Isi Leibler: Saving Soviet Jews and helping Israeli-Asian ties

His memories span almost a century that took the Jewish story from Eastern Europe to Antwerp, Melbourne and then to Jerusalem, through the struggles he fought for Jews in the Soviet Union and Israel.

ADDRESSING THE third World Conference of Soviet Jewry, Jerusalem 1983.  (photo credit: COURTESY LEIBLER FAMILY)
ADDRESSING THE third World Conference of Soviet Jewry, Jerusalem 1983.
 There are many miracles that have helped propel the Jewish people through history. A look at the rise of Israel and the rescue of the Jewish people are current examples of miracles, says Isi Leibler, a central figure in modern Jewish history over the last six decades.
“Nobody believed this could be possible,” Leibler, who was born in 1934 in Antwerp, said in a recent video interview from Jerusalem.
When he speaks about the impossible, he harkens back often to the rescue of Soviet Jews. “People said maybe we could get 10,000 out,” he recalls. “But over a million came out. It was a modern-day Exodus.”
For Leibler, who has been many things – businessman, activist, writer, personal statesman, campaigner for numerous crucial causes, intermediary – the rescue of the Jews of the Soviet Union was a key cause for decades. In 1964, he was given the opportunity to write about Soviet Jews for Arena, a left-leaning periodical, according to an account in Suzanne Rutland’s recent Lone Voice: The Wars of Isi Leibler. He was supposed to write only a few thousand words but instead wrote 30,000. Every writer knows the nightmare that comes next, having to cut down the manuscript. But Leibler plowed on and self-published the piece as Soviet Jewry and Human Rights.
The new biography of Leibler, which this interview is based on, took 20 years to complete and is the masterpiece of Rutland, a professor at the University of Sydney. 
IT’S DIFFICULT now to remember what it was like in the 1960s, when many on the Left, including many Jews, did not oppose the Soviet Union. Leibler was ensconced in Australia at the time, where he had grown up. 
A university student in the 1950s, Liebler married Naomi Porush in 1958 and founded a successful travel business in the 1960s. His battle for Soviet Jews included a 10-week trip to various world capitals in 1965 as well as battles with key Jewish organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress. 
“I grew up in a household that was focused on what was happening in the world. I was a refugee,” Leibler recounts.
At the time, many Australians looked down on refugees. Jews who had arrived at the onset of the Second World War didn’t know the fate of their families back in Europe. 
“Only after the war, I found out that my maternal grandparents died in Auschwitz.”
Like many Jewish families, Leibler’s roots were further east than Antwerp, and like many Jews from Eastern Europe who ended up in Melbourne, his parents were Zionists and blended Jewish learning with secular studies and business.
“My father was a political mentor and we felt Jews in the West were not doing enough to help European Jews under the Nazis. And this was repeated again and again, and was a motivation to get involved in public life. My father was the first European Jew to become head of the Melbourne Jewish community.” 
This background also informed Leibler’s desire to aid Soviet Jews. While Jews under the Nazis could not be saved, there were millions in the Soviet Union that could.
“There was a catastrophe for Jewish people, and the majority said it was a waste of time [to try to help those in the USSR]. People felt the [Soviet] Jews were gone and assimilated then, and people said to give it up and that people would antagonize them [the Soviets].”
Leibler was a student of politics at Melbourne University studying the Soviet Union and its relationship with Israel.
“In 1959, the Israeli ambassador to Australia arranged for me to meet in Israel with Shaul Avigur, the head of Nativ [Lishkat Hakesher] who effectively recruited me to work on their behalf. This was well before there was any awareness of the campaign for Soviet Jewry. This intensified my concerns that there was extraordinary discrimination taking place, and I began agitating in the press and writings.” 
The Soviets took his efforts seriously, responding directly from their embassy in Australia. The chief rabbi of Moscow was also mobilized.
For the young Australian activist, then in his 30s, the battle in Australia was to make this issue one that political parties could get behind and to have it raised at the United Nations.
