A Neocon Sounds off

A Neocon Sounds off

The following is my review of “IS IT GOOD FOR THE JEWS? The Crisis of America’s Israel Lobby” by Stephen Schwartz, Doubleday, 2006. The article was published in the Jan. 25 issue of the New Jersey Jewish News. It confirms Dan Fleshler’s finding in his research that the organized Jewish community was more concerned with the security threat from Iran than that from Iraq — the neoconservative focus. — R. Seliger

Stephen Schwartz has a unique background for providing a perspective on American Jewry and US foreign policy. Although he does not write about it here, he’s the product of a mixed Jewish-Protestant marriage and a convert to Sufi Islam. He’s also a journalist who has worked in the Jewish community, reporting for The Forward since 1992 and serving as its Washington bureau chief in 2000-2001. Furthermore, he is an ex-socialist, influenced by an ex-Trotskyist (Max Shachtman) who helped shape what we now think of as neoconservatism. Schwartz occasionally writes for The Weekly Standard, the bellwether neocon publication.

Although Schwartz is not averse to slapping down a fellow neocon or two, his theme seems to be, at least in part, that the neoconservatives are the Jews’ best defenders. He denies that this is central to the neoconservative agenda, but he distinguishes between the neocons and the “Israel Lobby” that are so often denounced as one and the same.

“Is It Good for the Jews?” begins with an impassioned discussion of Herschel Grynspan, a young German Jewish refugee who killed a Nazi diplomat in Paris, triggering Krystalnacht. Schwartz proceeds to exultantly recount how, in 1939, Jews and non-Jews — unionized “shtarkers” (tough guys), Shachtmanites and “Yipsels” (as Socialist Party youth were known) — violently confronted a pro-Nazi German-American Bund rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This is by way of dramatizing his view that Jews need to stand up for themselves and not rely on what he scornfully and repeatedly refers to as the “shtadlan” lobbies — old-style leaders of American Jewry, whom he mostly associates with the German Jews, a community that arrived earlier in the US than the Eastern Europeans — who sought influence more quietly and cautiously than the latter. The shtadlan approach is epitomized to him by the American Jewish Committee.

This book can be read as an analgesic for a Jewish community increasingly besieged by conspiracy theories on the alleged role of pro-Israel Jews and Israel itself in fomenting the US invasion of Iraq. Schwartz is at his best in challenging the pernicious notions of Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt by pointing out that AIPAC and the old-line Jewish national defense organizations, such as ADL and the AJ Committee, were fixated on Iran. This is a major point of difference between the organized Jewish community and the neoconservatives with whom the “Israel Lobby” is conflated. Ironically, Schwartz scorns this very “lobby” for not protesting the anti-Semitic tone of many attacks on Paul Wolfowitz and other necons allied with George W. Bush.

He also distinguishes among key personalities regularly damned in so many quarters as “pro-Likud.” He points out that Wolfowitz, the administration’s highest-ranking neocon in its first term, was known for pro-Muslim and even pro-Palestinian sensitivities. And Wolfowitz was not associated with “A Clean Break,” a document touted by Israel bashers (and debunked by Schwartz) as evidence of a neocon-Israel conspiracy for invading Iraq. Richard Perle, the Darth
Vader of anti-neocon demonology, did not even have a job in the George W. Bush administration and resigned early from his unpaid advisory capacity with the Pentagon.

Yet this book could be hard for a liberal or even a garden-variety Democrat to stomach. One of his common refrains is that the Democratic party is not “good for the Jews,” while the Republicans mostly are. His only real evidence is a recent Gallup Poll that “shows that three-quarters of Republicans, and less than half of Democrats, now sympathize with Israel rather than the Palestinians.” He also lays the failure of Oslo at Clinton’s and therefore the Democrats’ feet, but there’s no substantial analysis to back this contention.

He explicitly excludes the likes of right-wing isolationist Pat Buchanan from the GOP camp that he admires. He is also scathing about the nature of Saudi influence, a focus he shares with most neocons, and this is one reason why he is not positive about the elder Pres. Bush — but he largely exempts the younger Bush from this concern.

Unfortunately for Schwartz, his book was published just at the point that the troubles in Iraq and the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan became dramatically obvious. In some ways, Schwartz is the last neocon, still writing as if “democratizing Iraq” really was the best strategic goal of the moment, ignoring how the battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban was sidetracked and how Iran’s influence and its looming nuclear threat have been enabled by the invasion of Iraq — which he still defends.

By | 2007-02-01T05:23:00-05:00 February 1st, 2007|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Werner Cohn February 7, 2007 at 2:41 am - Reply

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  2. Werner Cohn February 7, 2007 at 11:44 pm - Reply

    (revised comment by Werner Cohn)

    I think that the name of Max Shachtman gets invoked too readily here. It is possible to speculate, but it is not an established fact, that Shachtman’s thinking had anything at all to do with “what we now think of as neoconservatism.”

    Schartz was not “influenced by an ex-Trotskyist (Max Shachtman),” at least not in any simple, direct way. Schwartz has a very complicated political history. He has written, for example, a book on the Spanish POUM, which would need to be consulted in this context. He has also made some rather wild charges about a putative relationship between one of the founders of psychoanalysis and the GPU (forerunner of the KGB). So no, there is no simple road, or any road at all that I can see, from Shachtman to “Is it Good for the Jews.”

    Now about that anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. It was organized, chiefly, by the Socialist Workers Party, of which Max Shachtman was a leading member at the time but not the leading member. That leader was James P. Cannon, from whom Shachtman split a year later to form his Workers Party. Shachtmanites, in any meaningful sense, did not exist prior to 1940, i.e. they did not exist at that Madison Square Garden rally against the German American Bund.

    There have been a number of discussion articles on the putative genealogical relationship between Trotskyism and neo-conservatism. Some of these articles are intelligent. By far the best, in my opinion, is Bill King’s “Neo Conservatism and Trotskyism,” EnterStageRight, March 22, 2004:


    Werner Cohn
    revised Feb. 7, 2007

  3. Ralph Seliger February 8, 2007 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    Werner Cohn’s comment about the anti-Nazi action in 1939 is well taken. Shachtman probably had a following in ’39, but Shachtmanites did not exist as an independent current until a year later.

    Werner may know more than I about Schwartz’s relationship or lack of same with Shachtman. But there is no doubt that latter-day Shachtmanites became influential neoconservatives. These include (among others) such leaders of the Social Democrats USA as Carl Gershman, who became counsel to Reagan’s UN ambassador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick (herself a former Yipsel), and AEI scholar Josh Muravchik.

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