“This is your family. This is your people.” An Interview with Jeffrey Goldberg

 

By Jeremy Liss and David Fine

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, a Bloomberg View columnist, and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He writes about a variety of subjects, but lately Goldberg’s published works, including his book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, focus on the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider geopolitical movements of the Middle East. Recently, The Current sat down with Goldberg in The Atlantic’s Watergate offices in Washington, D.C. for a discussion reproduced below in condensed and edited format.

Click here to jump to an extended version of this interview.

 

Obama’s kishkas

The Current: You’ve interviewed a lot of interesting people like Barack Obama, for instance. Is there something you see that you can tell us from meeting him about the way he acts—and how that might inform his decision-making and emotional temperament?

Jeffrey Goldberg: There is this perception among Jews that, “Oh, he’s so cold to us, he doesn’t like Israel, he doesn’t like Jews, he doesn’t feel it in the kishkas,” and all that other shit.

The truth is, when you meet him, he is just a cool character.

Like, it’s completely possible to imagine that any world leader upon meeting him comes away thinking, “Wow, I don’t know if that guy liked me,” because he’s just cool. He doesn’t emote, he doesn’t grab your shoulder, he doesn’t hug. It’s all an intellectual relationship he has with people, and you see it up close, and then you sort of walk away understanding. Jews who need a lot of emotional reinforcement on this set of subjects—I’m not saying that as a disparagement, it’s just reality—don’t get what they need from him because of his nature.

[…]

I sort of came away from a couple of encounters with Obama thinking, “Ah, this is why people think that he doesn’t like Israel,” because he’s not a guy who conveys a lot of heat about anything.

And it’s a political fault, in a way, because you’ve got to fake things in order to get your way, and he probably would have had more of his way with certain Jewish constituencies if he had been able to fake sincere love of Israel. I think he has an interesting and sympathetic intellectual relationship with the idea of Israel, and he certainly is a person whose been shaped in many ways by his exposure to Jewish writers, Jewish professors, Jewish thinkers.

Goldberg’s stomachache

The tension comes from two—I want to say contradictory but they are not contradictory—observations, they’re actually independent, but mutually reinforcing, observations.

The first is that the world has it out for Israel. Israel is held to a completely separate standard than any country including the United States. Europe, and this shouldn’t be surprising, Europe is a place that is hostile to the idea of Jewish nationalism. The Arab world is moving toward more extreme forms of anti-Semitism, not toward reconciliation. So, it is true that Israel is singled out for special scorn, it is true that the world has a pornographic interest in Israeli failings, real or imagined, what is also true, and this is the separate observation, is that Israel and its leaders are engaged in various self-destructive policies, from my perspective.

There’s a war going on inside the heart of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people over the definition of Zionism. My definition, and the definition of the original Zionists, I think, is that Zionism is a liberation movement of a people. But there is a minority, but very powerful faction within Israel and the Jewish people, who argues that Zionism is about the redemption of a specific piece of land, and that side, though I think it’s the minority, seems to be driving Israeli policy. And it’s driving Israeli policy in very dangerous ways.

So the stomachache comes from the realization that there are two trends that reinforce each other. One is the world’s dislike of Israel and the other is the set of Israeli policies that create more dislike of Israel and that accelerate it or intensify the dislike, then creates a whole set of other negative reactions in Israel, such as all these moves to essentially, I don’t want to overhype it at this point, but to limit democracy in various ways.

The pain of this is that it’s easy to be one of those people who says, “Israel’s terrible, it’s a ridiculous place, it should be battled.” It’s easy to be one of those people who says, “Israel’s always right and that any criticism directed at Israel from the Jewish community or without is a kind of anti-Semitism.” What’s harder these days is to acknowledge that Israel is on a path in many ways—a self destructive path—and that much of the world is very eager to help Israel destroy itself, and if that doesn’t work then just to destroy it.

And there’s a sadness, there’s a sadness that a lot of Jews feel. Maybe that’s not the word they would use to describe the feeling, but there’s confusion, and there’s angst, and there’s sadness about what’s happening because the narrative is no longer clear. The narrative is muddy. At a certain point you just have to say to Israelis, “Look we have a certain advantage sitting over here, we can understand a little bit better, you’re insular, you’re a very small country but you’re also surprisingly insular.” We have the advantage of sitting here and looking there and saying, “This isn’t going down very well…it’s certainly not going down well with many Jews college age and in their late twenties and thirties.” They’re not relating to it in the same way that people in their mid forties relate to it.

It’s interesting, I was thinking about this the other day: My feelings about Israel were completely shaped and formed before the first uprising, which was 1987. Then, okay, so I had a basis, a platform, on which to think about Israel, and it was a positive platform. And then you sort of can criticize and analyze, but you have at bottom a kind of positive notion about why the basic cause of Israel is just, even if many of its policies are cruel or self defeating or greedy or whatever word you want to use. What’s happening on campus today is that people your age have only known Israel as a country stuck in this swamp of settlement and occupation and you’ve only known Israel, the conflict, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People older than you remember it as the Israeli-Arab conflict, and those are very different things.

The Arab Spring: cycle breaker or accelerator?

It’s not an Arab Spring. It’s an Islamist Awakening. The Muslim Brotherhood-style groups are coming into power, are or will be coming into power, in half a dozen countries. The Muslim Brotherhood is theologically committed to the idea of the elimination of Israel. It’s a theological problem. Israel poses a theological problem. There is a solution to the theological problem.

I don’t spend a lot of time hunting down moderate Islamist leaders. I think if you’re an Islamist, you’re an Islamist: You have a set of beliefs about Jews and Israel that is fairly immutable. That’s not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood, when it takes power in Egypt, is going to break the peace treaty in Israel. I don’t think the Egyptians are particularly interested in having a war with Israel, I just don’t think there is any hope for a negotiated settlement backed by moderate Arab regimes.

I think this is part of a natural historical cycle. Trying to stop it is like trying to stop the weather. We are moving through—Arabs moved through nationalism and it didn’t work, then it moved through a long period of dictatorship that’s coming to an end, now it’s going to move through a period of more Islamist influenced governance. It won’t work.

There will be at least one election in these countries. If there is a second election, that will be interesting. I mean it doesn’t seem like from what I know, I don’t think that democracy is in and of itself a high or overwhelmingly important value of these parties. Democracy might be a means to an end. If you think that you’re carrying out God’s will and God has put you into power, it’s hard to accept that a manmade system, democratic elections, should remove you from power, so I don’t know.

The PA on life support

In this historical moment I don’t see a breakthrough with the Palestinians. What I assume is going to happen is that the Palestinians will, at a certain point—the West Bank Palestinians—will dissolve the Palestinian Authority. Maybe by 2013 at the latest—the 20th anniversary of Oslo. The Palestinian Authority was created as a negotiating mechanism for the Palestinians with Israel. Twenty years gone by and there’s no Palestinian state. I think the Palestinian Authority will disband itself.