In November 1962 “Australia became the first country in the world to raise this at the UN… and this tipped the balance in Israel because there was division in the government [between] those who wanted to confront the Soviets on antisemitism and some who thought it would intensify antisemitism.”
Jews have often faced this dilemma when dealing with powerful states in which they lived. To keep Jewish life comfortable, it has sometimes seemed preferable not to anger authoritarians. On the other side of the coin, Jews can be slowly ground down under such appeasement.
“The majority of Jews felt appeasing the Russians was the right way. My view was public demonstrations and diplomacy. I felt that would get us nowhere without that combination,” says Leibler.
In 1965, Leibler confronted Nahum Goldman, the Lithuanian-born head of the World Jewish Congress. He called him a shtadlan, someone who bends the knee and appeases. 
“I got a standing ovation, people cheered and he [Goldman] lambasted me in a two-hour speech. This strengthened my position in the leadership of the Soviet Jewish group and turned me overnight into an internationally recognized Jewish leader.” 
A decade later he would go on to travel to Russia and meet Jewish refuseniks there. It changed his life and eventually led him to immigrate to Israel.
In those days Leibler was one of several important individuals agitating on behalf of Soviet Jews. He points to Moshe Decter in the US and Emanuel Litvinoff in London as other keys to the operation. 
“I had to make difficult decisions contrary to what the Jewish community wanted,” he recalls. 
This was real leadership.
THE FIRST trip to Russia in 1978 was a nightmare, says Leibler. 
“I went with Naomi and I had Israeli government recommendations. We didn’t speak the language, it was a foreign country, we were scared and we got to the wrong address.” 
Nevertheless, they made contact with a small group of refuseniks. These were people who Leibler says had no Jewish education but had encountered antisemitism and were willing to risk their good positions in echelons of the regime to be activists. He points to individuals like Prof. Alexander Lerner as an example.
“These people turned on their government and they spoke out like heroes. These people stood up against the most totalitarian regime in the world.” 
Many would later come to Israel and lead seemingly normal lives, but they were extraordinary when the times demanded extraordinary deeds.
“They played a major role in the final downfall of the Soviet Brezhnev regime, because the movement for Soviet Jewry impacted on government structure. This small group of refuseniks and prisoners of Zion were responsible for the aliyah of one million Jews from the former Soviet Union.”
Getting in touch with the refuseniks involved complex cloak-and-dagger types of operations. Leibler’s travel company was the travel agent representing the Australian Olympics team. 
“Despite protests from the Soviet officials, at the insistence of the Australian government, they could no longer refuse my entry. So while I was admitted for business purposes, all my time was spent visiting refuseniks, and I was even arrested during one of these trips and detained before my proposed departure in very difficult circumstances.”
Australian prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke both supported the cause. Leibler was central to this effort and played a role that went far beyond what one might imagine from a civilian activist. 
“Fraser would come and spend an evening at my place on Friday and pass messages to me from the government and tell me to keep fighting.” Leibler was eventually expelled by the Soviets but also played a role in arranging Hawke’s trip to Russia in 1979. 
“He [Hawke] established a close rapport with the refuseniks, but the Russians got him drunk and misled him into believing they were going to lift the emigration restrictions,” he remembers.
These were complicated times. The Palestinian issue was rising. Hawke would draw parallels between the Jews in the Soviet Union and the Palestinian issue. At the same time, Hawke also traveled with Leibler to Israel and met Menachem Begin, who had become prime minister in 1977. Leibler recalls that he went to the Western Wall with Hawke, who put a note in the wall hoping to become prime minister. When he was elected, “I said to him, ‘My God delivered to you, now you deliver to His people.’”
Begin was one of the many world leaders Leibler met who impressed him. 
“I got to know him better every time I went to Russia. I spent an enormous time speaking to him, there was a mystique.” He recalls Begin’s modesty and popularity at the time and his sense of the Diaspora. 
