On Feb. 6, the world learned that former Secretary of State George P. Shultz had passed away at age 100. Shultz was a U.S. Marine, MIT Ph.D. and former head of the Business School at the University of Chicago. He went on to serve his country as Labor Secretary, Treasury Secretary, and Director of Office of Management and Budget under President Richard Nixon. He then spent six years as President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State.
His career was extraordinarily distinguished, and had an extraordinary impact on not just America's Jews, but Jews worldwide. As Secretary of State, Shultz was the friend and protector of Soviet Jews, and particularly the Jewish Refuseniks sentenced to monstrous, long terms in the gulag because they dared to demand the right to leave the USSR and live in freedom in Israel.
Those of us involved in the Soviet Jewry movement well remember the lifeline of advocacy and care the State Department provided under Shultz's direction. When we traveled to the Soviet Union in support of Refusenik families, many of whom had lost their jobs while their loved ones languished in prison, we always met with U.S. Ambassadors in Moscow. Each time, they were scrupulous about updating us on the status of the inquiries they'd made on Refusniks' behalf. They emphasized to Soviet officials not only that these Jews were unjustly imprisoned, but also that all Soviet Jews who wanted to leave the USSR ought to be allowed to do so--and that making that allowance would lead to a better relationship between our two Super Power nations.
Their boss, George Shultz, and his boss, President Reagan, were very clear that the rights of Soviet Jews were a major policy priority of the United States of America. To further amplify the point, on April 13, 1987, Shultz, then Secretary of State, attended the Passover Seder hosted by U.S. Ambassador Jack Macki at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Noted Soviet dissidents were invited and, according to The New York Times, 50 attended. Needless to say, the KGB was not happy.
"We never stop," Shultz told the would-be emigres at that dinner. "If our hopes are disappointed, we keep on. We think about you, we pray for you, and we are with you. On every occasion we meet with the Soviets, we always bring the subject up and they know it. We never give up, we never stop trying, never give up, never give up."
The struggle for Soviet Jewry moved toward victory, beginning with the March on Washington on Dec. 6, 1987. In 1990, Operation Exodus opened the doors to massive emigration of Soviet Jews.
In the years after his terms as Secretary of State, those of us who had been part of the fight to free Soviet Jewry were honored and privileged to have George Shultz speak at major Jewish community events where, as Americans and as Jews, we thanked him for his extraordinary leadership, strength of vision, and friendship. Even years later, we would smile when we read his op-ed pieces-up to and including the essay he published in The Washington Post in December on the occasion of his 100th birthday, where he wisely expounded on the virtues of trust and bipartisanship in politics and everyday living.
George P. Shultz was a Righteous Gentile and a great American statesman, and we will remember him as such.
Dr. Steven B. Nasatir is the Executive Vice Chairman of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago.
This column was originally published in
The Forward i
n February of 2021.