Notwithstanding the old adage that behind every great man there stands a great woman, too many great men forget to acknowledge the women who walked with them in the wilderness and who shared the struggle in the days before the glory.
Not so Isi Leibler, a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who publicly stated this week that without the support and wholehearted participation of his wife, Naomi, he would not have been able to accomplish the things that he did.
Leibler, who for several years now has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post, was feted by a series of speakers at the launch on Wednesday of the book Let My People Go, the untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-1989. The event was organized by the World Jewish Congress and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which operates under its auspices, together with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
While the book by Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland highlights Leibler’s courageous and unrelenting 30-year role in the forefront of the struggle for Soviet Jewry, it also demonstrates the impact of a small continent at the bottom of the world, which previously had minimal influence on global policies, but whose DNA carried an impressive record of putting up a good fight for the underdog. At the United Nations, Australia was the first country to raise the issue of Soviet civil rights abuses.
Ambassador Dave Sharma said that, as an Australian, he was proud to read the book and to realize what a pivotal role had been played by Australian community leaders, politicians and activists in the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, and added that he is also proud that Australia produced so great a figure as Leibler.
Supreme Court Deputy President Elyakim Rubinstein, who while assistant to then-foreign minister Moshe Dayan first met Leibler in the 1970s, said that Leibler is characterized by courage and says what he has to say without fear. Rubinstein recalled that there had been debate not only in Australia but also in Israel as well as in other countries as to whether the campaign should be conducted publicly or through quiet diplomacy.
There is no question that the public approach and continued pressure that Leibler led in Australia was the right one, he said.
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Rubinstein who served as cabinet secretary under prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, the one hundredth anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated this month, said that the Soviet Jewry issue was like a fire in Shamir’s belly, and the policy of his administration was to bring as many as possible Soviet Jews to Israel. “It is not our goal to convince Jews to leave Russia,” he declared. “It is our goal to get them to come to Israel.”
Shamir’s commitment to the cause was also mentioned by Herzl Makov, the executive director of the Begin Heritage Center, who worked closely with both Menachem Begin and Shamir and said that both were champions of the campaign for Soviet Jewry. Describing the campaign as “a holy mission,” Makov said that nearly all Jewish leaders throughout the world participated in it.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, the most famous of refuseniks and of Prisoners of Zion, has a gift for injecting humor into what was a traumatic period for him personally and for Soviet Jewry in general. He is one of several former Prisoners of Zion with whom Leibler has maintained contact. It should be remembered that Leibler not only influenced Australian government policy and risked his life in eluding, and in encounters with, the KGB, but also shelled out tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in activities on behalf of the cause.
Sharansky had everyone laughing when he related the story of playing with his daughters in the back garden of his home when the girls were still very young. Next door were veteran immigrants from New York who looked over the fence and reminisced about how great it had been to be part of the Soviet Jewry movement in which there had been such a spirit of unity and where young people dated and in many cases got married. Ignoring the fact that Sharansky and others had languished in prison for years, the neighbors yearned for a return of those good old days. “The challenge for us is to have these great days without going to prison,” said Sharansky.
On a more serious note, he commented that as someone who was central to the activities of Jewish activists in the Soviet Union, he thought that he knew everything about the Soviet Jewry campaign, in which Elie Wiesel’s book The Jews of Silence was a turning point. But when he read the draft of the book by Lipski and Rutland, he was surprised to discover things that he didn’t know – for instance, that Australians had been campaigning for Soviet Jews as early as 1959. “Whoever heard of Australia? How did they hear about us?” Contrary to popular misconception that the Soviet Jewry campaign was one united effort, Sharansky said that it was a typical Jewish struggle in which there were many organizations that hated each other and fought each other, but on the other hand it was a good thing because it helped to mobilize Jews of every ideology and background toward a common cause.
Sharansky was pleased that even now, after it was thought that all Jews from the former Soviet Union who wanted to leave had done so, Jews are still coming from Moscow and Ukraine, and there has been an ongoing increase.
Rutland, who is head of the department of Jewish studies at Sydney University, is a meticulous researcher with access to material that is generally classified, so much so that when she was finally permitted to peruse such files, she was placed by herself in a small, closed room and told that she must not photograph or photocopy anything.
Among the files that were labeled for her eyes only were those of ASIO, the Australian equivalent of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), in which 800 pages had been devoted to Isi Leibler. This was partially due to Leibler’s attempts to contact Australian communists to try to get them to speak out against the abuse of civil rights in Russia. All his telephone conversations with members of the Australian Communist Party had been recorded.
Although Leibler has been widely heralded as the hero of the Soviet Jewry campaign, Rutland said that in all of his writings Leibler had consistently described all of Soviet Jewry as the heroes of their generation.
Another Australian hero in the struggle for Soviet Jewry was the colorful Bob Hawke, first as a trade union leader and then as prime minister.
Rutland read an excerpt from the book of Hawke’s disdain for the KGB during one of his visits to Moscow, to the delight of the many Australian expats sitting in the auditorium of the Begin Heritage Center. Also in the audience were former Prisoners of Zion and former Soviet Jewry activists from the UK and elsewhere.
It was almost like a reunion.
Stressing the importance of the book in terms of contemporary Jewish history, publisher Ilan Greenfield of Gefen Publishing House said that the book should be compulsory reading in schools and that its contents should be widely disseminated. He urged everyone who bought a copy to publish a review on Amazon so as to create greater public awareness.
Leibler himself recounted an episode – which appears in the book – where he, at age 30, clashed with venerable World Jewish Congress leader Nahum Goldmann at a meeting in Strasbourg in 1965.
Goldmann, then 70, insisted on quiet diplomacy. Leibler accused him of missing an opportunity to secure the freedom of Soviet Jewry, and to his surprise received a standing ovation. Goldmann then spent an hour disparaging Leibler and his ideas, which in effect made the young man from down under an overnight celebrity.
Both Sharansky and Leibler made the point that within the Soviet Union itself, the number of Jewish activists was sparse in relation to the overall Jewish population. Even so, according to Leibler, those few hundred people changed the face of Jewish history. On a more sobering note, Leibler said that had the State of Israel not been in existence, “nothing would have saved Soviet Jewry.”
■ AFTER PARTING company earlier this year from celebrity chef Yonatan Roshfeld, siblings Adi and Irit Strauss have parted company from their luxury boutique hotel Alma, which has been taken over by the Rothschild Friends group, whose members include businessman Haim Nahman and former soccer star Shimon Gershon. The hotel is in a building designated for preservation, and its new owners will renovate it in accordance with the rules pertaining to heritage sites.
The sale will not affect the continuing operations of Adi’s Lifestyle, whose other enterprises include the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Herzliya, the Herbert Samuel restaurant in Tel Aviv, which was once Roshfeld’s flagship, the kosher Herbert Samuel in Herzliya and the Tapas bar in Tel Aviv’s Ahad Ha’am Street.
In addition, the company is opening a Herbert Samuel in Jerusalem, which is arguably the most appropriate venue for a venture of that name, considering that Viscount Herbert Samuel was the first British high commissioner of Palestine. He was also Jewish and an ardent Zionist and was headquartered in Jerusalem, where he held office from 1920 to 1925. The restaurant bearing his name is due to open by the end of this year. It’s just a shame that his Jerusalem-born grandson Viscount David Samuel, who died not so long ago, will not be present for the opening. However, there are other members of the Samuel family living in Israel, and perhaps they will be invited to the launch of the third restaurant in the chain.
■ THE AUSTRIAN National Day reception toward the end of the month will also be an opportunity for Austrian Ambassador Franz Josef Kuglitsch and his wife to make their farewells, as Kuglitsch, who presented his credentials in January 2012, is on the verge of completing his tour of duty. His wife has been active in the International Women’s club and the Diplomatic Spouses Club, in which she has held executive positions.
■ WHEN ONE looks at dapper Jerusalemite Phil Gilbert, who had a delayed 95th birthday hosted by his daughter and son-in-law Dorraine and Barry Weiss, it seems that 95 should no longer be considered old.
Like his daughter and son-in-law with whom he lives, Gilbert is a very social creature, who accompanies them to numerous social and cultural events, attends a few on his own and is always present when the Weiss husband and wife entertain – and that’s quite often.
Although there was quite a sizable crowd, including Gilbert’s grandson and his wife and their large brood of children, the guest list was not as extensive as usual, because Gilbert wanted only those people who he feels are part of his extended family.
Gilbert is one of nature’s gentlemen and an incorrigible but ever courteous flirt who loves to kiss the ladies – but always on the cheek. In fact, he invited the female guests to line up for a kiss. For someone who hasn’t had an easy life, he is remarkably good natured, generous and uncomplaining.
The youngest of six siblings, he was born in Williamsburg, New York, and was only two years old when his father died. His mother supported the family by cleaning houses and taking in laundry. When Gilbert was 14, his mother became seriously ill, and his older siblings were too busy making a living to take care of her. So Gilbert had to leave school to look after his mother.
She died when he was 15, and he asked his siblings to give him a dollar a week each so that he could finish school and would have enough money with which to feed himself and pay rent. They laughed at him and refused. He had no option but to find a job. He managed to find menial work which paid $8 a week.
