“I don’t write about this any more,” Jeffrey Goldberg said of Israel last week in New York.
Then he talked about it for 90 minutes, and it was clear why he doesn’t write about it. Goldberg expressed conservative views on Zionism and Jewish cultural/religious questions, repeatedly derided American political culture as ignorant and ahistorical, and confessed that he is a “misanthrope.”
His views would seem to be at odds with his role as the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, the job he took three years ago, thereby giving up his former function as a writer: explaining Israel to America.
Americans don’t understand the history of Israel, he said at a Jewish Community Center forum in Manhattan on “Antisemitism, Israel and the new politics” (video from December 5 here). In Israel, a “dead” people came back to life and returned home, much as if the Seminole Indians were to return to Florida and claim it as their own land.
Goldberg said he came to the Seminole realization after hours of interviewing Palestinian leaders Faisal al-Husseini and Yasser Arafat.
Many Palestinian leaders understand the conflict not as the conflict between the cowboys– the Jews– and the Indians– the Palestinians.
But the Jews are the Indians, and the Arabs, the Palestinians, the cowboys, in the following sense. What happened in the Middle East– this is not a political commentary about what should actually be done leading to a fair and equitable solution to the challenge here– but what happened here is the equivalent of the Seminoles sitting in Oklahoma or wherever they are today, scattered around the United States– Seminoles coming together and deciding that they’re going back to Florida. And going back in such numbers and telling the whites and blacks and Hispanics of Florida, Oh by the way, we’re home and we’d like a state, and we’d like to take over Florida.
The people of Florida would probably say to them, you haven’t been here in 200 years. This isn’t your home. And the Seminoles would say, Actually, it is our home. This is where our people are buried. This is the center of our religion, this is where we were expelled from.
That [discussion] doesn’t happen; and people need to understand that – what’s happened is, it’s really interesting from an analytical perspective. As Israel has become more and more powerful as a country, and every year it becomes more powerful, it becomes bigger, it becomes more militarily powerful, economically powerful, it’s lost more and more control of its own narrative. The narrative is of an indigenous people coming home to its homeland and to some degree, to a large degree, to some degree, willing to share that homeland or at least parts of that homeland with the people who moved in after. Right? But they lost total control of that narrative, because the people who were opposed to Israel’s existence are very very powerful and clever narrators as well.
In order to understand what’s going on historically you need to understand history…
It is completely natural that the people of Florida would say to the Seminoles who are walking back 200 years after the Trail of Tears, coming back to Florida, What the hell– what do you mean? You don’t live here, your father wasn’t here, your grandfather, your great grandmother, nobody was here, you can’t claim this as your own, but that’s because we don’t really understand and privilege historical memory, among other things.
Goldberg said Zionism is Judaism.
All of Judaism is Zionism because we are a universal religion focused on a very particular place. I get that. It’s all about yearning for the real and spiritual Jerusalem.
Anti-Zionists are antisemites with often murdererous intention in Goldberg’s framework, aimed at “the Jewish soul” and the Jewish people in Israel.
The interesting thing about the antisemitism on the far left is that it plays an unusually sophisticated role in eroding Jewish unity, the Jewish sense of self, the Jewish sense of purpose.
While Islamist terrorism and white nationalism pose a “more immediate threat to the Jewish body as opposed to the Jewish soul,” Goldberg said, the word anti-Zionist “cleanses” other antisemites’ real intentions. Antizionists are like a young couple discussing whether or not to have a baby after they’ve had the baby.
If you’re anti-Zionist, you’re for the forcible removal of Jews from Palestine? Are you for the voluntary transfer of Jews? Are you for their physical murder? Are you for paying them off to leave? What does that mean?
As for one state with equal rights, Goldberg said that is a “utopian ideal,” and maybe in 100 years that will be the answer. But in the Middle East, majority groups have shown over and over again they cannot abide as equals national and religious minorities, be they Kurds, Yazidis or Jews.
To think that the one state solution is a solution means that you are somewhat not playing on the level, you are not looking at the Middle East as it really is.
But anti-Zionism insidiously plays on Jews’ desires to fit in and distance themselves from Israel. Nazism and traditional antisemitism actually bring the Jewish people together. But “Extreme leftism is … far more clever than idiot Nazis running around and it’s far more interestingly insidious because it preys on certain Jewish weaknesses.”
