Radical blindness?

Milton Viorst writes uplifting biographical narratives about some of Israel’s giants, yet exhibits antagonism to his Jewish brethren in Israel.

Israelis wave flags during a protest in June 1993 outside the US Consulate in Jerusalem against the plan to relinquish some of the Golan Heights for peace with Syria (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis wave flags during a protest in June 1993 outside the US Consulate in Jerusalem against the plan to relinquish some of the Golan Heights for peace with Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Veteran journalist Milton Viorst seems to have developed a troubled relationship with Israel early on that one might describe as a form of radical blindness – stimulated by some sort of Jewish self-consciousness.
Viorst, 85, never hesitates to criticize Israel, whose behavior he believes has been characterized by excessive militarism and oppression. He first became disillusioned with the Jewish state after visiting Israel shortly after the Six Day War. He was troubled by the Israeli euphoria that surrounded him. He felt the Israelis were not viewing their victory as “an opening to a more stable Middle East,” but instead becoming hardened to the troubles of the Arab populations that surrounded them.
Viorst went on to write several critical books about Israel while freelancing for The New York Times, The Washington Post and other prestigious publications. During the 1960s, he became one of the first foreign journalists to venture into Egypt and the rest of the Arab world and he wrote about what he witnessed. He believed the Arab countries were beleaguered by a century of involvement with imperialistic powers, and this had prevented them from developing the governmental and cultural institutions they needed to bring them into step with the modern world.
Viorst’s opinions trouble me. Yet, when I watched him speak in lengthy interviews online, I was impressed by his fierce intelligence and an accompanying agony that seem to shadow him as he struggled to understand the chaos in the world and his own place in it. He speaks repeatedly in interviews about the competing drives of secularism and extremism. One senses in the deep crevices of his ornery face a genuine empathy for other people’s suffering, but this compassion fades mysteriously when he speaks of the Jewish state.
Age has not mellowed him. In his new book, Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal, he writes, “The Zionism we know today is not a unified idea but a composite of bitter rivalries between stubborn men and their visions of Jewish statehood. Zionism has created a successful country but it has not made the Jews more secure. The absence of peace in my judgment, keeps the Zionist achievement in jeopardy.”
He claims Zionism was originally fueled by a sense of idealism about providing refuge for beleaguered Jews, and he thinks this idealism has morphed into something sinister. About the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide or the horrors of the Holocaust, he says little.
In spite of Viorst’s relentless criticism, he has still managed to write a wonderfully readable book about the heroic men who created Israel. He dedicates his book “to the peacemakers, the greatest of the Zionists,” but his own intriguing narrative contradicts this, demonstrating that Israel was created by men of strength and valor; newly created soldiers unafraid to take up arms and fight for their survival.
He begins with Theodor Herzl (1860- 1904), an assimilated Jew who loved his home city, Vienna, and its sophisticated German culture. Herzl’s parents were Enlightenment Jews who rarely attended synagogue and were convinced they would eventually gain full acceptance into the larger Germanic world. Herzl became committed to helping his fellow Jews when he began traveling as a jour- Milton Viorst writes uplifting biographical narratives about some of Israel’s giants, yet exhibits antagonism to his Jewish brethren in Israel nalist and witnessed grotesque acts of anti-Semitism; particularly in France. His diary reveals his growing concern for Jewish safety if the Jews remained in Europe. He began to dream of a Jewish state. When speaking to a group of Russian Jews he was moved to tears:
“There rose before our eyes a Russian Jewry the strength of which we had not even suspected… What a humiliation for us, who had taken our superiority for granted!... They possess the inner unity that has disappeared from among the Westerners… They are not tortured by the idea of assimilation…. They are ghetto Jews, the only ghetto Jews of our time! Looking at them, we understood where our forefathers got the strength to endure…. They were steeped in Jewish national sentiment.”
Viorst explains that Herzl realized that the future Jewish state he was dreaming about would have to be more than a “religiously neutral, uncommitted, Enlightenment-oriented refuge for the Jewish victims of oppression.”
Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952) grew up deeply rooted in Judaism and loathed Germany. He became Israel’s first president. His bookshelves revealed he was influenced by the works of Tolstoy and Chekhov as well as the Talmud and Maimonides. He became a chemist and chose science over piety. When asked by a reporter what spurred his commitment to Zionism, he replied. “I never ‘took it up.’ We who come from Russia are born and bred in an aspiration toward a new and better Jewish life. It must not only be a comfortable life but a Jewish one, a normal Jewish life, just as an Englishman leads a normal English life…. In Russia, a most modern and perfect machinery was set up to crush the Jews body and soul…. We claim the right as Jews to be treated as normal human beings, capable of entering the family of nations as equals and be master of our own destiny.”
Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was also a Russian Jew who believed the Jews would not get a state of their own unless they fought ferociously for it. Jabotinsky understood something Viorst still has trouble accepting and wrote prophetically:
“The force of historical reality teaches us a very simple lesson. If we should all be educated people and learn to plough the land and to build houses and be able to speak Hebrew and know our whole national literature… and not know how to shoot, then there is no hope. Every Jew and every gentile who even for a minute thinks of Jewish national problems… fully understands that of all the necessities of national rebirth, shooting is the most important of them.”
David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was born into a poor non-religious family in Poland and lost his mother when he was 10. He drew his vision of Zionism from the Bible, which he looked upon not as a religious tract but a source of inspiration. He understood the Jewish state depended on military strength and believed the new Israeli Jews must relinquish centuries of passivity and be willing to fight.
Menachem Begin (1913-1992) was born a frail child in Brest-Litovsk, a Polish town of 50,000 that was two-thirds Jewish. Jews had originally settled there in 1388. The centuries had been viciously cruel to the Jews there, who suffered forced conversions, mass expulsions and pogroms. But a vital Jewish community still emerged that built schools and synagogues and hospitals. Begin’s grandfather was a wealthy timber merchant and his childhood home was suffused with Zionist thought. In Palestine he became a daring Irgun commander and would go on to serve as Israel’s prime minister. He was greatly influenced by Jabotinsky, whose revisionist ideology he internalized.
Viorst’s biographical narratives are spiritually and morally uplifting. Israel’s story of creation and survival is a miraculous one that followed the most horrendous Jewish tragedy. Each of the men Viorst chronicles shows a wondrous sense of bravery and fortitude, and a gritty determination to see things through. Yet he seems immune to their heroism and their sacrifices. He claims that he is not blind to Arab wrongs and is aware of the unique history of the Jews, but he seems to have a selective memory that slants against them. He ignores those who continually call for the destruction of Israel. He seems to forget the almost fatal delay in resupplying Israel in 1973 or Israel being unable to stop the sales of arms to Egypt before Camp David or to the Saudis afterwards. He refuses to reckon with the sanctions placed on Israel for the bombing of the Iraqi reactor and the PLO’s infrastructure in 1981. His tunnel vision when it comes to matters of Jewish security and survival border on dangerous.
The reader can’t help but wonder why. Viorst is the grandson of Russian Jews and was born to working-class parents in New Jersey. He made his way to Harvard and then entered a stellar career in journalism. He lives in Washington DC with his wife of over 60 years, who is also an accomplished writer, and they have raised three successful sons. So why does he hold so much antagonism to his Jewish brethren in Israel – who live continually with risks he doesn’t have to face from the comfortable shelter of his home in Georgetown?
The answer may have been expressed in a book of essays that came out last year called Jews Against Themselves by Edward Alexander. The author points to Jews like Milton Viorst and Anthony Lewis and Tony Judt as men who openly proclaim to judge Israel by higher standards than they apply to its enemies or any other nation. Alexander believes these Jews cloak themselves in intellectual armor and promote the notion that the Jewish state does not have the right to defend itself. He calls them the new “anti-Jewish Jews,” who do not deny their Jewish heritage but instead attack Israel, claiming this is precisely what makes them more authentically Jewish. Alexander believes this allows them to deflect anti-Semitic attacks on themselves in their own home countries and cope with their own Jewish insecurity. Alexander’s hypothesis about Viorst rings true and sheds some light on the psychological pressures that may drive him to speak and write about Israel in the manner that he does. Still, one expects more, particularly from a man who wields so much influence.