Across the Great Divide

Sara Ivry, Nextbook

[Go to the original copy of this interview.]

In the late 1980s, Jeffrey Goldberg moved to Israel because he was committed to the idea of being part of the Jewish homeland. That meant, of course, going into the army, and before long, Jeffrey was working as a military policeman at a prison in the Negev desert. This was just around the time that the first Intifada was heating up, and Jeffrey was guarding Palestinians.

In his new book, called Prisoners, Jeffrey Goldberg writes extensively about his time in Israel, and about his relationships with several of those prisoners.

Jeffrey Goldberg is joining us today from Washington. Jeffrey, welcome to Nextbook.

Thank you for having me.

You spend a fair portion of this book talking about the early development of your own Zionist ideology, and I want you to walk us through that.

Sure. I was…it’s going to sound strange and archaic today…but I was a socialist Zionist growing up on Long Island. I lived in a non-Jewish part of Long Island, and I had the usual—or something between usual and unusual—experiences with schoolyard anti-Semitism, and those experiences sent me, in a way, to seek out some answer about my Jewishness. And my parents, much to their later regret, decided to take me to Israel for my bar mitzvah. And when I was there, my eyes were opened to the idea of Jewish power. I didn’t put it in quite that way to myself then, but that’s the way it worked. Seeing Israeli soldiers, Jewish soldiers more to the point, Jewish tanks, Jewish machine guns, was quite exciting to a powerless 13-year-old boy suffering at the hands of Irish pogromists, juvenile pogromists. So, I became deeply enamored of Israel because of that.

I was also, however, raised in a very left-wing household. We were not a religious family. We didn’t keep kosher. But in a sense, we did. César Chavez was our rabbi, in a way. Whatever the United Farm Workers told us to boycott, we boycotted. So, by the time I was in my teens, I had sort of two ideas running parallel. One was the socialist universalist ideal, and the other was a sort of tribal Zionist ideal. That was all well and good when I was a teenager. I belonged to a socialist Zionist youth movement, and we did two things, basically. We argued for social change at home, and we prepared ourselves to go on Aliyah to kibbutzim, Aliyah being, of course, moving to Israel, “making the ascent,” literally, to Israel—to move to socialist kibbutzim. And so, everything was very harmonious in my life. In other words, I had the tribal and the universal working very nicely together. And I decided when I was about 20 or something that I would move to Israel, that I was going to fulfill this.

So, when you went, did Israel meet your expectation?

Israel did not meet my expectation. At the time I was very judgmental of the place. Kibbutz life was not like the make-believe kibbutz we built for ourselves in the summer in the Catskills at my socialist Zionist youth camp. The commitment to socialist ideals, the egalitarian ideals, was waning at that time. But the real shock to me was the army. I came of age in the period after the raid on Entebbe, so that of course was my model for what a Jewish fighter does. They go off and rescue Jews in inhospitable terrain.

But when I was in Israel, it was the beginning of the Palestinian uprising. And the army had become a police force, in essence, dispatched by the government to suppress Palestinian demonstrators, rioters, rock-throwers, however you want to call it. And that’s a very different thing than fighting the Syrian army. I had a hard time with this because I imagined myself, if I were a Palestinian, I’d probably also be out there demonstrating.

The Palestinians did not meet my expectations either, of course, because these were not the Freedom Riders from 1964. They weren’t sitting in at lunch counters. They were throwing rocks at people.

That said, it was an impossibility in a kind of way, because my expectations were unreal.

Let’s talk about the prison for a moment. This is a prison that was set in the desert, in the Negev, and my sense from the book is that working there as a military policeman gave you a kind of political education that you hadn’t yet had.

Very much so, in the sense that I had barely met any Palestinians previous to my arrival there. And all of a sudden—just to give you a sense of the scope of the place—there were roughly 6,200 prisoners in this camp when I was there—a massive camp, the size of a small city—open-air tents separated by coils of barbed wire and high fences. So, it really was essentially a Palestinian city run by a relatively small handful of Israelis. And what I decided very early on—because I already had a pretty serious notion that I was going to become a reporter—I realized that I had this wonderful opportunity to actually talk to Palestinians. Not just any Palestinians; these were the leaders of the Palestinian uprising. And because of my leftist background, in a kind of way, I was already used to the idea—which was then quite outré—that there was going to be a Palestinian state one day, and I added two and two and realized that the men that I was guarding, whose lives I was in charge of, were one day going to be the leaders of Palestine.

And because of the particular job that I had—I was one of the people who was in charge of organizing the daily lives of the prisoners; I wasn’t a guard in a tower, I was right down in there—I had extensive opportunity to actually try to get to know some of these guys.