And if I were a Palestinian strategist, a political strategist, as opposed to a military strategist, I would simply say let’s dissolve this. Tell the Israelis, “Look, you are the occupier anyway, so let’s just formalize this. Go back to your occupation. You’re in charge of garbage collection and security, and, oh, by the way, we also want to vote in Israel. Since we’ve been under your control for 45, 46 years, let’s just get the vote. You’re not going to let us go, you’re not going to let us be a country, so we’ll just vote in Israel, thank you very much.”—And then, and then the conflict moves into the next phase, the phase that the smartest Palestinian strategists seek, which is the South Africa phase. When American Jews, among others, are confronted with the simple Palestinian demand for a vote and have to say to themselves, “Well, what do I support? Do I support a Jews-only democracy or do I support democracy?” It’s going to be a tough one.

Current: What do you think will happen with American Zionism at that point?

JG: The minority of American Jews are for Israel no matter what Israel does, or support whatever measures a right-wing Israeli government will take to ensure the continued Jewishness of the Israeli state. I think the majority of American Jews at that point might wash their hands and say, “You know, the Jewish state is important to us, but democracy is more important to us. Since we support the right to vote of people around the world and the right of people to be free around the world, you’ve got to give them the right to vote, or create a Palestinian state.”

Now I tend to think that Jews aren’t so self destructive, that, at that point, when the world says on behalf of the Palestinians, ”Give the Arabs in the West Bank the vote.” I think that those Jews who believe that Zionism is mainly about the redemption of the land will say, “I cannot give up this land no matter what, so my choice is maybe I should just give them the vote because I’d sooner give them the vote than leave Shechem.”

But I think the majority of Israelis would say, “Well if two-million West Bank Arabs have the vote, then we are basically moving toward binationalism, and binationalism didn’t even work in Belgium, so it certainly isn’t going to work here—it will end in chaos and war, so let’s just get the hell out of Dodge, let’s just get the hell out of the West Bank.” And again, the problem with that is it’s not on the Israeli timetable, it’s not in the conditions that Israel wants to create that would be ideal. It would be as a last-ditch move to try to salvage what’s left of the idea of a Jewish state.

Current: Isn’t there a Palestinian side to the equation, though, in terms of vying for Palestinian statehood?

JG: I think they’re going to give up. Look, like I’ve said, maybe there is…Palestinians are not in love with the idea of a state in the Gaza and the West Bank. That’s not what they want. A lot will settle for it, because that’s what reality is dictating, but I think, I’m not pulling this out of the air, I talk to people. I think smart people know that this will be and this might bring about the creation of that Palestinian state that they’re not really enthusiastic about.

But, it also might bring about something—look if you’re a Palestinian, even a moderate Palestinian, you don’t believe that the Jews have a national—you don’t believe the Jews are a nation—you don’t believe they have a national right to a state. You want your whole country back. You’ve been inculcated in this from birth, and if you see Israel on the ropes a little bit, you know it’s T.S. Eliot: “The giving famishes the craving.” This is the problem of all negotiations—is that Palestinians, when they think that Israelis are on the ropes, they don’t start asking for less, they start asking for more. It’s what you would do.

It’s why Gaza didn’t work. The Palestinians had a choice, they could have said, “Oh, this is great, we have Gaza. Let’s build a building infrastructure, and let’s have a business, and maybe some high-tech and some tourism.” No, they were like, “Ah, and they’re running away because we used weapons against them.” So I’m not, as you can tell, an optimistic dude.

 

Ahmadinejad’s date with a tank-barrel & Israel’s Rabin shortage

We’re very good at survival. We’re not—history shows—we’re not so excellent at statehood. Survival has occurred mainly in the diaspora. We are mainly a diaspora people. We’re not really good at this. That’s just the record. On the other hand, we just tend to survive.

Ahmadinejad, I’m convinced, someone’s going to eventually hang him from a tank-barrel. He’s going to be remembered as a footnote in history, and I think the Jews will just chug along with the next phase of their history. So, if you closely study Jewish survival over three-thousand years, you have to say, “Yeah, we’ll get out of this one too.” We got out of the worst one. With some damage, obviously, like 33% of all the Jews being killed, but I tend to think we’ll get out of this one.

But, the story of Israel the last twenty years is the story of the awesome power of assassination to change the course of history. It’s impossible to do the counter-factual history and say, “If Rabin had lived, X and Y and Z would have happened.” But I don’t know.

Current: You don’t see another Rabin emerging?

JG: He hasn’t shown his face yet. I keep hoping that Netanyahu is that guy. The irony, obviously—it’s not even an irony, it’s sort of the reality of Netanyahu—is that he’s the only person in Israeli politics who can deliver 75% of the Israeli population to a painful compromise, he just doesn’t seem to want to do it. In that recalcitrance, in that hesitation to do it, of course, is his credibility with the Israeli people. Your typical Israeli, not a settler necessarily, is saying, “If Netanyahu says this is a safe thing to do, then it’s a safe thing to do.” That was Rabin’s credibility. So, I like Tzipi Livni a lot, I don’t know if she’s going to be able to carry 75% of the Jews of Israel to territorial compromise. I don’t know if she has the credibility.

[…]

Let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of an Israeli. 2000, Ehud Barak pulls out troops from Lebanon as the world demanded, and gets Hezbollah on the border leading to the 2006 war and leading to a Lebanon that is essentially a Hezbollah state, right? 2005, Ariel Sharon comes along and says—Oh, Ariel Sharon is the other—there is assassination and there is stroke. The ability of a stroke to change history, a single man’s stroke to change history, is astonishing. Sharon comes along and says to the Israeli people, “We have to pull out of Gaza, not only the settlers, but the army, it’s best for the future demographics of the state, we can’t afford to be there anymore.” He does it, because he’s Sharon, he gets it done. And, you don’t get Singapore on the Mediterranean, you get Hamas and rockets.

So in the last decade or so, you’re an Israeli and you’re looking at the situation in your North and in your South, and you say, “Each time we’ve pulled out of land, we get rocket attacks in exchange, so now you’re telling me you want to pull out, not of the far North or not of the South, but you want me to give Palestinians land that overlooks Ben-Gurion National Airport and Tel Aviv? You’re out of your mind.”

You can understand that. Which is why, look, we all know, it’s cliché to say it, but everyone knows what the peace treaty is going to look like. And there is going to be an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for a set number of years, which is, of course, a sticking point or a breaking point for the Palestinians, but that’s reality. The point is that only Netanyahu at this point could create a peace deal and sell it to the majority of Israelis. I don’t think there is another Israeli politician who can do it.

Bibi Netanyahu’s Cubans

JG: Oh there’s a great interview.

Current: Yea?

JG: That’s a joke.

Laughter

That’s like…that’s like pulling teeth out of a mule. He’s hard to interview. He’s hard to sort of get going. He’s got his set piece answers and there’s a kind of rigidity that is not very pleasant. Once when I was interviewing he started—in his office—he took out a cigar and started smoking it. And two things struck me: he didn’t offer me a cigar and he also didn’t say, “Oh by the way are you fatally allergic to cigar smoke?” or, “Do you mind if I smoke a cigar?” He just kind of smoked the cigar and I thought, “That’s not cool. What is that about?”

