Isi Leibler, courageous and principled Jewish leader, passes away at 86

'Jerusalem Post' readers knew him through his incisive columns on events of the day, which he began writing in 2000.

Isi Leibler addressing the third World Conference of Soviet Jewry in Jerusalem, 1983. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Isi Leibler addressing the third World Conference of Soviet Jewry in Jerusalem, 1983.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some people are born leaders, some become leaders through force of circumstance, and some are leaders as a result of both natural abilities and situations that demand action and involvement.
Isi Leibler, who passed away on April 13 at the age of 86, was one of the latter.
His leadership abilities were already apparent when he was a schoolboy and a leader of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in Melbourne, Australia. But even as a young man, he became a state leader of Australian Jewry and then a national leader.
He then became an international leader of world Jewry in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress and then its senior vice president.
Leibler was also an international businessman with significant interests in the diamond, travel and hi-tech industries.
Jerusalem Post readers knew him through his incisive columns on events of the day, which he began writing in 2000.
Although he had been ill in recent years, suffering from more than one life-threatening disease, Leibler did not complain and conducted his life as normally as possible.
He derived great pleasure from the recent publication of his comprehensive biography written by Australian historian Suzanne Rutland and the favorable reviews it received.
The esteem in which Leibler was held could perhaps be gauged from the avalanche of social-media messages in the early hours of Tuesday morning, following his demise.
Born in October 1934 in Antwerp, Belgium, Leibler was the son of a diamond dealer, who fortunately was doing business in the Southern Hemisphere in 1939. Leibler’s mother, realizing the danger of remaining in Europe, decided to leave, and she arrived in Melbourne with her infant son in June 1939.
Leibler grew up in a religious, passionately Zionist and community-conscious family. His father, though a European outsider, succeeded in being accepted by the anglicized leadership of the Melbourne Jewish community, and he was elected president of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies.
Isi, the eldest of the three Leibler brothers, would eventually assume that same position in 1974, before being elected to the presidency of the executive council of Australian Jewry in 1978.
In 1980, he became chairman of the Asia-Pacific Region of the World Jewish Congress.
Leibler was a multitask expert and did not neglect his business interests while attending to Jewish affairs. Out of an act of charity, he became an important player in the international travel industry.
One of his friends and colleagues in the Victorian Jewish Board was a travel agent, who asked Leibler for a loan, which he happily gave him. The travel agent then asked him to join as a partner.
Leibler was initially reluctant, but after seeing that his friend was not a genius when it came to business acumen, he acquiesced and turned a small enterprise into the largest travel agency in the South Pacific. In the process, he won a battle with Qantas, Australia’s national airline.
Leibler was also an unofficial diplomat, using his travel company as a platform for diplomatic contacts on behalf of Israel, long before he took up residence in Jerusalem in 1999. He was instrumental in helping to pave the way for diplomatic relations between Israel and China and full diplomatic relations between Israel and India.
BUT LEIBLER’S greatest legacy, for which he is best known and for which he took the greatest risks, was in securing the liberation of Soviet Jews from the yoke of communism.
As an activist, he even defied Nahum Goldman, the founding president of the WJC, who believed in quiet diplomacy. Leibler, when only 30 years old, publicly defied the all-powerful Goldman on the Soviet Jewry issue. To his great surprise, he received a standing ovation, something that he still found difficult to believe half a century later.
His community leadership positions gave him access to prominent Australian politicians, as a result of which he was able to persuade Australia to become the first country to raise the issue of Soviet Jewry at the United Nations. Regardless of which political party was in power, Australia continued to support Leibler’s efforts in this regard.
Over the years, Leibler paid several visits to the USSR, where he contacted numerous refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion, many of whom became his friends. When they were able to leave Russia, he brought some of them to Australia to meet with the Jewish community and with the politicians who had been so steadfast in enabling them to get out and to reclaim their Jewish heritage.
Leibler never took all the credit for himself, unfailingly acknowledging what others had done for the cause.
But historians cannot escape the extent of his personal commitment and contribution, nor Leibler’s role in the opening in 1989 of the Solomon Mikhoels Cultural Center in Moscow, named for the great Jewish actor and director of Moscow’s Jewish State Theater. Mikhoels was the leader of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II and was assassinated on Josef Stalin’s orders in 1948. It was the first Jewish cultural center to be opened in Moscow up until then.
But more important to Leibler was the huge influx of Soviet Jews to Israel who have made such a massive contribution to culture, music, science, diplomacy, politics and many other fields.
Without his efforts and those of people who were no less dedicated, some of this creativity and inventiveness may have been forthcoming in the USSR but not in Israel.
Leibler continued to maintain relations with Jews from the former Soviet Union for the rest of his life.
Some were at his dinner table from time to time. The Leiblers ran a very hospitable household, and guests included people from different countries and backgrounds, with at least two or three famous individuals. The conversation was always scintillating.
Aside from his dedication to Soviet Jewry, Leibler deplored corruption, especially in Jewish organizations. He had no compunction about being a whistle-blower, even at the risk of public humiliation and being expelled from an organization dear to his heart.
When he did this with the WJC, accusing a prominent figure of misappropriating more than $500,000 in public funds, Leibler was reviled until his charges proved to be correct.
He was able to separate a person’s wrongdoings from their capabilities and accomplishments.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Report a little over a month before his death, Leibler said Benjamin Netanyahu was the best prime minister Israel ever had, but it was time for him to retire gracefully.
Leibler was laid to rest on Tuesday afternoon in the Leibler family plot in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot Cemetery.
He is survived by his wife, Naomi, who was his full partner in all his endeavors and to whom he was married for almost 63 years, their children, Romy, Tamara Grynberg, Gary and Jonathan, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and his brothers, Mark and Allan.