Their brothers’ keepers

Australian Jewry’s role in the struggle for Soviet Jewry encapsulates the Jewish nation’s postwar resolve to tolerate no Jew’s abuse for being a Jew.

Hawke receiving a human rights award from Leibler (photo credit: COURTESY ISI LEIBLER)
Hawke receiving a human rights award from Leibler
(photo credit: COURTESY ISI LEIBLER)
THE BENEFICIARIES of a miracle, said the Talmud, do not realize their miracle. Few tales vindicate this dictum more starkly than that of Soviet Jewry’s persecution, struggle, and exodus.
A generation after the demise of the USSR and Communism, younger Jews hardly understand what those were, what kind of anti-Jewish energy they unleashed, how improbably they unraveled, and how today’s older Jews contributed to their defeat.
As the time to begin writing this history arrives, scholars and students of this war are now afforded a priceless prism through which to revisit the Jewish people’s struggle against the physical siege and spiritual war that a mighty empire once waged on some three million Jews.
Sam Lipski’s and Suzanne Rutland’s “Let My People Go: The Untold Story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89” is an indispensable extension to Gal Beckerman’s 2010 book, “When They Come for Us We’ll be Gone,” which tackled this drama from American Jewry’s viewpoint.
The authors, respectively the Washington Post’s former Australia correspondent and a University of Sydney historian of Jewish civilization, deliver a winning combination of factual accuracy, scholarly insight, and narrative flow.
One of many questions Soviet Jewry’s exodus raises is who was its Moses? The Soviet Jew who risked imprisonment and death? The Western Jew who volunteered, lobbied and campaigned? Or was it the Israeli Jew, who sent spies, diplomats and tourists to locate, supply and inspire the Jews who languished on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
The authors’ answer is implicit yet clear. This exodus had no single Moses. Not only because its Israelites, unlike Moses and his generation, did reach the Promised Land, but because unlike their biblical ancestors, who remained passive while someone else led their cause, this campaign was joined by thousands worldwide, more than one of whom operated as a self-appointed Moses in his or her own right.
American Jewry’s varieties of Moses included the likes of Lynn Singer, the Long Island housewife who first led her community’s rallies and eventually confronted Soviet diplomats. Australia’s were dominated by Isi Leibler, a businessman who arrived Down Under as a toddler after his family fled prewar Belgium. Enlisted by Israeli spymaster Shaul Avigur while he was a student visiting Tel Aviv, Leibler was captured by the cause that would obsess him for the next three decades.
Avigur had built Lishkat Hakesher, the secret agency that reached out to Soviet Jewry and was now building a network of Jewish activists in major Western cities tasked with stirring public opinion. Leibler, who would later build Australia’s largest travel agency, started off by winning newspapers to the cause, and at the same time rallying Australian Jewry to their brethren’s help.
Attracting steadily growing audiences on occasions like the anniversary of Stalin’s 1952 murder of Jewish writers, known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, the movement quickly won over Australian Jewry, which at the time numbered 60,000 people, sidelining opponents of the struggle’s tone and, in some cases, also of its aim.
Most notably, the movement attacked Australia’s first Jewish senator, the Labor Party’s Sam Cohen, who was sympathetic to the USSR due to his cooperation with Moscow since 1942 in Australia’s Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti- Semitism.
“Senator Cohen stands accused,” charged the Australian Jewish Herald’s frontpage editorial under the loaded banner headline “J’Accuse.” Cohen, wrote the paper, was “attempting to sabotage the efforts of a democratic government to raise the persecution of his fellow Jews before the conscience of the world” and thus “abandoning Russian Jewry.”
HAVING HARNESSED the Jews and the media, the struggle proceeded to the politicians and the diplomats.
In the political arena, Australian Jews cleverly took Soviet Jewry’s cause not only to the two major parties but also to the local communists, realizing they enjoyed access to the Kremlin that others lacked.
In the diplomatic sphere, Australian Jewry persuaded Canberra in 1962 to be the first to bring Soviet Jewry’s plight to the United Nations.
It was a formative moment, both for the struggle, which was thus globalized, and for Australian Jewry, which for the first time in its young history (Australia did not even have a synagogue until 1844) impacted something far larger than its communal affairs.
The following decade, when Soviet Jews were handed death sentences in the wake of an abortive escape from the USSR via a hijacked airplane, Australian Jewry announced a week of prayer, for which it coopted Christian clergy, such as the renowned Presbyterian preacher Reverend Dr. Graham Hardy.
The struggle thus went ecumenical, after having already been joined by unions, communists, media, and, of course, institutions representing all aspects of Jewish communal life, from synagogues and schools to men’s clubs and sisterhoods, while spilling to the streets with vigils outside the Soviet Embassy.
Moreover, Australian Jewry enlisted to Soviet Jewry’s cause non-Jewish politicians, most notably union leader and future prime minister Bob Hawke.
The gathering global struggle began unsettling the Soviets, and its Australian corner would bear some telling testimony of this growing sense of insecurity. First, realizing he had an alcohol problem, the Soviets got Hawke drunk during a visit to Moscow and fooled him to report that he had secured dissidents’ release.
Then, as the 1980 Moscow Olympics approached, they tried to sabotage Leibler’s contracted role as the Australian delegation’s travel agent, first by denying him visas, then by interrogating and threatening him, realizing he was using his entry to the USSR to meet with refuseniks and encourage their cause.
None of this would have happened but for the Soviets’ awareness of and irritation with Australia’s share in the fight for Soviet Jewry.
In hindsight, Australia’s struggle encapsulates the passion and inventiveness with which the Jewish people compensated for what it lacked in numbers and sway.
Like the rest of their community, Lipski and Rutland were participants in the drama they tell, and do not hide this fact, which, if anything, has helped them produce an evocative testament to what even a relatively distant, small, and new Jewish community can do to affect Jewish history.
Sitting on his Jerusalem balcony opposite the Old City walls, Isi Leibler, now himself an Israeli, can sometimes hear pedestrians’ Russian prattle rising from the sidewalk below. Even Moses didn’t get to retire with such a sense of accomplishment, vindication, and joy.