Soviet Jewry champion honored for fearless fight

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When former Secretary of State George Shultz accepts an award next weekend from the Jewish Community Federation for working on behalf of Soviet Jews, it won’t be the first time a Jewish organization honors him for those efforts.

It will certainly gratify him more than the last time.

Secretary of State George Shultz (from left), his then-wife, Helena, Raisa Gorbachev and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., in December 1987. photo/ap/boris yurchenko 

“I remember one in the mid ’80s,” he said, referring to a commendation he received from a Soviet Jewry organization in the early days. “I didn’t feel very good about it. I was awarded for trying. I said the real test is whether we get something accomplished.”

Eventually he did. Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Reagan administration, in which he served from 1982 to 1989, more than a million Soviet Jews won their freedom.

The federation will honor Shultz  with its Federation Centennial Award on April 10 at FedFest.

Shultz points to the success of the Soviet Jewry movement as a prime example of smart statecraft. “That’s one of the big lessons,” he says. “Some problems seem intractable, but if you’re on the right side, keep working. Don’t give up.”

Today, Shultz lives in San Francisco and works as a distinguished fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

He may be 90, but his memories of the Soviet Jewry movement’s heyday are razor sharp. He distinctly recalls Passover seders with refuseniks in Moscow, as well as hard-nosed negotiations with Soviet leaders.

“We had a seder in our embassy in Moscow,” he recalled. “The next day I met with [former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev], who said ‘George, you’re always meeting with these lousy Jews.’ I said, ‘Have I got a deal for you. I have a great big airplane on the tarmac. I can take them away.’ ”

Shultz describes America’s Soviet policy at the time as having a four-part agenda: arms control, regional issues, bilateral issues and human rights. The latter was no less important than any other, and for the administration’s successes, Shultz gives props to his former boss.

“I give Ronald Reagan tremendous credit,” Shultz said. “He was deeply sincere about this. One reason he wanted to be president was he had things he thought needed to be accomplished in human rights.”

Getting the “Evil Empire” (as Reagan once described the former Soviet Union) to budge on Jewish emigration was not easy. Shultz’s Soviet counterparts said they would not relent unless they felt it was in their nation’s interest.

Shultz broke through to them, not on humanitarian grounds, but by appealing to their expectations for the country’s future place in a 21st century world.

He offered the Soviets “a very careful presentation about the emergence of the information age and how a closed society would be left behind,” he recalled. “I told them they needed to open up if they want to be part of the modern age.”

That worked, and helped open the gates of Jewish emigration.

One of his most savored moments in the aftermath of that exodus came at a gathering at his home. In attendance was  Herbert Stein, a former economic adviser for the Nixon White House, who told Shultz that Israel had struck gold.

“He said Israel had just come into a lot of smart, educated people,” Shultz remembered, “and that’s better than oil.”

Shultz is a longtime friend and admirer of Israel, and served at the State Department during a particularly troubling time in Middle East politics. His tenure saw the wind-down of the first Lebanon War, the terrorist massacre of 241 Marines at their barracks in Beirut and the onset of the first intifada.

But he also opened up a dialogue with the PLO that eventually led to more fruitful bilateral talks between the Palestinians and Israel.

Though the subsequent years have seen more than their share of frustrations, Shultz views the conflict as a long-term problem requiring maximum patience.

“Even if there was a settlement, there would still be tension,” he said. “The Palestinians don’t have anybody with whom you could make a deal. I think they understand that Israel would have a hard time making a deal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it.”

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on, Shultz counts the Soviet Jewry issue as a done deal with a happy ending. The most poignant moment of that battle came after protracted negotiation for the freedom of the prominent refusenik Ida Nudel.

“I was sitting in my office at the State Department when I got word I’d be getting a phone call,” Shultz remembered. “I picked up the phone and a woman’s voice said, ‘This is Ida Nudel. I’m in Jerusalem.’ ”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.