In the book, when you talk about your time in the prison—and also subsequently, when you have gone back to Israel to do reporting and have re-met many of the people who were prisoners—I get this sense that you do want to have a relationship with these people. And at the same time, there’s this sense of guilt on your part that you are very explicit about in the book, that you want sort of the Palestinian approval of you as a Jewish person in Israel, but then when you don’t necessarily get that kind of approval, then there’s this kind of anger about having felt guilty in the first place.

Yes. You’ve gotten the full depths of my multifaceted Jewish guilt. I think you captured it pretty nicely.

There were a couple of reasons I wanted to know the Palestinians. One was, I have a reporter’s personality, obviously. I’m curious about people I don’t understand.

The second part was—this, again, coming out of my socialist Zionist upbringing—I believed in a two-state solution for the problem. I believed in many ways that the argument between the Palestinians and the Israelis was an argument between right and right, and therefore I wanted to—and this was, of course, the grandiose thoughts of someone who’s not really experienced in the world—I thought that I could, at least in a small way, advance the cause of understanding or peace by engaging these guys on some of these questions, and engaging them in behaviors that didn’t alienate them. But then, of course, it bleeds over into what you’re talking about, which is…I’m not joking when I say that my model growing up for what a hero was, in many ways, was the Freedom Riders—Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman—or the civil rights movement.

And all of a sudden I found myself—and again, the analogy isn’t perfect by a long shot, but I found myself not in the role of a Freedom Rider, but I found myself in the role of…in bad moments I thought of it as sort of the Bull Conner role, the role of the southern sheriff, keeping people in a prison who didn’t actually deserve to be in a prison. Like I said, there’s one huge caveat, which is that African Americans in the south used nonviolent resistance, which gave their movement a nobility and morality that the Palestinian movement lacked.

But I did feel bad about it. It wasn’t the way I wanted to spend even a minute of my life, and I decided at one point that I would be excessively considerate of the Palestinian prisoners. And on moments when that wasn’t received, my anger would be outsized at the rejection of my obvious good will.

Is it fair to say that you’ve moved from being an idealistic Zionist to a somewhat jaded reporter?

I’m not jaded. I’m just realistic, I think. I love Israel, with all its flaws. I’m deeply committed to its safety and its future. I also, spending several years in Israel, realize that it’s a real place with real flaws—flaws that sometimes get overly magnified, both by Jews because we have a self-critical culture, which is, of course, a strength, not a weakness; and, of course, by the rest of the world, which magnifies these flaws.

But after a while of going back and back again, I’ve come to see the shift in the fundamental relationship from a battle over a piece of land between two warring tribes to more of a battle between two religions. In other words, it shifted from a Palestinian-Israeli dispute to a Muslim-Jewish dispute. And the fault for that shift, I think, lies somewhat with the Jews. But I think it lies in large part with this wave of Islamism that we’ve seen over the last 10 years that is excessively intolerant and is an ideology that cannot, for theological reasons, grant the Jews their equality as a nation in what they consider to be the Muslim Middle East.

So, I don’t think I’m jaded. I just think I know that this is the work of generations now. It’s not something that lends itself to easy fixes.

I do have another question. You’re signed up to write a book for the Nextbook Jewish Encounter series, and you’re going to write a biography of Judah Maccabee, who led the Maccabean revolt in the second century BC. And I wonder if there are any parallels between your own story and his story [Goldberg laughs], or between this book and his story, certainly in terms of muscularity and Jewish power, and if you could weigh in on that for us.

[Laughing] Are you asking me if there are similarities between Judah Maccabee and me?

No, no. I’m not asking you about your delusions of grandeur, if you have any. [Laughs]

Talk about delusions of grandeur. No, I think more of myself as a Queen Esther-type figure.

That’s good, too.

[Laughter]

Look, I’m fascinated by Jewish power. Jewish power is an easy subject to deal with theoretically, but it’s a hard one to deal with when you actually have power. The Jews reentered history when they regained their territory, the ancient land of Israel. And when you enter history you have to use power. And that’s what this whole book is about, and I think that’s what Judah Maccabee is about in a kind of a way. Look , the way we celebrate Hanukkah is an oversimplified way as a story of religious freedom against oppression. But what the Maccabean revolt was, in many ways—and look, I haven’t written the book yet, so I don’t know that much—but I’m thinking about it all the time, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. The Maccabean revolt was also a civil war. It was a war between assimilated Jews—to use the current terminology—and religious Jews. The religious Jews from the hills, and the secular Jews of the cities. And they were arguing about religious purity and national purity, and the Maccabees were people who went around and forcibly circumcised assimilated Jews. And the key word in that sentence is force.

I’m fascinated about moments in history when Jews get power, physical power, and what they do with it. And there are a great many positives to the Maccabee story, and there are some negatives. And there are a great many positives to the story of the rebirth of Israel, and there are some negatives, too.

So, yes, in essence, I think both books—the one that was just written and the one that is not yet written—are about Jewish power.

Jeffrey Goldberg, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you very much.