Right-Left

01.17.13

The Goldberg Variations

One of the surest signs of a commentator worth reading is that they get vociferously attacked by extremists on both ends of a spectrum. I'm very well acquainted with this experience, as is Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. His most recent column, "Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are’," has opened him up to unprecedented attacks from the Israeli right. Goldberg is a well-established supporter of the two-state solution and opponent of Israel's settlement project. As such, he's never been particularly popular with the Israeli far right.

Some members of the Likud party are painting him as a stalking horse for President Barack Obama, who they accuse of "gross interference" in Israel's election and "taking revenge" against Netanyahu. According to the Jerusalem Post, some Netanyahu supporters believe this "revenge" is in response to Netanyahu's "perceived intervention in the November US election on behalf of unsuccessful Republican challenger Mitt Romney." The Post quotes Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan as saying "Goldberg was merely a dovish publicist trumpeting the views of the American far-Left," and accusing him of engaging in inaccurate "gossip."

The effrontery of these complaints is extraordinary. First, they virtually acknowledge that Netanyahu did try to intervene in the American election on behalf of Romney, at least at some stages. Second, there isn't any reason to believe that Obama is using Goldberg as a stalking horse against Netanyahu. Third, such concerns are hardly limited to the "American left," since none other than President George W. Bush expressed similar concerns on numerous occasions. In April, 2005, Bush said, "I've been very clear about Israel has an obligation under the road map. That's no expansion of settlements."

This is really just a backlash by Israeli ultranationalists against the nearly universal criticism that Israel's settlement policies are self-destructive. As Goldberg wrote, these policies seem to be "foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution." By asking Israel to restrain itself from aggressive settlement expansions, particularly in strategically crucial areas such as the E1 corridor, governments and commentators around the world are simply asking them what kind of future they are constructing for their society if Palestinian statehood is to be foreclosed.

What the whole brouhaha demonstrates is a kind of epistemic closure in which significant portions of Israeli society have lost the ability to hear the voices, even of their friends, who are simply asking them what kind of reality they are constructing through these policies. As Chemi Shalev noted in Ha'aretz, complaints that Obama is interfering in Israel's elections are not only "a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black," it is "not Obama who's meddling in Israel's elections: it’s reality."

While the Israeli far-right appears to be suffering from some form of Asperger's syndrome regarding any criticism of its settlement policies, and is taking it out on both Obama and Goldberg, the far-left has also been recently engaged in a scurrilous attack of its own against the columnist. In his book Prisoners, Goldberg recalls that for a brief period when he was 12, he was attracted by the writings of the violent and racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. But, he continues, by the time he was 14 he "came to see the egalitarian beauty of democratic socialism," and was singing The Internationale. Nonetheless, some on the extreme left are so gripped with distaste for Goldberg that they continue to describe him as a follower of Kahane, and speculate that he may still be one.

And even more common and scurrilous charge is that Goldberg was involved in "tormenting" or even "torturing" Palestinian prisoners when he served as a guard in an Israeli prison in his youth. However his memoir demonstrates he was troubled by the abuses he saw and attempted to intervene to stop them. He does admit to having lied after another guard beat a prisoner. But, he writes, this was only after he had intervened to stop the beating, which was being performed with an army radio. "Yoram didn't stop [the beating] when I came upon him. I took hold of his arm, knocking the radio to the ground." There is nothing in Prisoners, or any other information I'm aware of to sustain the notion that Goldberg was involved in torturing or tormenting Palestinian prisoners. Indeed, it contains an interesting account of how he befriended one of them in an uneasy, complex relationship between detainee and guard.

There are two things that every commentator deserves from readers and interlocutors. One is the right to change their minds, and particularly not to be held to views they long since abandoned (especially when those opinions were formed at the age of 12 and quickly abandoned). Second, they have the right not to have their opinions distorted beyond recognition. Criticism is one thing, and that's always fair game, but outright misrepresentation is indefensible. It's been fascinating, instructive and disturbing, to watch Goldberg being subjected to this in recent weeks by both the ultra-right and the far-left in the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio.