George P. Shultz deserves our thanks

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light. 

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

George P. Shultz, who served for six eventful years as secretary of state during the Reagan administration, died Saturday, Feb. 7 at age 100.

Widely admired for his calm demeanor and intellect, Shultz is given credit across the foreign policy spectrum for his key role in bringing about the end of the Cold War while the reformist Mikhail S. Gorbachev was president of the Soviet Union.  Less well known, but almost as significant, was Shultz’s timely role in persuading the USSR to at last open the floodgates to allow over 1 million Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel and another 250,000 to move to the United States and other Western democracies.

What is all the more remarkable about Shultz’s major push to free Soviet Jews — and thereby strengthen Israel by adding to its Jewish population — is that before he joined the Reagan Cabinet, he spent two years as president of the Bechtel Group, a major engineering firm that completed most of the oil and gas infrastructure for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, long before the Gulf nations dropped their hostility to Israel.

Many within the pro-Israel community at the time (including me, to my embarrassment!) believed Shultz would be bad news for Israel, given his close ties to the oil rich Gulf states. I’m happy to take back my jumping to conclusions even before Shultz became secretary of state.

During his tenure, Shultz learned that when Israel made a deal, its leaders could be trusted to keep their end of the bargain, while the dictators of Syria would not.

After the Second Lebanon War, Shultz got Israel and Lebanon to agree to make peace with the tacit support of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Before the deal could be finalized, Assad forcefully intervened to sabotage the agreement. Shultz often said that trust is the cornerstone  of diplomacy and that Israel could be trusted while Syria absolutely could not be counted upon. 

Shultz strongly supported the Soviet Jewry movement, even to the point of attending a seder in Moscow in 1987 with prominent “refuseniks” like Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel. According to an obituary in the Wall Street Journal, Shultz gave  Soviet Foreign Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze a list of refuseniks, Jews whose visa applications had been refused, in order to help them move to Israel.

Although some Jews (including me) initially were wary of Shultz’s appointment, he proved to be one of the most consequential supporters of Israel and Soviet Jewry in modern Jewish and Israeli History.

Rest in peace, George Shultz — statesman, righteous gentile and mensch.