Reagan-era secretary of state George Shultz was honored in Oakland in Nov. 2017 for his role in helping Soviet Jewry in the 1980s. (Photo/Kate Fim)
Reagan-era secretary of state George Shultz was honored in Oakland in Nov. 2017 for his role in helping Soviet Jewry in the 1980s. (Photo/Kate Fim)

George Shultz, former sec. of state who fought for Soviet Jews, had Bay Area ties

George Shultz, the Reagan administration secretary of state who made it his mission to bring about freedom for Soviet Jewry, lived in the Bay Area for three decades before his Feb. 6 passing at age 100.

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where Shultz had been a distinguished fellow for decades, announced his death.

“I had the privilege of working for and with George Shultz for over 36 years,” said Abraham Sofaer, who served as legal adviser in the State Department under Shultz, and who is today the George P. Shultz Distinguished Scholar at the Hoover Institution. “He cared deeply about human rights, helped liberate Soviet Jewry, and supported Israel. But make no mistake, this was because of his underlying belief in freedom, limited government, private property, and the rule of law. His partnership with President Reagan in ending the Cold War was possibly the greatest single advance for human freedom in history.”

Danny Grossman, today CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, was Human Rights Officer on the Soviet Desk at the State Department in Washington and vice consul at the U.S. Consulate in Leningrad during the years Shultz headed the department.

“George Shultz elevated human rights to the top of the agenda in all his meetings with the Soviets,” Grossman recalled. “I had the privilege of writing his talking points on human rights for two years, and at one pivotal point in 1988, he gave me carte blanche to write the most compelling argument he could muster in an upcoming meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.”

Grossman accompanied the just-freed refusenik Natan Sharansky and his wife to the State Department and a meeting with Shultz in the mid-’80s.

“To ensure that the couple felt comfortable, he ushered us into his inner chamber, which was less formal than his state office,” Grossman said, “and he was warm and empathetic throughout the meeting.”

Shultz was a moderate Republican who in a number of economic Cabinet positions during the Nixon presidency advanced affirmative action as redress for discrimination. He was the rare instance of a Nixon Cabinet secretary who emerged from that administration squeaky clean: As Treasury secretary, Shultz stood between Nixon and the president’s desire to harass his opponents with the Internal Revenue Service.

Shultz left the Nixon Cabinet in 1974 and joined the oil industry services giant Bechtel, eventually becoming president. Reagan tapped Shultz to be secretary of state in 1982 after Alexander Haig’s career imploded over his incautious battles with colleagues.

One of Haig’s perceived indiscretions was to defend Israel too fiercely, including in the war that Israel launched in Lebanon that year. Shultz’s blank slate on Israel and his dealings as an executive with Saudi Arabia immediately sparked wariness among the pro-Israel community.

He soon calmed the waters. Shultz was an enthusiastic proponent of Reagan’s determination to calm tensions in Lebanon, but he also stood firm against terrorism, and was rattled by the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military personnel. Shultz had served in the Pacific as a Marine in World War II.

Shultz strongly advocated preventive measures to stop terrorism, quoting among others a rising young Israeli political star, Benjamin Netanyahu. Shultz’s diplomacy led to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel in 1988, although it did not lead to talks for at least another three years.

His passion, however, was his advocacy for Soviet Jews. He was among the doves in the Reagan administration who sided with the president in nuclear disarmament talks with the USSR, but he leveraged that influence on behalf of Soviet Jews.

Shultz said a highlight of his career was the surprise Passover seder he convened in 1987 at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to which he invited Jewish dissidents, known as refuseniks, who were seeking permission to emigrate to Israel.

In 1988, shortly before completing his turn in the job, he said that when Ida Nudel, who attended the seder, called six months later from Israel, he teared up.

“Mr. Secretary, this is Ida Nudel, I’m home,” he recalled her saying.

Abraham Foxman, the retired director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Shultz a “great statesman.”

“His alarm about terrorism’s threat to democracy alerted the world,” Foxman said on Twitter. “His hosting a Passover seder for refuseniks in Moscow was historic.”

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.


Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.