The main lesson former US secretary of state George Shultz said he learned from his persistent struggle to free Soviet Jewry was not to give up on something that is important.
Shultz discussed his role in “the opening of the gates of the Soviet Union” in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post at the capital’s King David Hotel on Monday evening.
“I think you learn the lesson, first of all, ‘Never give up.’ Even if something looks very, very difficult, if it’s important, you keep working at it,” he said.
Shultz said president Ronald Reagan and he had cared deeply about the issue, and had constantly pressed their Soviet counterparts, Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, to free the Jews living in their midst by letting them emigrate.
“In one of our meetings, Shevardnadze who was my opposite number, said to me, ‘We might do some of these things you’re talking about, George, but only if it’s to our advantage.’ So I thought about that and I made a pitch to him and to Gorbachev.
“I said, ‘We live in an information age, and if you keep running a compartmented, isolated society, you’re going to fall behind. You’ve got to loosen up, and let people communicate and move around.’ And so, that was an underlying argument.
Gorbachev told me that it made the Politburo, so it registered.”
In a speech at an Israel Democracy Institute gala dinner on Sunday night, Shultz recalled a key meeting he and Reagan had with the Soviet ambassador to Washington at the time, Anatoly Dobrynin.
“Just the three of us were there. We were there for over an hour and a half, and at least half of it was spent by Reagan talking about Soviet Jewry. He knew names, he knew incidents, he was well informed, he cared deeply and he gave the Soviet ambassador that message, and we carried that through,” Shultz said.
One of the Soviet Jews to whom he gave personal attention, Shultz said, was Ida Nudel, an economist and a leader of the refusenik movement who campaigned for the release of “Prisoners of Zion,” many of whom were Jews not only denied exit visas but jailed for their activism. Revealing that he had met her in Moscow “quite a few times,” Shultz said the news of her freedom in October 1987, was the highlight of his term as secretary of state.
“I had worked on her case, and you know, you feel you try and what chance do you have? But you keep working on it,” he said. “I had put her name on a list that I gave Shevardnadze.
All of a sudden, one afternoon at the State Department, a call came through, and I picked up the phone, and a little voice says, ‘This is Ida Nudel. I am in Jerusalem. I’m home.’ I always consider that the high point of my time. I remember it so distinctly.
“People say to me, ‘What’s the most satisfying thing you did as secretary of state?’ It always comes down to a human face.
There is one human being that is better off, and maybe I had something to do with it.”
During his visit to Israel, Shultz met with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, whom he had seen a month earlier together with actor Michael Douglas at Stanford University. He praised Sharansky’s “stunning integrity.”
“I was reminded that we made a deal to get Sharansky out, we traded a spy for him, and he said, ‘I’m not a spy and if I take this deal, it implies that I am.’ So he turned down the deal. And I said to myself, ‘What integrity the man has.’ He chose to stay rather than get out under pretenses that he didn’t consider to be right.
Eventually we got him out and I can remember the day [30 years ago] that he came across the Glienicke Bridge.”
Shultz told the Post
that he had once hosted a reception at his home in Stanford for Soviet Jewry, together with Herb Stein, a former chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers.
“People were wondering how is Israel going to assimilate all these people, and I was part of trying to raise money to help,” he said, smiling. “We were having a little reception in my backyard at Stanford and Herb Stein was there. Herb had great wit. People were buzzing around, and all of a sudden Herb announced, ‘Israel just struck oil.’ And everyone was going, ‘What, what oil?’ And he goes, ‘A lot of gifted human beings. That’s better than oil.’” At the IDI dinner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Shultz “a tremendous friend of Israel” and paid tribute to his role in “the battle for Soviet Jewry.”
“The critical events that ultimately burst open the gates of the former Soviet Union were done with the leadership of president Reagan and secretary of state George Shultz, and the results were astounding,” Netanyahu said. “The addition of a million of our Jewish brethren here made all the difference.
It was something that was important in the annuls of freedom, but I think it was enormously important in the history of the Jewish state, and I want to thank you for that.”
Before the interview, Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler presented Shultz and his wife, Charlotte, with a historic photograph of his meeting with former Soviet refuseniks in Jerusalem that is part of a Limmud FSU/Jerusalem Post exhibition marking 25 years since the success of the “Let My People Go” campaign.
The photograph shows Shultz, when he was secretary of state, on a visit to Jerusalem in 1987, when he met with a group of former dissidents and Prisoners of Zion, to demonstrate solidarity with the campaign.
Seated to the right of Shultz is his late wife, Helena, and to his left, Chesler, the secretary-general of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry who organized the meeting, Yosef Begun and his wife at the time, Nechama, Yuli Edelstein and his late wife, Tanya, with Prof. Alexander Lerner on the far right. The empty seat bears a photograph of Yuli Kosharovsky, then still in a Soviet prison. Kosharovsky was a prominent leader of the dissident movement who taught Hebrew. He was eventually released and came to Israel in 1989, but died in a tragic 2014 accident in his home in Beit Arieh while trying to prune a palm tree in the garden.
“All the former refuseniks I have met give you credit for their freedom,” Chesler told Shultz, who was visibly moved by the photograph. “You are the hero of the struggle for Soviet Jewry.”