Two other leaders stand out: “Natan Sharansky, who was a genius and played a role here and stood up against Soviets.” (Incidentally, this past Thursday marked the 35th anniversary of Sharansky’s release from Soviet prison on February 11, 1986.)
He also points to a man he says did the most for the cause. 
“Morris Abram – without him we could not have pulled it off. He stood up against the liberal establishment and single-handedly got American Jewry to stand for freedom, immigration and aliyah.” 
Abram was a friend of president Ronald Reagan, whom Leibler also met. He recalls that Reagan encouraged him and other activists to keep up the pressure. 
“‘Isi, you keep bashing me up.’ Those were the words he used, ‘Keep it up on the Jews. Tell me I’m not doing enough and be able to tell the Bolshies I am under pressure from the Jews and give the Bolshies what they deserve and we will win.’”
It has all come full circle now in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. From the dark era of Stalins’ Doctor’s Plot and the purges, to the years of discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s, Putin is an exception. Leibler points to how Putin has given funds for a synagogue and benedictions for Jewish holidays. It is part of a process of opening up that took place under Gorbachev when Leibler went to Russia in 1987 on Rosh Hashanah and spoke at the Great Synagogue on Arkhipova Street. 
“I saw these crying faces and I made a speech. That was one of the highlights of my life, which culminated in arranging the opening of the Solomon Mykhoels Center, the first Jewish cultural center in the Soviet Union since the [1917] revolution.”
These are the miracles that Leibler points to. He also played a practical and pioneering role helping relations between India, China and Israel. He met Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was India’s prime minister from 1991 to 1996. Under advice from Israel and with the Australian ambassador in tow, Leibler met the Indian leader, and two weeks later there were diplomatic relations between Israel and India. Today, India is one of Israel’s key strategic partners and will likely be a key ally throughout this century. 
Leibler also made many trips to China as part of his travel business, and discussed Israel with the Chinese. 
“Reuven Merhav, who became director-general of the Foreign Ministry, was sent out here to liaison with me, and together we advanced the process until such time as I arranged for a senior official from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to give a lecture at a university while leading a Chinese delegation to Australia. Together with the Chinese ambassador to Australia, they attended a dinner at my place where Merhav would be present, which focused on diplomatic relations.” 
Soon China and Israel established diplomatic relations.
LEIBLER’S MEMORIES span almost a century that took the Jewish story from Eastern Europe to Antwerp, Melbourne and then to Jerusalem, through the struggles he fought for Jews in the Soviet Union and for Israel. He is an embodiment of this extraordinary period.
He also is concerned. There is still antisemitism and Jewish institutions are fraught with internal problems. There is widespread assimilation in the US and anti-Zionism.
“Israel today is powerful and independent and no one can write off Israel,” he says. “I hope we can get our political act together. I have been a supporter of Netanyahu and he has done incredible things. He will go down in history as an outstanding diplomat. What he has achieved was indescribable, and I hope we can have a transition to a good person replacing him in the near future.” 
He advocates a more stable system of government not based on the rule of one person but on a cabinet that is more responsible.
Leibler thinks the new relationships with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are breakthroughs of immense proportions. 
“The ties built up between nations are about the relationship of Jews and Arabs and we all need that. As I’ve always said, those idiots who speak about apartheid, they should be taken to a hospital in Israel and then they can see what life is like for Jews and Arabs, because that is how doctors and nurses coexist.”
I asked Leibler, having seen so much in his life, what he thinks of the current pandemic. 
“My feeling is this will be overcome in the next several years. I believe we are close to it now, and if we learn how to behave we will overcome it. But that requires strength from the government and imposing the law on those who don’t behave.”
This extraordinary man, who has seen and achieved so much, is an optimist about the future. 
“If you look at the last 70 years, this has not happened to other people in history. This has not happened before or again, miracle after miracle has [occurred. We have] overcome desperate threats. 
“We have found water and energy, and someone up there is looking after us.” 