And you don’t want to over-interpret specific personality quirks and make them stand in for the whole, but I was like, “Okay. You’re going to blow cigar smoke in my face. Fine, go ahead, and you’re the prime minister, so what am I going to say? I’m going stop the interview because you’re pissing me off?”

Anyway seeing people up close is—even in short bursts of exposure—it’s pretty useful..Tempting Israel’s democratic fate.

[…]

I think that Netanyahu is classically liberal in a Jabotinsky mold. I think he understands the value of democracy, and unfettered free speech, and an independent judiciary.

[…]

Israel’s big selling point in America is that it’s the only democracy in the Middle East. If it ceases to be the only democracy in the Middle East, whether because it ceases to be a democracy, or because other countries rise up as democracies—and it’s going to be hard to argue that Tunisia soon isn’t a democracy, Egypt is another question, Libya’s certainly another question—but, if you see the executive try to manipulate the supreme court, if you see laws banning free speech as it relates to calling for boycotts, if you see laws designed to punish the press, people are going to sort of say that they’re proud of Israel as a democracy in a hostile area, and if it ceases to be that, I think they are going to lose support.

Israel has to balance that out. Yes, it’s fair to say that some of these NGOs that are supported by European governments, some of these NGOs are advocating for basically the elimination of Israel, and that’s problematic. But, you have to weigh that against how much of a problem is it if the world ceases to understand us to be a democracy? It’s not good. It’s not good.

[…]

And none of this, “Well you can vote in Jordan but you live here,” crap. You live on this piece of land and that’s where you’re going to vote. It just doesn’t work. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? And I’m not waiting for Hashem to go fix it. That’s a great comfort, if you can believe like a child that Hashem is going to come and fix the problem that you’ve created then great, but he didn’t fix the Holocaust, so I don’t know that he’s going to fix this one. No offense, he’s just busy.

Current: Hopefully lightning doesn’t—

JG: —I would appreciate that, because then I would know: “Oh! Didn’t realize you were listening. Excellent, I’m very happy now to know.” But you know what I mean, it’s nice to be a settler and have this childish belief.

Current: Do you really think that’s what settlers believe?

JG: I don’t know what settlers believe. They believe that they create their own reality, they create their own mental realities. Also, look, the truth is that democracy is a very high, very important value for me. It doesn’t have to be an important value for other people. …What percentage of American Jews would still support Israel if it ceased to become a democracy—if it ratified itself in some way as a non-democratic state, as a state of Jews in which had limited press freedom and not independent judiciary, in which the government basically states to the world, Palestinians are going to live in a condition of, in essence, perpetual non-citizenship. What percentage of American Jews would stick with Israel?

Grow up, stop schnoring, this is your people

Yea, it’s interesting because I try to think about tzedakah dollars too. With the fire in the Carmel last winter, I got some schnorey letter from the JNF, saying, “We need fire trucks. Buy fire trucks for Israel.” It’s like, for fuck sakes, you’re a nuclear power. A world center for IT and high-tech, buy your own damn fire trucks. I wrote this thing—and I don’t mind supporting orphanages, that’s fine, Jewish educational institutions, the traditional recipients of non-tax dollars—but stop being so schnorey. You’re a grownup country. Grownup countries fund their own fire departments. They don’t beg American Jews for fire trucks. Anyway, I got in trouble for that one. I don’t care. It just pissed me off.

[…]

I don’t mind Jews who are critical of Israel. Obviously I mind the lunatics who call for the destruction of Israel, I think that’s anti-Semitic. If Palestinians deserve a country, Jews deserve a country, it’s not that hard philosophically. But, what I don’t like is disengagement. We live in this age of the wicked son, who basically says, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me.” It does have something to do with you. This is your family. This is your people.

 

\\JEREMY LISS is a junior in Columbia College and the Creative Editor of The Current. DAVID FINE is a junior in Columbia College and Editor in Chief of The Current. Jeremy can be reached at [email protected], and David can be reached at [email protected]

 

Please find an extended, less condensed and edited version of The Current‘s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg below:

Obama’s Kishkas

The Current: You’ve interviewed a lot of interesting people: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Fidel Castro, Christopher Hitchens. Is there something you see that you can tell us from meeting these people about the way they act—and how that informs their decision-making and their emotional temperament?

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yeah, it makes sense in a couple of cases. It’s interesting: it makes sense in the Obama case because in this specific area that we’re talking about—Israel policy, Middle East policy, his relationship with the Jewish community, you know, there is this—it’s actually an interesting question—because there is this perception among Jews that, “Oh, he’s so cold to us, he doesn’t like Israel, he doesn’t like Jews, he doesn’t feel it in the kishkas,” and all that other shit.

The truth is, when you meet him, he is just a cool character. Like, it’s completely possible to imagine that any world leader upon meeting him comes away thinking, “Wow, I don’t know if that guy liked me,” because he’s just cool. He doesn’t emote, he doesn’t grab your shoulder, he doesn’t hug. It’s all an intellectual relationship he has with people, and you see it up close, and then you sort of walk away understanding, Jews who need a lot of emotional reinforcement on this set of subjects—I’m not saying that as a disparagement, it’s just reality—don’t get what they need from him because of his nature.

In other words, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, to use two examples, are generally understood to be friends of the Jews, friends of Israel, they love it, but they say very many critical things, but it’s all within this framework of, “Oh, he’s okay, because I know he loves us.” Once a politician proves that he loves Israel, he can pretty much say whatever he wants. George W. Bush probably could have gotten away with saying almost much anything about Israel because anyone’s baseline assumption is, “Oh he’s saying that from love, he’s not saying it from a loathing, or from neutrality, at least.” And I sort of came away from a couple of encounters with Obama thinking, “Ah, this is why people think that he doesn’t like Israel,” because he’s not a guy who conveys a lot of heat about anything.

And it’s a political fault, in a way, because you’ve got to fake things in order to get your way, and he probably would have had more of his way with certain Jewish constituencies if he had been able to fake sincere love of Israel. I think he has an interesting and sympathetic intellectual relationship with the idea of Israel, and he certainly is a person whose been shaped in many ways by his exposure to Jewish writers, Jewish professors, Jewish thinkers. Anyway, so that’s interesting. I don’t know about the other ones. You got to get a little more specific if I’m going to answer…

Current: Compared to like Bibi Netanyahu, for instance…

JG: Oh there’s a great interview.

Current: Yea?

JG: That’s a joke.

Laughter

That’s like…that’s like pulling teeth out of a mule. He’s hard to interview. He’s hard to sort of get going. He’s got his set piece answers and there’s a kind of rigidity that is not very pleasant. Once when I was interviewing he started—in his office—he took out a cigar and started smoking it. And two things struck me: he didn’t offer me a cigar and he also didn’t say, “Oh by the way are you fatally allergic to cigar smoke?” or, “Do you mind if I smoke a cigar?” He just kind of smoked the cigar and I thought, “That’s not cool. What is that about?”

