This past April, the American Jewish Historical Society honored George Shultz, the former secretary of state, for his very powerful contributions to the freedom of Soviet Jewry. As those involved in that struggle know well, this was an honor richly deserved.
Shultz went well beyond the usual patter of thanks that is standard at such occasions. He delivered an elaborate talk, most of it a moving reminiscence of his involvement in the diplomacy that led to the mass emigration of Soviet Jewry.
A digression: Back in 1964 or so, I was in Israel working on a book on Israeli politics. Friends encouraged me to meet with Menachem Begin, then a member of the Knesset whose glory years as leader of the pre-state Irgun were long past, his accession to Israel’s prime ministership still more than a decade away.
In liberal and left circles, he was often labeled a “fascist.” So I argued with my friends that Begin was a has-been not worth my time. Finally, mostly to placate them, I succumbed and made an appointment for what turned out to be a lengthy conversation with Begin.
Afterward, my friends asked me how it had gone. “Waste of time, “ I said. “The man is delusionary.
Just imagine: He spoke passionately about the day, not far off, when Soviet Jews will flock to Israel. Absurd. Obviously, Begin was right and I was very wrong. And George Shultz was one of the people who enabled Begin’s prophecy to be realized, who made the exodus happen.
In and of itself, the Shultz talk about Soviet Jewry was filled with rich and often unknown detail, and had that been all, it would still have merited a hearty dayenu — entirely sufficient to the occasion.
But that wasn’t all, not by a long shot. In the last minutes of his talk, it became apparent that there was a pressing moral to the stories Shultz was telling, a moral immediately relevant to ongoing crises that are often in our headlines today.
“In Praise of Diplomacy,” Shultz might have titled his remarks.
Here are the main conclusions that Shultz derived from his and Ronald Reagan’s painstakingly determined effort to persuade the Soviet Union to let our people go:
“We had no illusion that verbal threats could substitute for real pressure. But at the same time, we believed that change was possible. We therefore pursued our objectives in arms control and human rights through diplomacy, adopting principles that kept us from tying ourselves up with our own rhetoric.
“First, while we condemned Soviet misconduct, we deliberately abandoned the notion that we would refuse to talk to them if they behaved badly. Our purpose, after all, was to convince them to alter their behavior. We had our own agenda, which we could not advance if we refused to engage.
“We abhorred the Soviet regime, and we let them know it. But we worked to bring about real change based ultimately on convincing the Soviets that the changes we sought were in their own best interests.
“We curbed our desire to claim small victories in order to encourage larger ones. Instead of taking public credit for Soviet behavior we had encouraged, President Reagan promised not to ‘crow.’ It is difficult enough to get leaders of hostile regimes to agree to alter their conduct, without making them seem to have capitulated to our demands. “It may feel good to refuse to engage diplomatically with an enemy. But the test of successful diplomacy is whether objectives are accomplished. While diplomacy without pressure is idle talk, refusing to talk is no substitute for the pressure essential to elicit change.”
“I will not pretend, in this regard, to hide my concern for Israel…. Palestinians have elected people devoted to Israel’s destruction, who kill Jews because they are Jews. The president of Iran challenges the truth of the Holocaust, while at the same time swearing that Israel should be wiped off the face of the Earth. What should one conclude from these positions other than that he is denying the last Holocaust in order to rationalize a new one?
“So, the best of all reasons to record and remember how the Soviet Jews were saved is to be prepared to act again when the need arises. If we are ever to live in a civilized world, what was accomplished for the Soviet Jews must become the rule rather than the exception. We must not only preach the doctrine of human rights. We must learn how actually to be our brothers’ keeper.”
It is tempting to celebrate the difficulties Hamas faces in Gaza, to believe those difficulties are of their own making, hence fully deserved. But what if Hamas cannot be cowed into submission? Then what?
And what if along the way, 10,000 or 50,000 Gazans die, or a new generation of hate is raised up? Whatever one concludes about how Israel, the United States and the European Union should relate to Gaza, the conclusion is no slam dunk. It is a weighty decision, fraught with political and moral consequence.
And it is also and obviously tempting to condemn Iran, its leaders and its apparently hellish ambitions. So we hear casual talk about the wisdom of a military assault against it.
But such an assault would be both tricky and ugly, nor can there be a guarantee of a quick success. That, at least, we must by now have learned from the Iraq disaster — or, for that matter, from Israel’s failed reliance on force against Hezbollah last summer.
If persuasion’s your intention, threat and excommunication may not be the strategy of choice. Maybe Shultz had it right: “Refusing to talk is no substitute for the pressure essential to elicit change.”