Raised in interwar New Jersey and Baghdad, the chances that George Shultz and Shlomo Hillel would ever meet were as low as the chances they would impact history in ways few people ever did.
The pair, who died this week at ages 100 and 97, respectively, rubbed shoulders only briefly in the mid-1980s in their capacities at the time as US secretary of state and speaker of the Knesset, but that is not the reason to eulogize them in tandem.
The reason is the leadership style they shared, mixing understatement and humility while personifying an era whose passing is underscored by their simultaneous deaths.
BOTH MEN’S abilities as leaders were tested early in their lives by the wars that caught them in their early 20s.
Though already a Princeton graduate by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Shultz joined the Marines and fought as an artillery officer in the Battle of Angaur, about halfway between New Zealand and Japan, where 1,350 Japanese and 260 Americans were killed.
Hillel, whose family of tea merchants claimed to have descended from the Roman-era sage Hillel the Elder, arrived with his parents in British-Mandate Palestine at age 11. That was young enough to acclimate among his sabra classmates and become a leader in the Tel Aviv Boy Scouts, with whom he prepared to establish a new kibbutz. War steered the aspiring pioneer’s future elsewhere.
Lacking arms and ammunition, the Hagana decided in 1945 to secretly manufacture them by itself. Hillel thus found himself in an underground factory outside Rehovot where he helped oversee 45 people’s clandestine production of four million bullets in three years.
Having thus displayed poise and seriousness, and bearing in mind his fluent Iraqi Arabic, Hillel was soon given a far more demanding task: to clandestinely land a husky C-46 in an Iraqi airfield of his choice, fill its 50 seats with local Jews, and equally illicitly return the aircraft and its cargo to British Palestine.
“Tell me,” he asked the Mossad agent who approached him, “do we have any experience with illegal immigration via airplanes?” (Shlomo Hillel, Operation Babylon (Hebrew) 1985, p. 19). The short answer – “no” – would soon be inverted.
At age 24, Hillel spearheaded a kind of operation that would otherwise be led by professional spies twice his age. With Baghdad unfurling under the aircraft, Hillel directed the pilots – a pair of American war veterans hired along with their plane – to an airfield 50 kilometers north of the Iraqi capital.
It was a mistake, he recalled. Having instantaneously attracted a large crowd of curious villagers, Hillel had the plane take off and land unannounced in the main Baghdad airport itself, risking capture, interrogation, and very likely execution.
As he gambled, the airport was unguarded. Hillel – codenamed Shamai – proceeded to the metropolis where he oversaw the gathering of the flight’s participants and their navigation to a field outside the airstrip, near a hole he found in the airport’s outer fence while circling it soon after landing there.
The 50 Jews arrived in the dark of night from different directions in disguised cabs. The aircraft approached them, they boarded it with its engines running, and at 03:38 all were in midair and heading west, where they would land at dawn in a Galilean thorn field.
The flawless operation was then repeated, and later serialized and diversified with Hillel overseeing in the following years the shipment to Zion (largely via Iran) of the entire, 2,000-year-old Jewish community of Babylonia.
Short, gaunt, soft-spoken and modest, the man who later was a lawmaker, diplomat and minister of police, had thus created the model for Israel’s multiple airlifts of hundreds of thousands of Jews from three continents. What biblical prophets dreamed, Shlomo Hillel did.
GEORGE SHULTZ’S historic impact was even bigger, if less thrilling.
As Richard Nixon’s treasurer facing the Vietnam War’s economic pressure, he oversaw the retreat from the gold standard whereby currency rates were fixed in gold values, replacing it with the floating currency regime that underpins financial markets to this day.
As Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, he held some 30 meetings with Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, ultimately producing a sweeping arms control deal that effectively ended the Cold War. The defense establishment was skeptical, but Shultz argued early that the new regime in Moscow wanted peace. The deal he and they ultimately struck was vindication to him, and salvation to mankind.
At the same time, Shultz held in the American Embassy in Moscow a Passover Seder with Jewish dissidents, a dramatic part of the broader effort that resulted in Soviet Jewry’s liberation.
Shortly before that, Shultz helped save the Israeli economy by inspiring, as an economist, much of 1985’s pivotal stabilization plan, and also inserting into it a crucial $1-billion US grant.
LIKE HILLEL, Shultz did not promote himself. He focused on serving his nation. At the same time, both men spoke their truth and would not let others twist it.
Shultz attacked Reagan’s shenanigans with Nicaragua’s Contras; he blocked Nixon’s attempt to use income-tax information in his Watergate duels; and he scolded Donald Trump’s foreign policy, despite being a lifelong Republican.
Similarly, Hillel told his own lifelong party – Labor – that its electoral debacles stemmed not from Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination but from its leaders’ abandonment of David Ben-Gurion’s centrist legacy.
George Shultz and Shlomo Hillel were emblems of an era; a time studded with public servants who were driven not by careerism, but by a sense of patriotic duty and civic mission peppered with political balance and mental poise; a time when leaders with small egos did big things, in such contrast to the subsequent era, when leaders whose historic imprints are this small, can carry egos this big.
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.