And you don’t want to over-interpret specific personality quirks and make them stand in for the whole, but I was like, “Okay. You’re going to blow cigar smoke in my face. Fine, go ahead, and you’re the prime minister, so what am I going to say? I’m going stop the interview because you’re pissing me off?” Anyway seeing people up close is—even in short bursts of exposure—it’s pretty useful.

Current: so what does something like that tell you about his decision-making capabilities or what his process might be?

JG: I guess it means—maybe this is over-interpretation, over-extrapolation—but maybe it means that he is not a guy who is particularly interested in the other person, and what the other people might think. And this leads me to the his decision-making on Iran, which is to say, I believe if he decides that this is what he has to do, he’s going to do it and no amount of back and forth is going to convince him otherwise, because he doesn’t really like the back and forth. He’s sort of a freight train.

 

The Iranian Problem

Current: You wrote your article about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran last year. Do you think you would still make the same conclusion? You said there was a 50/50 chance that Israel….

JG: Well there was a 50/50 chance.

Current: Right, well, that’s easy. Let’s say if you wrote that article today, what would be different about it?

JG: That article just seemed to be slightly ahead of its time. What I noticed last year when I did the reporting was that Bibi was there, Barack wasn’t quite there yet, and what’s changed is that I think Barack is more in line, and also that people like Dagan and others are not in the government anymore.

I mean, I thought, based on the circumstances, that it was a 50/50 or better than 50/50 chance that they would do it by, I guess it would have been August of this year. There is something to me, journalistically, you get more attention obviously for an article when you put something out there like that, but the danger is that people think, “Oh you’re saying that they’re going do it.” Right now I tend to believe that it’s highly plausible that they will try to strike Iran sooner rather than later. Not because I think Iran is closer to crossing the nuclear threshold, but because I think the window of opportunity for Israel to actually try to physically set back the nuclear program is closing. Certainly people that I talk to in the United States government feel the same way—that there is that kind of fatalism about it, the, “Israel’s going to do what Israel does,” sort of fatalism that I’m picking up.

Current: You said that Obama seems to be more in line. Does that mean that—

JG: —I’ve always thought that Obama, I’ve always thought that the Israelis are making a mistake by thinking that Obama would not, under any circumstances, try to set back the Iranian nuclear program militarily. I always think that’s a mistake for any number of reasons and it doesn’t have to do with Israel. Most of his reasoning—I mean he understands what would happen—I believe based on reporting that he understands that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is not in America’s best interest. Really not in America’s best interest. Not in the best interest of America’s allies, not in the best interest of the world’s energy supply, for any number of reasons. I don’t think it’s probable that he will use military action, I think it’s plausible.

Current: On your blog you say, “It’s bad for Iran to get a nuclear bomb. It’s also bad for America or Israel to attack.” Do you think there’s a third possibility that with a regime change Iran wouldn’t be as—

JG: —well that’s the best option, but there’s a lot of different clocks moving. There’s the Israeli clock, there’s the Iranian regime clock, and then there’s the democracy clock. There’re two ways of out this. One is that the sabotage problems, the sabotage efforts, on the part of Israel and the United States, continue to be effective so that the Iranians can’t develop nuclear weapons. The second is that the Iranian people succeed where they so far failed to get rid of the mullahs. I’m not counting on that one. In 2009, everyone was pretty hopeful, but I wouldn’t be so hopeful right now. For me, it’s not the issue of, Iran under no circumstances should have nuclear weapons. Under the best of circumstances nobody would have nuclear weapons, obviously. It’s which Iranians. If it’s a moderate pro-Western regime, fine. I mean it’s not ideal, but it’s whose in charge of the weapons that is important.

Current: So you don’t think that there’s enough grassroots energy there for the regime to be toppled?

JG: I don’t know if there is grassroots energy. The regime has shown a willingness to slaughter everyone who gets in its path, and as long as the regime has a set number of people to count on in the revolutionary guard corps, and the basij militia, and the other state security apparatus—you’re willing to kill your own people in large numbers, go on the roofs and shoot them down while they demonstrate, then you’re going to succeed for a while.

Current: Can the U.S. government do anything about that short of military incursions?

JG: Not that much. You can provide support, you can provide moral support, but I mean, yeah, I suppose, you could support in more direct ways, Iranian dissident groups, but then of course you create the danger of having the revolution look like an American funded and plotted program. And that doesn’t help Iranians very much.

 

U.S. and Pakistan: A Looming Rupture?

Current: So let’s move onto a regime that does have nuclear weapons and is the topic of your most recent cover story—

JG: —Ah—

Current: So you published this cover story about the relationship that the U.S. has with Pakistan and that was before Hussain Haqqani was fired, basically, as ambassador to the U.S. and before this NATO airstrike that killed 25 Pakistani troops. And in that article you concluded that the relationship is valuable but needs to be recalibrated. Would you make that same conclusion today after these other things have happened?

JG: Yeah, I mean, you always have to look for the thing that’s not happening, not only the thing that’s happening. The Pakistanis have said that they’re going to shut down that air base that the CIA runs drones out of—they’ve said it twice before and they haven’t. They’re shutting down the supply route temporarily, but they won’t do it forever. It’s a bad marriage in which one partner is always yelling, “This is it I want a divorce,” and the other one says, “Fine let’s have a divorce.” And then they don’t do it and they just continue to live with each other and fight, and then there’s another eruption and they both scream about getting a divorce and they don’t get a divorce. That’s what’s happening now. Both sides need the other side for various things—I mean, look, a third of the Pakistani military budget comes from U.S. aid. They like their toys, they like their tanks, they like their planes. The Chinese don’t make stuff that’s good enough for them, also the Chinese won’t sell them the same stuff. And the U.S. obviously needs them because we’re in Afghanistan. So, it’s going to be a lot of yelling…every time you think this is it, this is the rupture, this is the final break, it’s not the final break.

Current: Is there something that would cause the rupture?

JG: Yeah! You could posit a dozen scenarios in which things go really sideways. I haven’t seen it yet. I mean, let’s just say, if the Times Square bomber had succeeded, and then traced back to Pakistan, to militant camps in Pakistan—he was a Pakistani export—if it had worked it would have required a number…I’m not saying it would have required an American military response, but an American military response against the camps inside Pakistan and the organizations that helped him would have been on the table. And that could lead to a real rupture.

At a certain point, the Pakistani military knows that it won’t have the public’s backing if it continues to deal with the American military, and, if that threshold is crossed, then anything is possible. But yeah, we’re one terrorist attack away—one Pakistani-originated terrorist attack away—from some sort of rupture, but the relationship seems to be more resilient than people give it credit.

 

Goldberg’s Stomachache

Current: So I guess let’s move onto Israel…

JG: Do we have to?

Current: Only if you want to…

JG: I’m kidding.

Current: You write about it a decent amount.

JG: Yeah, I’ll have to stop.

