Beinart the center of attention in the American discourse about Israel. His critique of the out-of-touch leadership of Jewish establishment and his call for a boycott of products from Israeli occupied territory created a sensation. Beinart was becoming the voice of a new generation of liberal Jews. As Jason Zengerle of New York magazine wrote, the Beinart ideas about a more confrontational stand toward Benjamin Netanyahu and his government by the American Jewish community:
clearly resonated with many liberal American Jews, who in the wake of the Iraq War had found their increasing dovishness hard to reconcile with Israel’s hawkishness. Overnight, Beinart became a folk hero to many of them. At the 2011 national meeting of the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street, college students who attended wore Shepard Fairey–style T-shirts featuring Beinart’s face and the words “Beinart’s Army.” J Street’s leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, hailed Beinart as “the troubadour of our movement.”
What then was the future editor in chief of the Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg’s take on all this.? Remember Jeffrey Goldberg is not just any other Jewish journalist or opinion-writer on Jewish matters. We have seen Leon Weiseltier describe Goldberg as the “Mashgiach,” the kosher ‘supervisor” of which positions are permissible and what not allowed on Israel/Jewish issues. And in New York Magazine, Zengerle quoted quoted Eric Alterman of the Nation magazine as finding Goldberg unique role on Jewish discourse as like that of a referee:
When it comes to the topic of Israel, Goldberg is currently the most important Jewish journalist in the United States.
“And among Jewish journalists who write and think about Israel, he’s become something of a referee.” “He’s a marker in the debate as well as an enforcer of its boundaries,” Alterman says. “So, when he moves, the 50-yard line moves.”
The upshot is that Jeffrey Goldberg is the most important Rabbi; and he is deciding whether the ideas in Peter Beinart’s book will get a Goldberg kosher certificate.
Beinart had an ambitious goal. His article and book were trying to change the culture of the American Jewish community regarding Israel. Beinart realized the American Jewish community role with respect to the US/Israel relationship needed to change. For eight years, Netanyahu agitated against Obama with American Jews. Netanyahu used the American Jewish community as a weapon and a threat against President Obama. And that’s has been the role of the American Jewish community in the American/Israeli relationship for a long time now. When Netanyahu wanted to pressure Obama or Congress, he knew exactly the right buttons to press to get the Jewish community here to do his bidding. Beinart knew if that situation didn’t change we would end up with the Israel we have now in 2016. For people like Beinart it’s obvious that American policy towards Israel/Palestine can’t change without American Jews letting up on the relentless “pro-Israeli” pressure on American politicians.
And it’s obvious to me that Beinart knew Netanyahu was taking advantage of the American Jewish community for his own personal, ideological, and electoral considerations.
Which brings us back to Jeffrey Goldberg. It wasn’t very hard to predict how the anti-intellectuals in the Jewish community would react to this taboo-breaking book. It’s the same way anti-intellectuals in the Jewish community have always acted. Instead of confronting ideas, motives are always questioned. Zengerle again:
“Why does [Beinart] hate Israel so?” Daniel Gordis asked in his review for the Jerusalem Post, before answering: “Beinart’s problem isn’t really with Israel. It’s with Judaism.” The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, writing for Tablet, branded The Crisis of Zionism “an act of moral solipsism.” But withering reviews have come from Beinart’s ideological allies on the Jewish center-left as well. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Rosen—a mild-mannered Jewish public intellectual whose most recent book was a meditation on bird-watching—savaged Beinart for his “Manichaean simplicities” and for “employ[ing] several formulations favored by anti-Semites.” Tablet editor Alana Newhouse panned the book in the Washington Post for introducing “its own repressive litmus test, this one to determine who can be considered both a liberal American and a Zionist.”
Even Jane Eisner of the Forward, one would think a natural ally of Beinart’s, gave him this back handed endorsement:
“For that reason, he and his ideas – no matter how outrageous, no matter how self-serving – deserve a place inside the tent”
It is important to insert here that the most public and aggressive defenders of Peter Beinart and the Crisis of Zionism were non-Jewish colleagues at the Atlantic: Andrew Sullivan and Robert Wright. We will get to Sullivan’s part in this story shortly.
But wait. Where was Jeffrey Goldberg? Why was he so silent? Zengerle reminds his readers who would have final say:
“The most notable absentee has been the influential writer and liberal Zionist Jeffrey Goldberg.”
For the people who knew Jeffrey Goldberg best, there was no mystery why he hadn’t said anything. We knew he was off pouting somewhere because a charismatic younger rival, Peter Beinart, was getting all this attention. And I’m sure President Obama’s singling out of Beinart for a pat on the back must have caused the sensitive Goldberg even more suffering. It also made Beinart a marked man in my opinion. I worried about Beinart. An American Jewish writer getting this close to Obama would likely get Jeffrey Goldberg to act like one of the less sympathetic characters from “Game of Thrones.”
