Australian Jews who knew Isi Leibler before he relocated to Jerusalem a little over 20 years ago, are often asked whether he really was such a big shot Down Under.
Actually, he was a bigger shot than most people realized – and not just in the Jewish community or the wider Australian community, but also in the international community as an ideological and idealistic activist with undisputed leadership abilities, a social entrepreneur, an astute multinational businessman in different fields of endeavor and a generous philanthropist.
For all that, he wasn’t popular with everyone. Although he has mellowed over the years, he used to be the kind of person that one either loved or hated. He was well known for having a short fuse, and when he exploded, heaven help anyone in his path.
He could be ruthlessly nasty to opponents, especially if they had Communist or fascist connections, and his anger was occasionally expressed in explicit, vulgar language, despite his first-class education and exemplary university results.
He did not suffer fools gladly, and had no patience for them. He was too much aware of his own intellectual prowess, which was sometimes problematic in that this awareness manifested itself in his attitude to people he didn’t like.
On the other hand, he and his wife Naomi were extremely hospitable, and continue to be so in Israel. To be a guest at their Shabbat table, where there almost always are people of note and great intelligence among the guests, is a delight for both the soul and the mind.
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT and leadership is part of the Leibler DNA, as indicated through three generations of the Leibler family in Melbourne. A fourth generation is still too young to be assessed as having inherited this legacy.
In Isi Leibler’s case, it started in his teens when he headed Bnei Akiva, and it kept going for decades even after he stepped down from Australia’s top Jewish leadership role as president of the Executive Council for Australian Jewry, to which he had been elected four times.
In addition, fighting for the underdog is an Australian characteristic. Leibler is arguably best known in Australia for championing the cause of Soviet Jewry, while his younger brother Mark, a prominent lawyer and a former president of the Zionist Federation of Australia among several other top executive positions, champions the rights of Australian Aborigines.
Admittedly, the Soviet Jewry issue was not Leibler’s own idea, but as was the case with every mission he took on, Leibler put his heart and soul into the project – with the result that Australia was the first country to raise the Soviet Jewry issue in federal parliament thanks to Leibler’s lobbying. Better still, it was raised by a non-Jew. The matter was subsequently launched again by Australia in the United Nations.
It would be easy to say “and all the rest is history.” But it wasn’t that simple. There was opposition from Communist factions within the Jewish community that were reluctant to voice any criticism of Soviet Russia. There were also people who didn’t want to rock the boat and draw unwelcome attention to Australian Jewry. Jewish politicians were slow to act.
In the long run, however, Leibler had nearly everyone on board, including the Communists, who conceded that Jews were suffering discrimination in Russia and were unable to freely practice their faith. They read the essays, pamphlets and books that Leibler wrote, and enthusiastically joined in protest rallies that also included flying to Canberra to demonstrate outside the Soviet Embassy.
When his travel company Jetset Tours won the concession for transporting the Australian Olympic team to the Moscow Olympics, Leibler came in for a lot of criticism. Australian Jews misinterpreted his intentions and thought that he was putting profit ahead of the Soviet Jewry campaign.
But the real purpose, from Leibler’s perspective, was to have carte-blanche entry into Russia, where he was not exactly persona grata, despite the fact that he had made numerous previous visits there, where he developed a network of contacts among refuseniks. During his visits to Russia, the Australian Embassy was always made aware of his presence, and always ready to rush to his rescue if need be.
After Mikhail Gorbachev instituted perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s, Leibler was the first international Jewish leader invited to see for himself how Russia had changed. He subsequently established the Solomon Mikhoels Center in Moscow and the first Hebrew song festivals in Moscow and Leningrad.
Apropos Jetset Tours, Leibler was an Antwerp-trained diamond dealer who had an unlikely close friendship with Symcha-Binem – better known as Bono – Wiener. Although they had similar temperaments, they were as different as chalk and cheese.
Leibler, though born in Belgium, had to come to Australia as a young child and had grown up in the freedom of “the lucky country.” Wiener, born in Lodz, was a Holocaust survivor who had gone from the Lodz Ghetto to several Nazi camps, including Auschwitz.
While Leibler was a passionate Zionist and Orthodox, Wiener was a passionate Bundist and secular. While Leibler took care to be apolitical, Wiener was a political activist.
What they had in common was social activism and a deep-seated belief in Jewish continuity – which each believed, in his own way, could be guaranteed only through Jewish education.
Wiener was the proprietor of Astronaut Travel, which wasn’t doing too well. He thought that if he expanded it, it might become a more profitable enterprise. He spoke to Leibler about this in the early 1960s, when both were serving on the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies. Leibler and one other person agreed to be his partners.
Thanks to Leibler’s business acumen, Astronaut – renamed Jetset Tours – became the largest travel agency in Asia and the Pacific, with branches worldwide. Only recently, in response to a question, did Leibler concede that initially the venture on his part had been an act of charity. But business-wise, it put Wiener in the black for the rest of his life.
After Russia opened the gates to permit the emigration of its Jewish population, Leibler turned his attention to the Asia and Pacific region, where in addition to helping the Jewish communities of Asia to become a more cohesive force, he did some quasi-diplomatic work for Israel during meetings with Indian prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen prior to the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and India, and with China.
If someone were to make a film based on Leibler’s life, few people would believe that one person could have packed so much into a single lifetime.