Current: Right. So an interesting question—

JG: —It gives me a stomachache—

Current: —It does? And that’s kind of our question. You write a lot about Jewish identity and a lot about your personal feelings about Israel, but at the same time you write a lot of professional journalistic pieces about it. So is there kind of a tension there that is giving you that stomachache?

JG: That’s not the tension…

Current: What is the tension? How do you navigate it?

JG: That’s not the tension. The tension comes from two—I want to say contradictory but they are not contradictory—observations, they’re actually independent, but mutually reinforcing, observations.

The first is that the world has it out for Israel. Israel is held to a completely separate standard than any country including the United States. Europe, and this shouldn’t be surprising, Europe is a place that is hostile to the idea of Jewish nationalism. The Arab world is moving toward more extreme forms of anti-Semitism, not toward reconciliation. So, it is true that Israel is singled out for special scorn, it is true that the world has a pornographic interest in Israeli failings, real or imagined, what is also true, and this is the separate observation, is that Israel and its leaders are engaged in various self-destructive policies, from my perspective.

There’s a war going on inside the heart of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people over the definition of Zionism. My definition, and the definition of the original Zionists, I think, is that Zionism is a liberation movement of a people. But there is a minority, but very powerful faction within Israel and the Jewish people, who argues that Zionism is about the redemption of a specific piece of land, and that side, though I think it’s the minority, seems to be driving Israeli policy. And it’s driving Israeli policy in very dangerous ways.

So the stomachache comes from the realization that there are two trends that reinforce each other. One is the world’s dislike of Israel and the other is the set of Israeli policies that create more dislike of Israel and that accelerate it or intensify the dislike, then creates a whole set of other negative reactions in Israel, such as all these moves to essentially, I don’t want to overhype it at this point, but to limit democracy in various ways.

So the pain of this is that, it’s easy to be one of those people who says, “Israel’s terrible, it’s a ridiculous place, it should be battled.” It’s easy to be one of those people who says, “Israel’s always right and that any criticism directed at Israel from the Jewish community or without is a kind of anti-Semitism.” What’s harder these days is to acknowledge that Israel is on a path in many ways—a self destructive path—and that much of the world is very eager to help Israel destroy itself, and if that doesn’t work then just to destroy it.

And there’s a sadness, there’s a sadness that a lot of Jews feel. Maybe that’s not the word they would use to describe the feeling, but there’s confusion, and there’s angst, and there’s sadness about what’s happening because the narrative is no longer clear. The narrative is muddy. At a certain point you just have to say to Israelis, “Look we have a certain advantage sitting over here, we can understand a little bit better, you’re insular, you’re a very small country but you’re also surprisingly insular.” We have the advantage of sitting here and looking there and saying, “This isn’t going down very well…it’s certainly not going down well with many Jews college age and in their late-20s and 30s.” They’re not relating to it in the same way that people in their mid-40s relate to it.

It’s interesting, I was thinking about this the other day: My feelings about Israel were completely shaped and formed before the first uprising, which was 1987. Then, okay, so I had a basis, a platform, on which to think about Israel, and it was a positive platform. And then you sort of can criticize and analyze, but you have at bottom a kind of positive notion about why the basic cause of Israel is just, even if many of its policies are cruel or self defeating or greedy or whatever word you want to use. What’s happening on campus today is that people your age have only known Israel as a country stuck in this swamp of settlement and occupation and you’ve only known Israel, the conflict, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People older than you remember it as the Israeli-Arab conflict, and those are very different things.

Anyway, sorry to digress, but that’s the pain. And also the fact that you can’t really see a way out.

Current: Do you see a way out?

JG: I used to believe. It’s so logical to me that, look, I don’t believe necessarily that the Palestinians are ready for peace on my terms, what I would consider to be an equitable peace. I also think there’s ways for Israel to behave that can create a larger constituency among the Palestinians for that peace. Obviously the pullout from Gaza didn’t work the way it was supposed to. The fatal flaw of that was that it was a unilateral move that removed both the settlers and the army. I think that the way out of this is the reverse the settlement program, as a gesture to the Palestinians and as a means of self preservation, as a means of preserving the Jewish democratic nature of Israel. But not removing actual military control over the west bank, pending negotiation. That’s something that you have to negotiate. But, and I used to think, “that this is so logical to me, it’s going to be logical to Israelis,” but obviously it’s not apparent to a large enough number of Israelis that it’s going to happen any time soon. So I just see a continual devolution. Each time we cycle through, the cycles are either intensified by violence or more international isolation.

And the thing I worry about almost more than anything else is the prospect of a divorce between Israeli Jewry and American Jewry. I mean, there will always be AIPAC, there will be AIPAC for the foreseeable future, and I think AIPAC does a good job of masking some other phenomena that are happening in the American Jewish community. I don’t know, you guys should be the experts on this, you go to Columbia.

Laughter

I mean, am I wrong?

Current: Amongst the Jews that we speak to, those who are supportive of Israel don’t like talking about it because the conversation around it has become so toxic. So those Jews who have these big questions about it don’t really get to exercise those questions as much. And that leads to this angst and this disenchantment.

JG: But at Columbia, which is a heavily Jewish campus, what percentage of the Jews on the campus don’t actually even care?

Current: It’s hard to gauge—a small percentage don’t care at all.

JG: Columbia I think is a little bit of an—

Current: —it’s a little bit of an outlier.

JG: Yeah, I don’t know. Columbia is a strange place.

Anyway, the trouble for me comes in trying to write about both of these problems simultaneously. Each side wants you to take a side obviously: Israel is blamed for everything, Israel is blamed for nothing. The truth is complicated in this situation and so, I just, I wish Israel were better and I wish the world didn’t have it out for Israel at the same time, to put it that way.

 

Israel and the Arab Spring

Current: Do you think that with the Arab Spring that could open new possible solutions to the conflict? For example, if Jordan were to have democracy, if they had a Palestinian majority there, could that open a situation where the West—

JG: —Oh you mean Jordan as Palestine, as a route?—

Current: —Yeah or—

JG: —If you think Palestinians are going to overthrow that Hashemite kingdom, rename the country Palestine, and say, “okay, we’re finished!” No. No the Arab Spring holds out the opposite of hope for Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

Current: Why is that?

JG: Because it’s not an Arab Spring. It’s an Islamist Awakening. The Muslim Brotherhood-style groups are coming into power, are or will be coming into power, in half a dozen countries. The Muslim Brotherhood is theologically committed to the idea of the elimination of Israel. It’s a theological problem. Israel poses a theological problem. There is a solution to the theological problem.

I don’t spend a lot of time hunting down moderate Islamist leaders. I think if you’re an Islamist, you’re an Islamist: You have a set of beliefs about Jews and Israel that is fairly immutable. That’s not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood, when it takes power in Egypt, is going to break the peace treaty in Israel. I don’t think the Egyptians are particularly interested in having a war with Israel, I just don’t think there is any hope for a negotiated settlement backed by moderate Arab regimes.

