Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

Reagan, Shultz, Obama & Kerry: a first-hand account

Sometime around the early part of 1987, other Jewish Federation directors from throughout the country and I were invited to the US State Department to meet with Secretary of State George Shultz. He told us that President Ronald Reagan was planning to bring up the plight of Soviet Jewry when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would be coming to Washington later that year for important negotiations with the President that would affect relations between the two superpowers.

Shultz said that he and Reagan wanted the national Jewish Federation movement to help plan and facilitate a massive Soviet Jewry demonstration in Washington as Gorbachev would be arriving. This, Reagan and Shultz felt, would reflect the importance that the American people attached to the Soviet Union changing its policies and allowing Jews to emigrate, and would strengthen Reagan’s hand in dealing with the Soviets in general. The strategy worked.

Ninety people from Birmingham, one of the largest delegations per capita, were part of the 250,000 Jews and friends of the Jewish community from all sections of the country who descended on Washington in December of 1987. Reagan and Shultz kept their end of the bargain, refusing in the overall negotiations to consider what Gorbachev was seeking until the Soviet Union agreed to let our people go.

To have had a ringside seat on that turning point in both Jewish and world history, is something I treasure. It’s also something that has been very much on my mind as I have watched President Obama and his administration negotiate with the Iranians and refusing to bring up Iran’s well-documented anti-Semitism, well-known desire to destroy the world’s only Jewish state, voracious territorial ambitions, and continued support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Islamic terror groups that fire deadly rockets at Israeli schoolchildren.

The US State Department’s own website lists Hezbollah and Hamas as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” These designations, the State Department maintains, “play a critical role in our fight against terrorism and are an effective means of curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to get out of the terrorism business.” I have seen with my own eyes, during a visit to the city of Sderot in southern Israel, the remnants of Iranian-supplied rockets that Hamas fired into the city trying to kill as many civilians as possible.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, when asked why these other issues weren’t being raised by the US in the negotiations with Iran, made the Obama administration’s viewpoint and approach clear: “This is an agreement that is only about the nuclear issue,” she said. “This is an agreement that doesn’t deal with any other issues, nor should it.”

As I pondered the comparison between Reagan, Shultz and the Soviet Union and Obama, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran, I wondered if I was just grasping at straws because of my fears and frustration over Iran, of which I have plenty. But then I read a quote from Rabbi Marvin Hier in the online magazine Tablet. Rabbi Hier was among a group of national Jewish leaders invited to the White House recently as part of President Obama’s efforts to build support for the framework agreement with Iran. What Hier said he told the President really resonated with me.

“Mr. President,” he said, “in a few weeks, you and others will be going to Germany to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. What meaning does that have when while negotiating over the nuclear treaty with Iran, none of the six powers said a word when the ayatollah Tweeted about annihilating the state of Israel, or a leading (Iranian) general…said this is the regime’s raison d’etre?” Continued Hier, “What meaning does the 70th anniversary have? Hitler said he was going to murder all the Jews in a letter from 1919, and he wound up doing it. If you hear the ayatollah saying that, every world leader should repudiate it immediately.”

The above comments made an impression on me. They gave me a little satisfaction that maybe I was on to something with my analogy, but they also left me with a great deal of discomfort. And then I came across a commentary piece posted in the Washington Post by Natan Sharansky, one of the key leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and 1980s who finally was allowed to leave for Israel after serving nine years in prison for his Jewish activism. Today, Sharansky, an authority on negotiating with dictators, tyrants and oppressive regimes, is head of the Israel-based Jewish Agency.

Sharansky, too, compared Reagan’s negotiations and his raising the plight of Soviet Jewry with the Soviets to our current negotiations with Iran. Wrote Sharansky: “Reality is complicated, and the use of historical analogies is always somewhat limited. But even this superficial comparison shows that what the United States saw fit to demand back then from the most powerful and dangerous competitor it had ever known is now considered beyond the pale in its dealings with Iran.”

Both Hier and Sharansky, two deeply intelligent men and widely respected leaders, were, in essence, saying and writing exactly what I’d been thinking.  But what left me most unsettled was the headline on Sharansky’s article: “When did America forget that it’s America?” It’s a headline that should leave us all unsettled.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.