Mark Leibler: An Australian Jewish torchbearer

The Leibler family represents a dynasty of community activism and leadership making an impact on Australian Jewry.

SYDNEY’S COAST at sunset, November 13. (photo credit: LOREN ELLIOTT/REUTERS)
SYDNEY’S COAST at sunset, November 13.
The Leibler family from Melbourne, Australia, represents a dynasty of community activism and leadership with three generations making an impact on Australian Jewry, and two brothers, Isi and Mark, also making an impact on world Jewry: Isi through his activities as president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), his chairmanship of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress and his intensive global endeavors on behalf of Soviet Jewry; and Mark as the national chairman of the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council, life chair of the Federal United Israel Appeal, governor of the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and heading several other major organizations.
In the Australian context, it is difficult to write about one member of the Leibler family without mentioning any of the others, especially where Isi and Mark are concerned, as there was a period in which the rivalry between them was so great that they barely talked to each other except at the Shabbat table of their mother, Rachel, a community leader in her own right.
Nonetheless, in The Powerbroker: Michael Leibler, An Australian Jewish Life, Michael Gawenda has gone overboard as far as Isi is concerned, and readers could be forgiven in thinking during the first few pages that they’ve wrongly judged the book by its cover and that it’s about Isi rather than Mark.
While Isi’s story is fascinating, it has been told in great detail in a soon-to-be released book by Australian historian Suzanne Rutland, who has written about him before.
As a point of disclosure: I have known the Leibler family for the greater part of my life, and have had occasion here and there to write about four generations. Mark and I were both students at Mount Scopus Jewish Day School, as was Gawenda’s sister Rita.
Back in those days, the Jewish community was well and truly a tight-knit village regardless of differences in academic or financial status or the degree of religious observance.
Parts of it are still like that.
Gawenda is a highly reputed author and journalist and a former editor in chief of the prestigious daily newspaper The Age, which was first published in 1854.
While Mark Leibler was unfailingly cooperative in giving Gawenda access to his extensive archives and also spent a lot of time talking to him, it is surprising in view of Gawenda’s reputation and experience that the text is so repetitious and that there are so few direct quotes by the purported subject of the book.
The book’s subtitle is An Australian Jewish Life, but it seems that Gawenda was more intent on writing about Australian, or rather Melbourne Jewish life than a particular Australian Jew. There are numerous consecutive pages in which there is barely any mention of Leibler, but readers are introduced at length to the partners in his highly successful law firm. Leibler himself is acknowledged as the best tax lawyer in Australia.
Gawenda also dwells too heavily on the firm’s wealthy Jewish clients, providing fodder for antisemites who think that Australia’s affluent Jews have undue influence on Australian politics.
Although there is a nine-year age gap between Isi and Mark, they are remarkably similar. This is not just Gawenda’s observation but that of many people whom he interviewed. Whatever the book’s flaws may be, there is no doubt that Gawenda did his homework, not just in researching Leibler’s archives but also in the many interviews he conducted.
BOTH BROTHERS are detail-conscious and after every meeting, wherever it was in the world, they immediately wrote down what had transpired. Both are brilliant, with keen, analytical minds. They are tough when arguing, and have no compunction about using foul language. Mark is known to be an excellent strategist. Though both brothers can be very kind and considerate, each has a vicious streak.
Curiously, while both have an extraordinary network of connections in high places, and both are extremely hospitable, neither has many close friends. Both are happy to spend time with their families. Each has four children and several grandchildren. The bulk of Isi’s progeny live in Israel as does Isi. Mark has a son and five grandchildren in Israel. Allan Leibler and his family also live in Israel.
When Isi was president of the ECAJ, and Mark president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, they were at loggerheads over which of them spoke for Australian Jewry. Both had direct pipelines to Australian and Israeli prime ministers, foreign ministers and other influential politicians, but Mark possibly more so, since he was also in demand in government quarters as a taxation consultant.
However, two people whom he rubbed the wrong way were former prime minister Kevin Rudd and foreign minister Bob Carr.
On the other hand, prime minister Julia Gillard, became a personal friend and launched the book at Leibler’s law office this past July.
Mark was a strong lobbyist for Israel, and had a tough time restoring harmony in bilateral relations when in 2010, Mossad agents used Australian passports to carry out an assassination against a Hamas official in Dubai.
Some years before that, he had an even tougher battle in trying to salvage the Australian citizenship of Australians who had migrated to Israel. The Australian Citizenship Law at the time did not allow people born in Australia to hold dual nationality, though immigrants could receive Australian citizenship while also retaining their original nationalities.
Australians in Israel were in panic, and some asked me to raise the problem in The Jerusalem Post. I was somewhat concerned about losing my own citizenship, but was informed by then-Australian ambassador to Israel David Goss that there was a loophole in the law in that most of us had applied for aliyah visas while in still Australia, whereas loss of citizenship was dependent on applying to become a citizen of another country while living abroad.
Mark got wind that I was writing the story and asked me to hold off because he was lobbying for an amendment to the citizenship law. I gave him a deadline several weeks ahead of time, and said that if there was no progress, I would publish. The article was published just as the law was being changed, and a few days later I could write about this development.
Mark has also done tremendous pro bono reconciliation work on behalf of the indigenous population of Australia, and has employed aboriginal lawyers in his firm.
Mark was and is a mentor to young lawyers, teaching them his cardinal rules: Always be there for the client, nurture and grow your contacts, do not be erratic, understand power and know how to exercise it, return calls and respond to every phone call on the same day.
The book will certainly have meaning for Melbourne Jews and for others who worked with Mark in his various roles, but unless it is re-edited, it is unlikely to get the attention it deserves.
The writer is a veteran Australian-born journalist whose byline has appeared in The Jerusalem Post since 1975.
By Michael Gawenda
Monash University Publishing
300 pages; $54.39