I think this is part of a natural historical cycle. Trying to stop it is like trying to stop the weather. We are moving through—Arabs moved through nationalism and it didn’t work, then it moved through a long period of dictatorship that’s coming to an end, now it’s going to move through a period of more Islamist influenced governance. It won’t work—

Current: —Democratic?

JG: There will be at least one election in these countries.  If there is a second election, that will be interesting. I mean it doesn’t seem like from what I know, I don’t think that democracy is in and of itself a high or overwhelmingly important value of these parties. Democracy might be a means to an end. If you think that you’re carrying out God’s will and God has put you into power, it’s hard to accept that a manmade system, democratic elections, should remove you from power, so I don’t know.

 

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

But obviously we’re moving in a—I just wrote my Bloomberg column for tomorrow about this—it’s about the anti-Semitism in the Arab Spring movement and what it means. So I don’t see anything hopeful about it vis-à-vis Israel. I think it obviously makes it harder. In this historical moment I don’t see a breakthrough with the Palestinians. What I assume is going to happen is that the Palestinians will, at a certain point—the West Bank Palestinians—will dissolve the Palestinian Authority. Maybe by 2013 at the latest—the 20th anniversary of Oslo. The Palestinian Authority was created as a negotiating mechanism for the Palestinians with Israel. Twenty years gone by and there’s no Palestinian state. I think the Palestinian Authority will disband itself.

And if I were a Palestinian strategist, a political strategist, as opposed to a military strategist, I would simply say let’s dissolve this. Tell the Israelis, “Look, you are the occupier anyway, so let’s just formalize this. Go back to your occupation. You’re in charge of garbage collection and security, and, oh, by the way, we also want to vote in Israel. Since we’ve been under your control for 45, 46 years, let’s just get the vote. You’re not going to let us go, you’re not going to let us be a country, so we’ll just vote in Israel, thank you very much.”

Current: You think that’s most—

JG: —And then, and then the conflict moves into the next phase, the phase that the smartest Palestinian strategists seek, which is the South Africa phase. When American Jews, among others, are confronted with the simple Palestinian demand for a vote and have to say to themselves, “Well, what do I support? Do I support a Jews-only democracy or do I support democracy?” It’s going to be a tough one.

Current: What do you think will happen with American Zionism at that point?

JG: The minority of American Jews are for Israel no matter what Israel does, or support whatever measures a right-wing Israeli government will take to ensure the continued Jewishness of the Israeli state. I think the majority of American Jews at that point might wash their hands and say, “You know, the Jewish state is important to us, but democracy is more important to us. Since we support the right to vote of people around the world and the right of people to be free around the world, you’ve got to give them the right to vote, or create a Palestinian state.”

Now I tend to think that Jews aren’t so self destructive, that, at that point, when the world says on behalf of the Palestinians, ”Give the Arabs in the West Bank the vote.” I think that those Jews who believe that Zionism is mainly about the redemption of the land will say, “I cannot give up this land no matter what, so my choice is maybe I should just give them the vote because I’d sooner give them the vote than leave Shechem.”

But I think the majority of Israelis would say, “Well if two-million West Bank Arabs have the vote, then we are basically moving toward binationalism, and binationalism didn’t even work in Belgium, so it certainly isn’t going to work here—it will end in chaos and war, so let’s just get the hell out of Dodge, let’s just get the hell out of the West Bank.” And again, the problem with that is it’s not on the Israeli timetable, it’s not in the conditions that Israel wants to create that would be ideal. It would be as a last-ditch move to try to salvage what’s left of the idea of a Jewish state.

So I don’t know. I just don’t see anything good coming down the pike. You’d like the think that, again, you’d like the think that the Israeli government, the Israeli national leadership, when faced with the choice of the South Africanization of their country, the loss of support of the majority of Diaspora Jews, possibly the loss of support among Americans as a whole, would say, “You know what, fine, we can’t swallow the West Bank whole, and we can’t give these people the vote.” I think there would be some Israelis who will say, and they have already, “Let’s just give them the vote. They’ll only be thirty-five or forty percent of the total polity.”

Current: Isn’t there a Palestinian side to the equation, though, in terms of vying for Palestinian statehood?

JG: I think they’re going to give up. Look, like I’ve said, maybe there is…Palestinians are not in love with the idea of a state in the Gaza and the West Bank. That’s not what they want. A lot will settle for it, because that’s what reality is dictating, but I think, I’m not pulling this out of the air, I talk to people. I think smart people know that this will be and this might bring about the creation of that Palestinian state that they’re not really enthusiastic about.

But, it also might bring about something—look if you’re a Palestinian, even a moderate Palestinian, you don’t believe that the Jews have a national—you don’t believe the Jews are a nation—you don’t believe they have a national right to a state. You want your whole country back. You’ve been inculcated in this from birth, and if you see Israel on the ropes a little bit, you know it’s T.S. Eliot: “The giving famishes the craving.” This is the problem of all negotiations—is that Palestinians, when they think that Israelis are on the ropes, they don’t start asking for less, they start asking for more. It’s what you would do.

It’s why Gaza didn’t work. The Palestinians had a choice, they could have said, “Oh, this is great, we have Gaza. Let’s build a building infrastructure, and let’s have a business, and maybe some high-tech and some tourism.” No, they were like, “Ah, and they’re running away because we used weapons against them.” So I’m not, as you can tell, an optimistic dude.

 

Potential for Peace

Current: No optimism, nothing?

JG: Jewish history teaches me to be optimistic. You know, we’re like the Penelope pit-stop of peoples. That was very alliterative.

Laughs

It’s like we’re tied to the railroad track, Dudley Do-right is nowhere to be seen, the train is barreling down, and somehow we get off the track. Maybe that’s not an excellent analogy, you know, given the Holocaust.

Laughs

Current: We weren’t going to mention it.

JG: You know what I mean. It’s like the classic Jewish experience. We’re very good at survival. We’re not—history shows—we’re not so excellent at statehood. Survival has occurred mainly in the Diaspora. We are mainly a Diaspora people. We’re not really good at this. That’s just the record. On the other hand, we just tend to survive.

Ahmadinejad,  I’m convinced, someone’s going to eventually hang him from a tank-barrel. He’s going to be remembered as a footnote in history, and I think the Jews will just chug along with the next phase of their history. So, if you closely study Jewish survival over three-thousand years, you have to say, “Yeah, we’ll get out of this one too.” We got out of the worst one. With some damage, obviously, like 33% of all the Jews being killed, but I tend to think we’ll get out of this one.

But, the story of Israel the last twenty years is the story of the awesome power of assassination to change the course of history. It’s impossible to do the counter-factual history and say, “If Rabin had lived, X and Y and Z would have happened.” But I don’t know.

Current: You don’t see another Rabin emerging?

