Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and US Secretary of State George Shultz. (JNS photo)
by Richard Friedman
The news that long-time American statesman and diplomat George Shultz had died at age 100 on Feb. 6 brought back a pivotal memory for me. His passing recalled one of the highlights of my 37-year tenure as executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, a position from which I retired in December 2019.
The memory of Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state at the time, has stayed with me, even though it happened nearly 35 years ago.
I’m glad it has stayed with me — it was one of the highlights of my Federation career and a turning point in the history of the American Jewish experience and our willingness to advocate publicly for our brothers and sisters who at the time could not emigrate from the Soviet Union.
In the early part of 1987, other Jewish Federation directors from throughout the country and I were invited to the U.S. State Department to meet with Shultz in a private meeting.
He told us that President Reagan was planning to bring up the plight of Soviet Jewry when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington later that year for important negotiations that would affect relations between the two superpowers.
Shultz said that he and President Reagan wanted the national Jewish Federation movement to help plan and facilitate a massive Soviet Jewry demonstration in Washington as Gorbachev would be arriving.
This, the president and Shultz felt, would reflect the importance that the American people attached to the Soviet Union changing its policies and allowing Jews to emigrate. Such a gathering in Washington, they felt, would also strengthen President Reagan’s hand in dealing with the Soviets in general.
The strategy worked.
Descending on Washington
Ninety people from Birmingham, one of the largest delegations per capita, were part of the 250,000 Jews and friends of the Jewish community from all sections of the country who descended on Washington in December 1987. Jewish communities from other parts of the Deep South were represented as well.
President Reagan and Shultz kept their end of the bargain, refusing in the overall negotiations to consider what Gorbachev was seeking until the Soviet Union agreed to “let our people go.” Just by listening to Shultz at the State Department meeting for Federation directors and others, you could tell how serious he and the president were about this strategy.
To have had a ringside seat on that turning point in both Jewish and world history is something I treasure and remember vividly to this day.
About seven years ago, I came across a commentary piece posted in the Washington Post by Natan Sharansky, one of the key leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and 1980s, who finally was allowed to leave for Israel after serving nine years in prison for his Jewish activism. At that time, Sharansky, an authority on negotiating with dictators, tyrants and oppressive regimes, was head of the Israel-based Jewish Agency, a non-governmental entity affiliated with the Jewish Federation movement.
Sharansky, in his Washington Post piece, compared President Reagan’s negotiating strategy, and the president and Shultz raising the plight of Soviet Jewry, to our current challenges in dealing with Iran.
Sharansky, referring to the Reagan-Shultz strategy of linking human rights to other issues, wrote: “Reality is complicated, and the use of historical analogies is always somewhat limited. But even this superficial comparison shows that what the United States saw fit to demand back then from the most powerful and dangerous competitor it had ever known is now considered beyond the pale in its dealings with Iran.”
Shultz “was a great American statesman and a true patriot in every sense of the word. He will be remembered in history as a man who made the world a better place,” former Secretary of State and Birmingham native Condoleezza Rice said in a statement upon Shultz’s passing.
The former Secretary, who had a long and distinguished career in government, academia and business, will be missed by the Jewish people and Israel. He was a true friend; principled, steadfast, caring and, when needed, willing to speak his mind, but always in private.
Shultz, along with President Reagan, will go down in history as one of the transformative figures in the Soviet Jewry movement — an episode in Jewish life of Biblical proportions.
In its article on Shultz’s death, the Associated Press quoted him as saying, “I think the thing I felt the best about had to do with the area of human rights.”
AP also noted: “On his trips to Moscow he spent time meeting with Jews and other dissidents who were denied exit permits to Israel and elsewhere. He arranged a Passover seder at the U.S. Embassy and made sure ‘refuseniks’ were invited.” (Refuseniks was a term used to refer to those who were refused permission to emigrate.)
His leadership and encouragement at that State Department meeting played a critical role in opening up the Soviet Union, so that more than a million Jews, many yearning to live more fully Jewishly, could leave for Israel and points elsewhere, including Birmingham and other cities throughout the Deep South.
The former Secretary of State was a giant — the kind of transcendent statesman rarely seen today, unfortunately. He will be missed.