In his 2006 book, Prisoners: A Muslim & A Jew Across the Middle East Divide (re-subtitled A Story of Friendship and Terror for the 2008 paperback edition), Goldberg writes of having been deeply engaged as a child in the Zionist socialist youth movement, attending Hashomer Hatzair overnight camp, or “Bolshevism in the Catskills,” as he refers to it. “Built within that system was the Bolshevik inevitability that we’d be making aliyah—[and become] farmer-soldiers in the land of Israel,” Goldberg says.

A further spur to immigration was provided by a two-week trip he took right after leaving Penn to what was then, in the winter of 1986, still the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, where he traveled with the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. “That kind of radicalized me, or however you’d want to put it,” Goldberg says. “My interests have always been journalism and Jews, and sometimes the intersection. Sometimes the Jewish issue is vocational, but sometimes it’s avocational.” The trip, he said, “set me on the path of trying to go to Israel—and my academic ‘achievements’ made it possible for me to leave early.”

Once in Israel, Goldberg learned that life on the land was not for him. “After two years as a farmer, I knew I was going to go bonkers with boredom.” He managed to land a job writing a humor column for The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s largest English-language newspaper. “I told them, I cannot look at another cow uterus or chicken, please get me off my kibbutz,” he recalls. “Writing a humor column for a right-wing Israeli newspaper wasn’t the easiest thing to do,” he adds, and it was perhaps especially hard then, during the first Gulf War, which was an era of stress and strikes at the paper. “It was so unpleasant that being called up for miluim [army reserve duty] was a relief,” he says.

Most of Prisoners has to do with Goldberg’s experience serving as a military policeman in the Israeli army in 1990 at Ketziot prison camp in the Negev Desert during the period of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada. Many of the prisoners in the camp were PLO leaders and would go on to hold positions in the Palestinian Authority.

The book is emotionally honest, sometimes viscerally so, as Goldberg writes from the vantage point of someone who desperately wants peace in the Middle East but is repeatedly confronted by obstacles of viewpoint and circumstances. His own optimism and drive come through clearly in his friendship with Rafiq, a comparatively moderate Palestinian whom he befriends and with whom he nurtures a friendship, both in the Middle East and in Washington after their prison time ends.

“The army experience: well, it was what it was,” Goldberg says simply. “It was dispiriting, and obviously, in the basic sense, the most interesting thing I’d ever done.” That being said, he left Israel a year or so later. “It was like, my God, it’s enough.”

The issues of identity, homeland, place, and belief Goldberg raises in the book are at the root of who he is—but not all he is. “Part of me would be perfectly happy only writing about the struggles of my people and the issues that dominate Jewish thought and existence,” Goldberg says. “But then I get this other impulse, which is that I don’t want to be parochial—I have other interests.”

So after returning to the US and settling in New York, Goldberg wrote for the Jewish newspaper, The Forward (“a small, scrappy paper run by a kind of visionary guy with old-fashioned scoop-artists who punched above our weight and got attention”), but he also wrote for New York magazine, trying on another journalistic hat: “I recreated myself as the mob reporter for a while, covering the Mafia, which was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Not that a barrel of monkeys is that much fun, but it was awesome.”

Goldberg next became a writer for The New York Times Magazine. His wife, Pamela, was working for the United Nations in West Africa, so Goldberg developed another interest separate from his Jewish identity, writing about that part of the world for the magazine. He didn’t return to Israel for another six or seven years, until Times Magazine editor Adam Moss suggested an article about the Palestinian Authority.

“It was tough to get on the plane,” Goldberg says of his trip back to the Middle East. “I went and did it, and then sort of reintroduced myself to the Middle East, but as a New York Times correspondent, not as a schmuck chicken farmer. It was different.”

It was the late 1990s, a time when, Goldberg says, “the Middle East was still fun and not just apocalyptic.” He thinks it over. “Fine, ‘fun’ might not be the exact word to describe the peace process, or the rise of the Taliban.” Still, “it was before 9/11, so it wasn’t just tragic,” he says. He wrote a cover story in 2000 on the then-new king of Jordan, and spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even studying at a madrassa. He points himself out in the picture on his wall, although he doesn’t really have to—being of Eastern European Jewish stock, he sort of stands out. “I had a defensive beard,” he notes, laughing.

“I wish I could tell you that at that point, I knew what was going to happen,” he continues. “I started realizing something, but unfortunately it was inchoately—something’s going on here, something’s happening—but that’s all.” At a party for the Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, he was introduced to AQ Khan—and had no idea who he was. “Nice to meet you,” he recalls saying to the man who would make Pakistan a nuclear power and sell nuclear technology to Iran, meanwhile thinking, “Wow, that guy really hates America. What’s up with that guy?”

After the Times Magazine, Goldberg moved over to The New Yorker and to more professional accolades. His 2002 article, “The Great Terror,” on Saddam Hussein’s campaign to destroy Iraq’s Kurds, including use of chemical weapons, won the Joe & Laurie Dine Award for international human-rights reporting from the Overseas Press Club, which quoted former CIA director James Woolsey as calling the story “a blockbuster.” A year later, his two-part examination of Hezbollah, “In the Party of God,” won the coveted National Magazine Award for reporting.
 


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FEATURE: Journalism, Jews, and Jeffrey Goldberg by Jordana Horn
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