JG: He hasn’t shown his face yet. I keep hoping that Netanyahu is that guy. The irony, obviously—it’s not even an irony, it’s sort of the reality of Netanyahu—is that he’s the only person in Israeli politics who can deliver 75% of the Israeli population to a painful compromise, he just doesn’t seem to want to do it. In that recalcitrance, in that hesitation to do it, of course, is his credibility with the Israeli people. Your typical Israeli, not a settler necessarily, is saying, “If Netanyahu says this is a safe thing to do, then it’s a safe thing to do.” That was Rabin’s credibility. So, I like Tzipi Livni a lot, I don’t know if she’s going to be able to carry 75% of the Jews of Israel to territorial compromise. I don’t know if she has the credibility.

Current: You said earlier, though, that you think the majority of Zionism, or you said, I don’t want to put words into your mouth, that the minority of Zionism—

JG: —Values land over—

Current: —Yeah. So the converse of that would be that the majority—

JG: —Yeah. I’m saying, in their understanding of what this project is about. They view it more as a obviously, for reasons of history and justice and convenience and every other reason, it was better to have the national liberation of the Jewish people take place in the historic Jewish homeland. I’m not saying there’s no investment whatsoever. But, they thought that—and this was Ben-Gurion—they thought, “Better to have a liberated Jewish people in part of the historic Jewish homeland thank have no Jewish homeland at all.” And I think that there are some people, a minority, who believe at this point, that God is telling them it is more important to have Jewish land than to have a Jewish state.

It’s only a minority, it’s true, but let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of an Israeli. 2000, Ehud Barak pulls out troops from Lebanon as the world demanded, and gets Hezbollah on the border leading to the 2006 war and leading to a Lebanon that is essentially a Hezbollah state, right? 2005, Ariel Sharon comes along and says—Oh, Ariel Sharon is the other—there is assassination and there is stroke. The ability of a stroke to change history, a single man’s stroke to change history, is astonishing. Sharon comes along and says to the Israeli people, “We have to pull out of Gaza, not only the settlers, but the army, it’s best for the future demographics of the state, we can’t afford to be there anymore.” He does it, because he’s Sharon, he gets it done. And, you don’t get Singapore on the Mediterranean, you get Hamas and rockets.

So in the last decade or so, you’re an Israeli and you’re looking at the situation in your North and in your South, and you say, “Each time we’ve pulled out of land, we get rocket attacks in exchange, so now you’re telling me you want to pull out, not of the far North or not of the South, but you want me to give Palestinians land that overlooks Ben-Gurion National Airport and Tel Aviv? You’re out of your mind.”

You can understand that. Which is why, look, we all know, it’s cliché to say it, but everyone knows what the peace treaty is going to look like. And there is going to be an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for a set number of years, which is, of course, a sticking point or a breaking point for the Palestinians, but that’s reality. The point is that only Netanyahu at this point could create a peace deal and sell it to the majority of Israelis. I don’t think there is another Israeli politician who can do it.

And I think you need 65 to 75% of Jewish Israelis to go along with it. You still might have some level of civil war, civil disobedience, but I don’t see any…and then you have this, this weird, Truth of Israel, which is that unemployment is 5 to 5.5%. The economy is growing, it’s culturally a very vibrant place, it’s the center of Jewish scholarship and Jewish studies, it’s the only place in the world where the Jewish population grows. It’s a very successful country, but I don’t know how long that can go on.

Pause

Oh I’ve depressed you.

Current: What about, ironically enough, Avigdor Lieberman? He ran on a platform—

JG: —Avigdor Melech Yisroel [King of Israel]?—

Current: —a platform of detaching from the settlements, land swaps.

JG: Avigdor Hamoshiach [the Messiah]?

Current: Yea.

JG: I suppose he can sell it, too. He doesn’t seem very interested at all, he seems even less interested than Bibi, so he can say whatever the fuck he wants, like, “I’m going to leave my settlement in a peace deal,” but he’s done absolutely nothing. also I think he’s a danger for, I think that Netanyahu is classically liberal in a Jabotinsky mold. I think he understands the value of democracy, and unfettered free speech, and an independent judiciary. I’m not sure that Lieberman is the same kettle of fish.

Look, here’s where, and again, maybe it’s not as important an issue for you, but it is for me, here’s where American Jews who have an innate sympathy for Israel kind of are left scratching their heads.

Israel’s big selling point in America is that it’s the only democracy in the Middle East. If it ceases to be the only democracy in the Middle East, whether because it ceases to be a democracy, or because other countries rise up as democracies—and it’s going to be hard to argue that Tunisia soon isn’t a democracy, Egypt is another question, Libya’s certainly another question—but, if you see the executive try to manipulate the supreme court, if you see laws banning free speech as it relates to calling for boycotts, if you see laws designed to punish the press, people are going to sort of say that they’re proud of Israel as a democracy in a hostile area, and if it ceases to be that, I think they are going to lose support.

Israel has to balance that out. Yes, it’s fair to say that some of these NGOs that are supported by European governments, some of these NGOs are advocating for basically the elimination of Israel, and that’s problematic. But, you have to weigh that against how much of a problem is it if the world ceases to understand us to be a democracy? It’s not good. It’s not good.

I wrote this review of Gershom Gorenberg’s book in the Times last week. This is the way I frame it—I think the Six Day War is still being fought. It’s not too late for Israel to lose.

Current: How is it still being fought?

JG: Israel is trying to swallow its spoils, but it’s choking on them. It just can’t do it. If there are twenty million Jews in Israel, then they can give up all the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, offer them citizenship, offer them voting rights, fine. But if you want a Jewish state and you want it to be democratic, it’s very hard to swallow that size population. You can’t expel them, because that’s immoral, you can’t kill them, because that’s immoral, you can’t leave them in a permanently disenfranchised state, because that’s immoral, so you’ve got two choices: you either make them citizens of your country or let them be citizens of their own country.

And none of this, “Well you can vote in Jordan but you live here,” crap. You live on this piece of land and that’s where you’re going to vote. It just doesn’t work. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? And I’m not waiting for Hashem to go fix it. That’s a great comfort, if you can believe like a child that Hashem is going to come and fix the problem that you’ve created then great, but he didn’t fix the Holocaust, so I don’t know that he’s going to fix this one. No offense, he’s just busy.

Current: Hopefully lightning doesn’t—

JG: —I would appreciate that, because then I would know: “Oh! Didn’t realize you were listening. Excellent, I’m very happy now to know.” But you know what I mean, it’s nice to be a settler and have this childish belief.

Current: Do you really think that’s what settlers believe?

JG: I don’t know what settlers believe. They believe that they create their own reality, they create their own mental realities. Also, look, the truth is that democracy is a very high, very important value for me. It doesn’t have to be an important value for other people.

It’s an interesting question what percentage. You asked an interesting question before. What percentage of American Jews would still support Israel if it ceased to become a democracy—if it ratified itself in some way as a non-democratic state, as a state of Jews in which had limited press freedom and not independent judiciary, in which the government basically states to the world, Palestinians are going to live in a condition of, in essence, perpetual non-citizenship. What percentage of American Jews would stick with Israel?

