Reagan-era secretary of state George Shutlz was honored Nov. 17 in Oakland for his role in helping Soviet Jewry in the 1980s. (Photo/Kate Fim)
Reagan-era secretary of state George Shutlz was honored Nov. 17 in Oakland for his role in helping Soviet Jewry in the 1980s. (Photo/Kate Fim)

Honoring George Shultz, sec. of state who never gave up on Soviet Jews

While serving in the Reagan administration in the 1980s, Secretary of State George Shultz repeatedly pressed USSR leaders on the issue of Soviet Jewry, keeping it an American foreign policy priority until Jews were allowed to immigrate freely.

Some of the children and grandchildren of the people who benefited from that policy paid tribute to the 96-year-old dignitary at a Nov. 17 ceremony in Oakland, prior to the opening of the Limmud FSU conference for Russian-speaking Jews.

The most prominent Jewish refusenik, Natan Sharansky, was freed from prison in 1986 in part due to pressure from Shultz. Sharansky, who immigrated to Israel and now serves as the head of the Jerusalem-based Jewish Agency, was a presenter at the Limmud event.

In his remarks, Shultz recalled how Sharansky had rejected an initial deal to free him.

“He said that the structure of the deal suggested that he was a spy, and he was not a spy,” Shultz told the crowd. “I even tried to get his mother to persuade him, but no way. And I thought to myself, the integrity of the man is overpowering. I remember when President Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire, and some people went nuts. But Sharansky said, finally somebody gets it.”

Former US secretary of state George Shultz (center) receives an award for helping Soviet Jewry, flanked on the left by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. (Photo/Kate Fim)
Former US Secretary of State George Shultz (center) receives an award for helping Soviet Jewry, flanked on the left by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and on the right by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler. (Photo/Kate Fim)

Shultz, who has homes in San Francisco and Stanford, said his many encounters over the years with Soviet Jews had been “such an inspiration” and were an illustration of “the importance of the human spirit and of never giving up. Sometimes it seems hopeless, but never give up, keep fighting.”

During the Limmud ceremony, Shultz was presented with a leather-bound Book of Psalms from Julius Berman, president of the Claims Conference (which facilitates German government compensation to Holocaust survivors), and another on behalf of Limmud FSU.

Referring to him as his “accomplice” in “the crime of bringing down the Iron Curtain and freeing Soviet Jews,” Sharansky spoke warmly of Shultz, who supported the dissident’s wife, Avital Sharansky, as she lobbied publicly on behalf of her imprisoned husband. To those who were unhappy about her presence at a 1985 human rights summit in Geneva, Shultz said flatly at the time that he would hope his own wife would do the same.

Sharansky also said Shultz had made it clear to nervous Jewish communal leaders that both he and Reagan were fully in favor of a 1987 march on Washington to save Soviet Jews.

“There was a lot of resistance because people were worried that it would undermine the improving relationship between the U.S. and the USSR,” Sharansky said, but “Reagan and Shultz wanted us to march.”

Jenni Frazer
Jenni Frazer

Jenni Frazer is a longtime journalist in the Jewish media living in London.