Former Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, who died Monday night at the age of 70 after a long battle with esophogeal cancer, was an outstanding public servant. Steve served the people of Brooklyn in the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1992 with distinction, boundless energy, great intellect, and a true passion to pursue justice.
His passing is a great loss to the nation, but also to people around the world who saw in him the best of what the United States has to offer; a country fully engaged with other nations in the effort to bring peace, human rights, and freedom to every corner of the globe.
I have had the privilege of representing a large portion Brooklyn that was once in his district, and I can attest that he is still fondly remembered and admired by the people. He was always a vigorous advocate for our communities close to home, and for human dignity around the world.
Rep. Solarz served in the New York State Assembly from 1968 until he was elected to the House as part of the historic Watergate class in 1974. He very soon became one of the leading voices in Congress on foreign affairs.
As chairman of the Africa Subcommittee, he was one of the architects of legislation imposing sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs he led the investigation that exposed the corruption of the Marcos government in the Philippines, where he is still revered for having steered U.S. policy away from support of that brutal and corrupt government, and in support of true democratic change which resulted in the election of Corazon Aquino. Israel never had a better friend in Congress than Steve Solarz. He understood the importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance to our national interests in a way that few others did. When he spoke, it was from both the heart and the head. I think that is why he was often so persuasive.
He also used his expertise to help people on a very personal level. He managed to negotiate with the Assad government of Syria the right of Syrian Jewish women to immigrate to the United States because there were no Jewish men in Syria for them to marry. The freedom he won for the “Syrian Brides” is still remembered fondly New York’s Syrian Jewish community, which I now represent.
His dedication to religious liberty had a profound effect on our legal system. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith, he drafted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored the application of strict scrutiny to governmental burdens on the free exercise of religion. Although later gutted by the Supreme Court with respect to the states, it remains the law of the land at the federal level.
Less well known was the so-called “Yarmulke Bill,” which he introduced in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Goldman v. Weinberger, in which the Court held that Americans serving in uniform had no religious right to wear even non-obtrusive religious articles such as a yarmulke. The bill eventually passed over vocal opposition from the Reagan administration, and remains the law of the land.
In these endeavors, he managed to bring together a diverse coalition of religious and civil liberties organizations from across the spectrum; from the American Civil Liberties Union, to the National Association of Evangelicals.
As a son of Brooklyn, who never forgot where he came from, he was always active in the life of the neighborhoods he represented.
Even after leaving office, Steve Solarz was a respected voice in international affairs. His vast knowledge and experience were of great importance to decision makers when grappling with some of the most complex and sensitive global issues. We will miss his wise counsel as we face an increasingly complex future.
On a more personal note, Steve Solarz was a mensch. He leaves behind friends and colleagues who will miss him very much. Our country is a better place because of his commitment to public service. The people of the world have lost a tireless advocate for freedom and democracy.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler represents New York’s 8th District, which includes parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, in the House of Representatives.