Jeffrey Goldberg’s most recent piece in The New Yorker opens with him in Gaza during the fighting with Israel this summer. It is the middle of the night and he is meeting several Hamas soldiers in a dark basement to discuss their hatred of Israel and Jews. One cannot help but think: Does this reporter have a death wish?But anyone familiar with Goldberg’s reporting — for 10 years as Mideast correspondent for The New Yorker and now as Washington correspondent — knows that he specializes in traveling to the heart of terror camps, from Lebanon to Afghanistan to Pakistan, and sometimes flaunting his Jewishness as he interviews militant leaders about their ideas and plans.
“One conversation I’ll never forget,” recalled Goldberg, 4l, during an interview the other day, “was with the head of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, when I asked him if he wanted his son to be a suicide bomber. His answer was like a Jewish parent being asked if he wanted his son to be a doctor. ‘Of course I do,’ he told me, ‘but I’ll leave the decision to him.’”Goldberg said it is important to do this kind of reporting, bringing back firsthand accounts from terror leaders, “precisely because it is so unimaginable.”
His new book, “Prisoners: A Muslim and A Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” out this week, is an honest and often moving memoir of how a Long Island teen from what he calls a “nominally Jewish home” left the University of Pennsylvania to settle in Israel and join the army, where in 1990 he became a prison guard and met Rafiq, a Gazan prisoner, with whom he has pursued ever since an attempt to engage in real dialogue.Goldberg, who later returned to the U.S., is unsparing in his assessments of himself as well as the Israel-Palestinian conflict, noting that “I wanted to …have it all, my parochialism, my universalism, a clean conscience and a relationship with my enemy.” It was he who pursued the relationship with Rafiq, he acknowledged, consistent with Israel’s initiating peace efforts with the Palestinians. And the end of the story is similarly complex, frustrating and still to be written.“Some people said they found my book bleak, others optimistic,” Goldberg said.
“I happen to find it a kind of combination. There is possibility of a better future or a terrible future.”He calls the book the story of an American Jew who thinks about the role of Israel in his life. “It’s about the calibration of Jewish power, and it should teach about the implacability of Islamic fundamentalism,” which, not mincing words, he says can be defined as “genocidal anti-Semitism.”But Goldberg believes that while some Palestinians seek the immediate destruction of Israel and others work to destroy Israel in stages, there is a third group of Palestinians who realize “the Jews are here to stay and that the Palestinians should make peace with them.” He says Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is in that camp.
But he noted that Abbas is “a terrible politician” and that Israel did not help him after Yasir Arafat’s death and before the ascent of Hamas “when it could have made a difference.”He said the Arabs have sumud, their word for steadfastness, and a belief they can “outlast the Jews.” But the Israelis have sumud, too, he noted. “That’s been the lesson of Jewish history.”Goldberg notes in the book that “as a professional reporter spending inordinate amounts of time with anti-Semites, I realized that I had all the hallmarks of a counterphobe, a person who seeks out close encounters with the thing he fears most.” But in conversation, he added that he avoided putting himself in danger, relying on his instincts to size up the situation.He also noted that when Islamic jihadists would meet him, a real live Jew, “two contradictory emotions would take hold: one is, ‘He’s a Jew and I want to kill him,’ and the other was, ‘We are nice to our guests.’“Fortunately,” Goldberg said, “the latter feeling usually prevails.”