Fifty years ago, Jeff Scott Goldman stood on the bima of Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson to celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah.
On May 19, the Emmy Award- winning retired reporter and producer for CBS News and the PBS NewsHour will make an encore appearance on that bima when he returns to the synagogue to share his insights from covering six presidents and being an eyewitness to the historic 1993 handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.
In a phone interview from the District of Columbia, the Middletown native recounted a 40-year career spanning Pres. Ronald Reagan’s second term in office through the beginning of Pres. Donald Trump’s presidency.
“I’ve covered both wars in Bosnia, including the Bosnian genocide and its aftermath, both Gulf wars, the end of the Soviet Union and communist bloc in Eastern Europe, traveled aboard Air Force One, and was there during the military incursion into Somalia,” said Goldman, who scored an exclusive interview with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in his historic 1985 meeting with Reagan in Geneva.
Goldman traveled through the Middle East following the famous South Lawn handshake during the Pres. Bill Clinton presidency, speaking to Arab and Israeli leaders at a time when both sides were overwhelmingly optimistic “about what the future could be.” The one exception, according to Goldman, was Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who he said was “blindsided” by the sudden dialogue between former enemies.
“But here we are 25 years later from that handshake and what has changed?” said Goldman. “The answer is not much, and it is frustrating for a lot of people.”
The reasons why progress on a peace agreement stalled has much to do with the despair that pervades Gaza, he explained. While towns such as Ramallah in the West Bank have progressed economically and politically, Gaza remains “a picture of total hopelessness.”
“There are crowds of people and raw sewage in the streets,” said Goldman. “I saw potential back then, but nothing ever materialized economically. At this point I don’t see anything changing, and now as I reflect back on that handshake 25 years ago, it’s been the closest thing to moving the ball forward we’ve seen.”
While Goldman said he did not want his comments to be viewed as political, he noted, “It takes two to tango,” and opined that Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem may not have moved the peace process forward.
“What’s in it for the Arabs?” he said. “If we’re being realistic, it’s not really encouraging the Palestinian side to come to an agreement.”
Although he hasn’t lived there in decades, Goldman’s family goes back four generations in central Jersey. His father, Mark, who had a hardware store in Red Bank, was born in Long Branch and grew up in Deal. His great-grandmother lived in Highland Park while an uncle was a theatrical agent in New Brunswick.
Beyond the Middle East, there are incidents that he said will be etched in his mind forever, such as being one of the first reporters on the ground to witness the “horrific aftermath” of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and accompanying those engaged with the desperate search-and-rescue missions for survivors.
In places like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, there was such unfamiliarity with Jews that his name did not give away his religious identity. But during his many trips around the globe, Goldman said he encountered a few incidents of anti-Semitism. One that stands out in his mind occurred while covering the Bosnian War in the early 1990s when authorities lifted the dawn-to-dusk curfew on Christmas Eve. A colleague asked Goldman if he wanted to go to midnight mass with him. With little else to do, he agreed.
Goldman was startled to encounter a couple thousand people outside the church in a country that was 97 percent Muslim, and said to his friend they couldn’t all be Christian but must be taking advantage of a rare chance to get out at night. Overhearing the conversation, a young man who wanted to practice his English asked Goldman if he was Protestant or Catholic. When he informed the man that he was actually Jewish, “he looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head and said, ‘I never met Jewish before.’”
“I said to him, ‘Well, now you have. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Jeff,’” said Goldman. The young man paused, looked down at the ground for a few moments and then asked, “Tell me, is it true Jews have all the money?” The reporter realized that as Jews hadn’t been in the Balkans for decades, “that must have been passed down generationally.”
Even though it was an innocent comment, “It was tough to hear.”
If you go
What: Jeff Scott Goldman, Emmy-award winning PBS and CBS reporter and producer
Where: Congregation B’nai Israel, Rumson
When: Sunday, May 19, 11:15 a.m.
RSVP: Emilie.firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-842-1800, ext. 203