When he was 20, he found a young woman who attracted him, but the feeling was not mutual. He came across her again at a party, and this time it was mutual. They married when he was 21. There was also a stint in the army during the Second World War, and later he operated a luncheonette.
His daughter Dorraine has a very close relationship with him, and it was interesting that childhood memories that she shared about him always being there for her were almost identical to those of her sister, who sent a message from the United States.
The last time that the family celebrated Gilbert’s birthday with a big party was when he turned 90, but now they will celebrate every year, said Dorraine. Events of recent weeks had brought home the message that no one can take life for granted, and therefore every day of every week of every month of every year is precious. “We have to celebrate life,” she said.
Gilbert was on his feet for most of the evening, greeting guests and posing for photos. Barry Weiss, the family chef, was also on his feet, rushing from stove or from oven to table, bearing new culinary delights throughout the evening. It was difficult to tell whether Gilbert was more appreciative of the company of his peer generation or of his great-grandchildren. He seemed to be equally affectionate with both.
■ THE CEREMONY at the President’s Residence at which it was announced that the Israeli SpaceIL team was ahead of other competitors in the race to the moon, started 12 minutes behind schedule, which is not really a big deal in relation to Jewish Mean Time. Actually, it almost started on time. Everyone was present with the exception of one of the speakers, and the ceremony was delayed until he arrived.
The tardy one was Science, Technology and Space Minister Ophir Akunis.
The occasion also afforded Ido Sharir, the director-general of the Science, Technology and Space Ministry, the opportunity to return to his old stomping ground. Sharir was one of the key advisers to president Shimon Peres, after which he headed the Peres Center for Peace and then moved on the ministry.
■ SHORTLY BEFORE the event President Reuven Rivlin was at the nearby King David Hotel, where he addressed members of the Foreign Press Association. His spokeswoman Naomi Toledano, who is technically on maternity leave, thought it was sufficiently important to be present when Rivlin fielded questions from the foreign media, and brought her baby as well. But she didn’t accompany members of the president’s staff when they returned to the office. She stayed behind to nurse her tiny tot.
■ THE COMINGS and goings of heads of state require a great deal of fine tuning. On the day after he welcomes Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite to Israel, Rivlin will be paying a state visit of his own to the Czech Republic, where he will be welcomed by President Milos Zeman. The two will jointly open a Czech-Israeli business forum.
But even before leaving or welcoming his Lithuanian counterpart, Rivlin will next week host President Pranab Mukherjee, who is the first-ever Indian head of state to visit Israel. Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Foreign and Defense ministries are all attaching enormous importance to this visit, which is considered to be a most significant historic milestone in relations between the two countries.
As has been previously mentioned in this column, for all the criticism meted out against Israel in global forums, Israel is far from being isolated.
Heads of state, prime ministers and other high-ranking representatives of governments from all over the world keep coming to Israel, and their Israeli counterparts are paying reciprocal visits. That should give Israel some leverage where it counts.
■ NOT ONLY statesmen, politicians, members of business delegations, academics, pilgrims and entertainers are coming to Israel but also top-ranking journalists, who in some cases are also best-selling authors. Coming up in this category is investigative journalist and New York Times best-selling author Edwin Black, who has written about many well-known figures, including Jonathan Pollard. Black, who will be in Israel under the auspices of Stand With Us, will lecture on October 12 on “An Investigative Journalist’s Story – Behind the Scoops at Stand- WithUs Jerusalem headquarters.”
Black has indicated that he is also willing to answer questions.
■ YET ANOTHER museum of Jewish history is in the process of being established in Poland, this time in one of the most Catholic cities in the world – Czestochowa. The decision to establish the museum is less than a week old. It will be part of the Czestochowa Museum and has the full support of Mayor Krzysztof Matyjaszczyk. The museum will include a permanent exhibition of the history of the Jews of Czestochowa and their contribution to the development and culture of the city.
It should be remembered that Bronislaw Huberman, the founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was a world-renowned violinist who was born in Czestochowa, and whose name has been perpetuated in the concert hall of the Czestochowa Philharmonic, which stands on the site of the former Great Synagogue of Czestochowa.
The museum will also contain a memorial room dedicated to Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and yet another room honoring Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jews in Czestochowa during the Holocaust.
Much of the funding for the museum will come from Sigmund Rolat and his cousin Alan Silberstein.
Rolat, who was born in Czestochowa, but who made his fortune in America, is a Holocaust survivor who bears Poland no malice. He was closely involved with the establishment of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, and he has done much for both Jewish and non-Jewish projects in Czestochowa, where he is treated with great deference and firstname.lastname@example.org
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