Those weaknesses include social embarrassment: “People who try to prove their social acceptability to non-Jews around them by saying, I’m not like those Jews [in Israel].”
Israel has become to many American Jews what Russian Jews were to German Jews here 120 years ago.
It’s the Jew I’m not like. That’s a psychological distancing mechanism. Its also a self-preservation mechanism.. When you come with the torches don’t come for me!
Some anti-Zionism is legitimate, Goldberg said, but it is antisemitism “when you deny the Jews something you grant other people, which is national equality.” Anti-Zionists don’t talk about Uighurs or other oppressed groups because their interest in Palestinians is a mask for their real interest, Jews. “If people were really interested in the Palestinians there would be a Palestinian state a long time ago, hopefully flourishing.”
Talking about Palestinians is a form of “virtue signalling,” he said. Though the Palestinian question is “a human rights problem, a nation of people thwarted in their desire to have a state,” Goldberg said, the issue is “incredibly complicated.”
Asked about people who don’t think Jews are a nationality, Goldberg bridled:
I can’t help it when people are stupid.
Goldberg said he has always wanted to give smart people a blank sheet of paper and challenge them to write down the history of Israel. “We’d be shocked by what people don’t know about this.” When Bari Weiss of the New York Times said he should do that test as a video for the Atlantic, Goldberg scoffed. “Thank god you’re not the editor of the Atlantic.”
Repeatedly in the discussion Goldberg separated his remarks on stage as a “simple Jew” from his role as editor of the Atlantic. And no wonder: for he expressed contempt for modern American political culture as antithetical to being “fully Jewish.” He said, “Judaism is very countercultural to the dominant American lifestyle or dominant American approach to the world.”
That’s the challenge of being Jewish in America, a place where everything is perpetually new. Especially in this era of technological change, there’s more current information coming at us than ever before, good information and bad information, and there’s no bandwidth anymore to understand things that happened even ten, fifteen minutes ago.
Goldberg derided internet and mainstream culture while embracing conservative Jewish observance.
American culture, web culture, all the cultures that are colliding, right now, an ahistorical culture– don’t really make it easy to do that thing, to preserve your people and your faith through study, learning and discipline. Judaism is not a feeling, it’s a civilization, it’s a theology, it’s a set of texts, it’s languages, it’s stuff that’s hard… It’s always struck me as sad that the largest Jewish-as-Jewish gathering in America, non-haredi [orthodox] gathering, is AIPAC. [Israel lobby group], 15-16,000, 17,000 people in the Washington convention center… It’s politics, they’re not there for Judaism. It would be nice to see 15 to 20,000 non-haredi Jews gathering in a stadium to talk about Judaism.
Being “fully Jewish” is a hard thing, Goldberg said, with “no shortcuts.”
Goldberg held out for a conservative contemplative religious life over the topical work of a journalist. He said that a discussion of the week’s Torah portion would be far more interesting than a discussion of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. While Jews have never had it better than we do in America now, he said, Jews are sadly lacking religious and biblical and historical education, and he mocked a young person for saying that Jews had appropriated the word “ghetto” from people of color– thereby forgetting Jewish ghettoes in Europe.
The discussion was purposely ethnocentric. Goldberg and Bari Weiss said that the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem caused no problems at all. “Nothing actually happened,” Goldberg said. “Nothing happened,” Weiss said. These statements ignore Palestinian experience. On the day the embassy was opened, more than 60 Palestinians were killed in a protest at the Gaza fence. In fact, the Gaza fence demonstrations over the last 18 months began in part because of Trump’s decision (as Ahmed Abu Artema made clear to Allison Deger); and more than 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands maimed in what human rights organizations have called humanitarian crimes.
There has never been such a good time to be a Jew as now, Goldberg said. But the “norm” is that there’s a “virus” in western civilization and Islam against Jews.
To be a Jew in the world is to know two things at the same time. There are a lot of good people in the world. Jewish history is the most optimistic story in the history of humankind because we should have disappeared with the Hittites and we didn’t.
And then to hold the equally strong view that tragedy lurks around every corner. That ever since the two daughter religions of Judaism decided that Judaism was the enemy, that there is a virus in western civilization, in Christian civilization, in Muslim civilization; and the virus manifests itself differently in different generations and that everybody has to be aware of it.