Milton Viorst, writer who chronicled the Middle East, dies at 92

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Milton Viorst, writer who chronicled the Middle East, dies at 92
An undated photo provided by Nick Viorst of the journalist Milton Viorst, who synthesized shoe-leather reporting with scholarly insights into the Middle East, with his wife, the author Judith Viorst. Viorst melded journalism and history to presage the chaotic consequences of an American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the improbability of peace in the Middle East unless Israel agreed to a separate Palestinian state, died on Dec. 9, 2022 in Washington. He was 92. (Nick Viorst via The New York Times)

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Milton Viorst, who melded journalism and history to presage the chaotic consequences of an American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the improbability of peace in the Middle East unless Israel agreed to a separate Palestinian state, died Dec. 9 in Washington, D.C. He was 92.

His wife, author Judith Viorst, said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was complications of COVID-19.

An American Jew and a self-described liberal Democrat, Viorst warned that the American invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein would empower Iranian militants in the region. He also argued that by granting almost every request for advanced weaponry, America was killing Israel with kindness by subverting its original Zionist goals and transforming it into a regional superpower.

Over seven decades, in 10 books, regular columns for The New Yorker and many essays, book reviews and other articles for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine and Foreign Affairs, he synthesized shoe-leather reporting with scholarly insights into the roots of Arab nationalism and Middle East conflicts dating from the seventh century.

“Whatever the military mismatch, the West has not had an easy time subduing the Arabs,” Viorst wrote in “Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West” (2006).

“America’s war in Iraq, igniting an explosion of Arab nationalism, is the latest round in this long contest,” he concluded. “To see it otherwise is to deny the evidence of history.”

He once described his book “Sands of Sorrow: Israel’s Journey From Independence” (1987) as “part journalism, part historical and political commentary, part personal odyssey” from the perspective of a Jewish American.

Forging a colloidal analysis from facts and opinion in the minefield of Middle Eastern diplomacy was a contentious enough undertaking on its own. His conclusions compounded the criticism he received.

He was a supporter of Israel’s existence, as evidenced by a review he wrote in the Times in 1984 of Donald Neff’s “Warriors for Jerusalem,” a book about the 1967 war that described the conflict as “the worst tragedy in the modern history of the Middle East.”

“But if one accepts as an axiom Israel’s existence — as I do and as, I believe, Mr. Neff does, too — then the Six-Day War settled a great deal,” Viorst wrote. “It persuaded all the parties that Israel would not be destroyed by arms. De facto, it legitimized Israel. Thereafter, political legitimation inexorably has to follow.”

The war, Viorst added, “was a necessary prelude to the peace that now exists between Israel and Egypt.”

He advocated a separate Palestinian state on the West Bank as the only route to peace, and he insisted that the robust flow of sophisticated weapons from the United States to Israel, demanded by an “Israel lobby” of conservative American Jews, had transformed Israel from its original ideals. He also argued that Israel should accept the Palestine Liberation Organization as a negotiating partner.

Reviewing “Sands of Sorrow” in Foreign Affairs, John Campbell called it “remarkably perceptive, honest, well written and understanding of the views and motives of all parties concerned” in its exploration of how “Israel has become an aggressive regional superpower.”

Viorst was also the victim of criticism from Muslim scholars such as Edward Said, a Columbia University professor who was a leading champion of the Palestinian cause.

In a debate in The Nation magazine in 1999, Said accused Viorst of “Orientalist ignorance” and “racist highhandedness” for praising the legacy of King Hussein of Jordan.

Viorst also incurred the wrath of U.S. President Richard Nixon. Viorst was among the 220 individuals and organizations on an expanded version of Nixon’s so-called enemies list after he joined other writers and editors in 1968 in pledging not to pay taxes as a protest against the Vietnam War.

His opposition to the war, he said, was apparently enough to qualify him for the list. In his book “Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s” (1980), he wrote about the political system’s inability to accommodate the “dynamism” that the war and other issues had unleashed.

Among his other books were “Hostile Allies: FDR and Charles de Gaulle” (1965), “Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World” (1994), “In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam” (1998) and “Storm From the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and the Christian West” (2006).

Milton Viorst was born Feb. 18, 1930, in Paterson, New Jersey. His father, Louis, sold shoes. His mother, Betty (LeVine) Viorst, was a sales clerk and a homemaker.

After graduating from Eastside High School in Paterson, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Rutgers University in 1951. He then studied at the University of Lyon in France as a Fulbright scholar and served two years as an Air Force intelligence officer. He earned master’s degrees in history from Harvard University in 1955 and in journalism from Columbia University in 1956.

He worked first for The Bergen Record in New Jersey and then, from 1957 to 1961, at The Washington Post. He later wrote for The New York Post from Washington and was a political columnist for The Washington Star.

In addition to his wife — writer of popular children’s books including “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” (1972) — he is survived by three sons, Anthony, Nicholas and Alexander; and seven grandchildren.

For all his apparent prescience about the Iraq war and his warnings that any permanent Middle East peace agreement would depend on Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state, Viorst’s vision of the Six-Day War’s impact remains unfulfilled.

“It started a process, however halting,” he wrote almost four decades ago, “which still carries a promise of peace in our time between Israel and its other neighbors.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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