Zengerle recounts the Obama gesture at a meeting with a group of journalists that including Beinart:
After the meeting, Obama went around the Roosevelt Room shaking hands with his guests. The last person he greeted was Beinart, who had brought gifts: two copies of The Crisis of Zionism, one for the president and one for deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes. Obama, perhaps more than any other president, is said to be unusually attuned to intramural debates among American Jews and the precise language they require of one another when they talk about Israel, so it’s almost certain that he was aware of the firestorm surrounding Beinart and the book he had just handed him. As he talked to Beinart, according to those who were within earshot, the president had a message for the embattled author: “Hang in there.”
There is no question that when Jeffrey Goldberg finally said something about the book he was going to make a spectacle of himself. The attention Beinart was getting and Goldberg’s narcissism all but made it inevitable. There was only so long that Goldberg could allow Beinart to keep the spotlight.
So, Goldberg being Goldberg it was no surprise how and when he finally made his entrance into the debate about “the Crisis of Zionism”. Goldberg waited “until the attacks were most intense” and then, per Zengerle:
“[T]o be completely blunt,” he wrote on his Atlantic blog, “I’m not that interested in debating Peter’s new book … because I find his recounting of recent Middle East history one-sided and filled with errors and omissions.”
Every mother who has dealt with a really spoiled teenager recognizes Goldberg’s attitude. But still. There is more on the line here than Jeffrey Goldberg’s ego. He just dismissed Peter Beinart’s very serious book with a simple wave of the hand.
What’s going on here? Everyone was taking this book very seriously. Think about it from Beinart’s perspective. Waiting for Goldberg to pass judgment, Beinart had been fending off Jewish jihadi’s like Bret Stephens and Daniel Gordis. Instead of the ideas in the book being dissected like Beinart thought these things worked, the WSJ Bret Stephen’s, and Jeffrey Goldberg’s favorite scholar Daniel Gordis, were diagnosing Beinart’s soul.
Peter Beinart was undertaking a difficult task that someone with standing in the Jewish community ultimately had to do. Benjamin Netanyahu was riding roughshod over the American Jewish community, and Israeli political discourse is more racist than any country in the world. It’s just a matter of time before a major course correction; before a book challenges conventional wisdom on many issues relating to the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel. American Jewry needs a policy on Israel/Palestine; and it must be independent of Benjamin Netanyahu’s.
I also understand that not everyone inside the community could be as prescient as Beinart. I could even understand if Goldberg had to be a little obnoxious while he was debating Beinart on the merits of the book. No one expects anything less.
Nor was anyone forcing Goldberg to agree with Peter Beinart. Goldberg had a defensible position. He thought a solution to Israel/Palestine was within reach. Why would Beinart rock the boat right then! Why, with just a few more Holocaust classes in Gaza–
and a little more Netanyahu persuasion–
peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be at hand!
But Goldberg didn’t debate Beinart in his Atlantic response. He dismissed him. In my writing this year this year, I have been teasing Goldberg quite a bit about his close relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, because I knew that this year the light bulb had to finally go off in Jeffrey Goldberg’s head. I predicted Goldberg’s dumping Netanyahu for some months now. Even though Goldberg had made his career as Netanyahu’s “faithful stenographer,” as Roger Cohen of the NY Times once famously said, it was time to move on to bigger and greater things for Jeffrey Goldberg.
And these days Netanyahu is a bigger liability than an asset for the new editor in chief of the Atlantic. Being joined at the hip of Benjamin Netanyahu was no longer good for career and reputation like it once was. (And I couldn’t help “trolling” Goldberg about dumping Netanyahu.)
It happened a few weeks ago. Goldberg finally realized: Netanyahu is not pursuing a two-state solution to the Israel Palestine conflict.
Rest assured, any month now we will get an “important” cover story in the Atlantic magazine by the new editor in chief about the “new discourse” that must start in the Jewish community about Israel/Palestine. He will tell us that Netanyahu is untrustworthy.
He will be busting through open doors. Six years ago, Beinart was trying to start the conversation that Jeffrey Goldberg is going to claim credit for whenever he finally decides it’s the perfect time for Jeffrey Goldberg to write that column. That that conversation needs to start ASAP is recognized by all except the most obstinate hasbara culturalists like Bret Stephens and Jennifer Rubin.
Beinart understood long ago what Goldberg just discovered now. And we still don’t have a good answer to why Jeffrey Goldberg put that fatwa on the book that he did. But with every statement he made, he tried to bury the knife deeper in Beinart’s back.