 

Jewish Journalism

Current: You write a lot about this on your blog, which is read a lot by Jews, and non-Jews, I guess—

JG: —I don’t want to ask—

Current: and you talk a lot about this. But, for instance, the most recent cover stories that you’ve written for The Atlantic have been about the Middle East but not necessarily about Israel. Why is that? Is there any particular reason? Is it too complicated to write? Too depressing?

JG: No, I wrote that Iran story last year, and I wrote that story about whether Israel has a future a few years ago. How much does The Atlantic’s readership want to read about Israel and its travails on the cover of the magazine? That’s one thing. Second thing, is, I don’t—I periodically say, “Alright, this is the last thing I’m going to write about this.” I just don’t, I’m a journalist, I used to be a generalist. I don’t want to get sucked into this thing forever. I might want to write another book about it and be done with it.

It’s like Michael Corleone, you try to get out and they pull you back in. From an intellectual perspective, it happens to be fascinating. It happens to be, from an emotional perspective, very interesting and complicated and obsessional for me. But, I’m interested in a lot of things so I just don’t want to write about—I want to do different things. I feel obligated to write about it in a way, and that’s a problem, I don’t want to feel that level of obligation.

Current: Why do you feel obligated?

JG: The future of the Jewish people is of personal concern to me and I want to, in my limited way, contribute to the debate about how things should be. And I feel like if I don’t participate, then I’m not fulfilling some sort of responsibility, some sort of obligation. On the other hand, maybe I should just write a check to, to—

Current:The Current?

JG: Yea The Current! Yea it’s interesting because I try to think about tzedakah dollars too. With the fire in the Carmel last winter, I got some schnorey letter from the JNF, saying, “We need fire trucks. Buy fire trucks for Israel.” It’s like, for fuck sakes, you’re a nuclear power. A world center for IT and high-tech, buy your own damn fire trucks. I wrote this thing, and I don’t mind supporting orphanages, that’s fine, Jewish educational institutions, the traditional recepients of non-tax dollars—but stop being so schnorey. You’re a grownup country. Grownup countries fund their own fire departments. They don’t beg American Jews for fire trucks. Anyway, I got in trouble for that one. I don’t care. It just pissed me off.

That’s a way of saying that I don’t know which group is in more trouble: American Jewry or Israeli Jewry. And I try to think that maybe the cause of figuring out what Judaism is going to be in America in the 21st century in America is more important rather than worrying after Israel like it’s kind of a charity basket case. So that’s the obligation, I think.

I don’t mind Jews who are critical of Israel. Obviously I mind the lunatics who call for the destruction of Israel, I think that’s anti-Semitic. If Palestinians deserve a country, Jews deserve a country, it’s not that hard philosophically. But, what I don’t like is disengagement. We live in this age of the wicked son, who basically says, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me.” It does have something to do with you. This is your family. This is your people. So I feel like I should be engaged and arguing and discussing and figuring out what the future of this should be. Obviously, eventually you run into a wall, you bang your head against the wall because it doesn’t change just because you say something should change. But, for my own sort of professional interests and my career, I’m interested in a bunch of other things that have nothing to do at all with this and probably should just go back to those because this is just a headache.

Current: It would be fair to characterize your work so far as kind of like Jewish journalism, or a decent amount of it. Would you agree with that maybe?

JG: Yea, when I was at the New York Times Magazine, if you look into the ‘90s, it was all generalist stuff. When I left Israel in 1991, I didn’t even go back for six years. The Magazine, where I was working, said I should go there and write a story, and I was very hesitant to get involved—sucker.

Laughter

That was ’97 or ’98. Yea, I mean obviously reality is what it is, but it would be nice to make a clean break for a while, and just live as a Jew. Without the tzuris—I’m a member of my synagogue, I have Shabbat, and I like to learn Torah whenever possible—it would just be nice to just be a Jew, and not be engaged in these fights all the time, but it’s attractive to me.

Current: As a corollary to that, where do you see the future of Jewish journalism headed to, something like Tablet Magazine, people writing about these issues?

JG: Jews are writers. We’re always going to be naval-gazing and that’s fine. I mean if you’re asking me about economic models, I don’t know.

Current: No, I mean that, if it becomes so depressing or there is so much tzuris involved in it, then why do it, why write about it?

JG: Well, there are people like you guys who are twenty years younger than I am, who are all geared up about it, so you should go do it for a while. It’s exciting, it’s great stuff, and it’s fun to fight.  It keeps you awake, attacking and being attacked and all that other shit.

But, I don’t know the future of Jewish journalism. I worked at the Jerusalem Post twenty years ago, and it was dying. It’s always dying, everything’s always dying, but they always manage to pull it out. There are enough people who’re still interested in these subjects. But they need to be hashed out. They need to be worked on. But, other people can work on it too.

If you’re going into journalism, if you’re interested in it, the best thing to do is to write about it for these general interest newspapers, magazines, or whatever rather than be ghettoized in the Forward, Jewish Week, or whatever.

 

Woody Allen, Curb, and Philip Roth

Current: Yea. So we decided that we’re going to ask all of our interviewees this, we asked Alan Dershowitz in our last interview—

JG: —If you were a tree?

Current: No, no: favorite Woody Allen movie?

JG: Favorite Woody Allen Movie?

Current: If you think it’s stupid—

JG: No, no, I’m trying to think of the worst one just to screw with your premise.

Laughter

I was watching Annie Hall the other day with my oldest daughter, who’s fourteen, and we finished watching, and she said, “Oh, that’s where all those jokes are from.” It was more than that’s where all the jokes are from: “Oh, that’s why you sound the way you sound.” So, I guess if you look at Annie Hall just that’s where it all comes from.

I think Sleeper is the funnies thing I ever saw in my life. I just wish he’d make a couple of funny movies again. Take the Money and Run is pretty damn funny. I’m sure Woody Allen doesn’t want to hear that people like his schtikey, Catskills movies, but whatever.

Current: What about Curb your Enthusiasm?

JG: What episode?

Current: Yea.

JG: Palestinian Chicken! What, are you kidding?

Laughter

Who answered, I mean, since that came out, who doesn’t think that was the greatest episode of Curb? Who doesn’t think that wasn’t the most sublimely Jewish moment in television history? Was that the answer that Dershowitz gave?

Current: Yea.

JG: Yea—Palestinian Chicken. You were watching it, and you were like, “I cannot believe I’m watching this on television.” It was fantastic. Yep, those are mine. That’s it? Woody Allen and Curb your Enthusiasm? What about Philip Roth?

Current: Okay fine. Favorite Philip Roth novel?

JG: American Pastoral. Except, except that when people ask me what book they should read that would explain the Middle East to them, I tell them, Operation Shylock. And Portnoy’s Complaint is the sleeper equivalent, the Take your Money and Run equivalent, purest Jewish comedy. Operation Shylock, where he comes up with the concept of Diasporism, and this is why he’s a genius because twenty years ago, twenty-five years ago, he was writing about how Israel might be the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to be and all we have to do is get the Jews out as fast as possible because it’s too dangerous. It’s interesting because it presaged the Iranian crisis in kind of a huge way.

 

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