Listen to Jeffrey Goldberg’s statement about “The Crisis of Zionism.”
“[T]o be completely blunt,” he wrote on his Atlantic blog, “I’m not that interested in debating Peter’s new book
That means, To be honest, Goldberg really doesn’t want to embarrass his friend Peter by debating his new book. Goldberg prefers to keep his opinion to himself.
But it being in the public interest, and Goldberg’s responsibility, as the deepest thinker the Jewish people have on these subjects, Jeffrey Goldberg had no choice:
“I find his recounting of recent Middle East history one-sided and filled with errors and omissions.”
Jeffrey Goldberg is saying this book is trash. It is biased and, even if it wasn’t so one sided, you can’t trust any of the facts either.
Why did Jeffrey Goldberg do that? What’s going on here? Zengerle knew there was something unusual about Goldberg’s attitude towards Beinart:
“But there is undeniably a deeply personal element to Goldberg’s disagreement with Beinart.”
And then he quoted some more Goldbergese re Beinart:
“Peter was faced with a couple of choices with this book. He could make himself feel good about his moral superiority or he could devise ways to get Israel to do what he wants, and I think he went more with the former than the latter.
“Peter asked me why I dismissed his book but gave a very positive review to Gershom Gorenberg’s book,” Goldberg says. “And I thought to myself, do you really have to ask? One of you has skin in the game. If Gershom Gorenberg’s is wrong, then his family might die. If Peter Beinart is wrong, well, Manhattan will survive.”
It is imperative to stop and consider about what Jeffrey Goldberg “thought to himself” here.
“Do you really have to ask? One of you has skin in the game.”
Goldberg is telling us that Beinart approached Goldberg in dismay about Goldberg’s dismissal (Goldberg’s word) of The Crisis of Zion, while giving a similar book by Gershom Gorenberg a “very positive review.” How did the future editor in chief of the Atlantic answer this very reasonable question by Beinart? If the books say similar things, why does one book get two thumbs up and the other a “dismissal”?
And what was the answer that the not-so-bright Peter Beinart should have realized himself without wasting Jeffrey Goldberg’s precious time by “really having to ask”?
The reason Jeffrey Goldberg tells Zengerle he is so contemptuous of Peter Beinart is because Beinart didn’t realize that an American can’t write the same book an Israeli writes. The book Beinart wrote was dangerous to Israelis like Gorenberg and his family. What right did Peter Beinart have to endanger the lives of Gorenberg’s family?
When an Israeli writes a dangerous book, Goldberg gives two big thumbs up, but Jeffrey Goldberg says over my dead mashgiach/referee body will this book be written by an American.
One of you has skin in the game. If Gershom Gorenberg is wrong, then his family might die. If Peter Beinart is wrong, well, Manhattan will survive.
I hope Goldberg at least got a thank you note from Gorenberg, for trying to downplay Beinart’s book in order to protect Gorenberg and his family.
This type of Goldberg “thinking to himself” is not new. We have seen how this type of Goldberg “thinking to himself” keeps on getting him into trouble.
Notably, it was this type of “thinking to himself” about Iran that caused Paul Starobin in his Washingtonian profile to call Goldberg a “Never again” journalist.
Never again. No other phrase packs more power in the modern Jewish lexicon… and 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.”
That mindset explained Goldberg’s “fixation” on something that never came to pass, Starobin pointed out: Israel, or maybe the U.S., launching an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. So Goldberg wrote in March 2012:
“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”
Then “still again” to write in July 2012:
that Israeli leaders “may very well decide” to launch a strike before the American election on November 6.
Goldberg was wrong in both predictions.
The issue with a “never again” journalist is that they are overly sensitive to threats against Jews. And while it may be admirable to believe “it is not possible to think too much about the Holocaust,” Starobin showed the consequence: bad journalism.
Peter Beinart is a nice guy. But he has finally realized that the ideological opponents on his right in the Jewish community aren’t going to be swayed by reason and logic. Beinart believes Israel is in spiritual crisis and it has taken a too willing American Jewish community with it. But at long last Peter Beinart has understood that what Jeffrey Goldberg and Jennifer Rubin and Bret Stephens and Jamie Kirchick et al. — “thinking to themselves” — is not subject to Peter Beinart’s persuasion or anyone else for that matter.
Jeffrey Goldberg and Benjamin Netanyahu et al. have cultivated a social construction of reality about Israel and the Jewish people that is not a reflection of the real world. This “hasbara culture” is toxic for Israel and the Jewish people. And nice guy or not, in our conclusion will see how Peter Beinart will take revenge for himself and the American Jewish community on Jeffrey Goldberg and hasbara culture. I think Beinart believes this is the best and maybe only way for everyone to live happily ever after.