Leibler’s legacy

New book documents the remarkable role of Australia and its Jewish leadership in the campaign for Soviet Jewry.

Isi Liebler and Suzanne Rutland sign copies of their books at a launch party in Jerusalem earlier this month (photo credit: ANDRES LACKO)
Isi Liebler and Suzanne Rutland sign copies of their books at a launch party in Jerusalem earlier this month
(photo credit: ANDRES LACKO)
Let My People Go is a fascinating account of how the small Jewish community of Australia, under the inspirational leadership of Isi Leibler, played an extraordinary part in the exodus of Soviet Jewry a quarter of a century ago.
While it was ultimately a successful struggle that Leibler, together with Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leaders, conducted untiringly over three decades, the book opens with a celebration held at Melbourne’s Arts Center on May 17, 1988.
Some 3,000 Australian Jews attended the event, together with 15 former Soviet refuseniks released by then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. In his controversial address, then-Australian president Bob Hawke memorably said: “My friends, the story of the Soviet Jews is a human drama of vast proportions.” Hawke praised the “indomitable splendor of the human spirit” that the refuseniks had displayed, and credited the world Jewish community’s “sustained and principled support,” in which “the Australian Jewish community could take great pride.” But most pointedly, he paid particular tribute to Leibler: “I venture to say, Isi, that nobody has made a greater individual contribution than you.”
Ironically, Hawke also made a gaffe in his speech, which was to taint his hitherto close relationship with Leibler. The audience, including Leibler, was visibly shocked when he surprisingly compared the plight of Soviet Jews to that of the Palestinians in the territories and blacks in apartheid South Africa.
But his essential point, that Australia and its Jews had played a small but active supporting role in what he had termed “a human drama of vast proportions” was well made and well received. And that’s what this wonderful book is about. In the words of its authors, veteran journalist Sam Lipski and Jewish historian Suzanne Rutland, “How Australia’s involvement with Soviet Jewry began; how the Jewish community became an active player in the great drama; how successive Australian governments responded; why Soviet Jewry became an issue in Australian politics; how the Jewish community changed; and how it all led to the Melbourne Concert Hall in May 1988 is a story worth telling.” It’s also a story well researched, beautifully written and worth reading.
The Soviet Jewry campaign was at the center of the Australian Jewish political and communal experience for three decades, the book notes. “There was a clarity and simplicity about Soviet Jewry’s compelling human rights story,” it says. “‘Let My People Go’” resonated – as a slogan, but also as a call for involvement.”
Leibler’s involvement started when he was a 25-year-old graduate visiting Israel in 1959. He was recruited at a meeting at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv by the legendary spymaster Shaul Avigur, who was, at 60, head of Nativ, then a covert agency dealing with Soviet Jews. In what Leibler describes as a roller-coaster, he began leading a campaign that in 1962 resulted in Australia becoming the first country to raise the plight of Soviet Jews at the United Nations.
Lipski refers to Leibler as “the lead actor” in the story. “Widely recognized and honored internationally, his involvement and leadership – his ‘magnificent obsession’ with the refuseniks and Soviet Jews, merit a full account and an Australian Jewish perspective,” writes Lipski.
The book, adds Rutland, is based not only on interviews with the major players, including former prime ministers of Australia, Jewish leaders and refuseniks, but also on material from the National Archives of Australia and from Leibler’s personal library of “extensive materials on the campaign for Soviet Jewry.”
Leibler dedicated most of his career as a leader of Australian Jewry to persuading Australian and other Jewish leaders in the Diaspora to push for the cause of Soviet Jewry. His travel company, Jetset, was chosen in 1978 to handle the travel arrangements of the Australian Olympic Team to Moscow, allowing him a visa to begin visiting Russia, meeting with Jewish activists and government officials.
His trips terminated abruptly when he was arrested and expelled for “consorting with Soviet citizens denied exit permits to Israel due to having had access to state security secrets.” But only seven years later, in 1987, he returned with his wife, Naomi, at the invitation of the chief rabbi of Moscow’s KGB-controlled Archipova Synagogue, where he addressed a packed audience that included refusenik friends who had previously been refused entry. He later learned that he was the first world Jewish leader invited to evaluate Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms.
A series of visits followed, Leibler recalls, culminating in the establishment of the first Jewish cultural center since the revolution, named after Solomon Mykhoels, the famous Yiddish poet murdered by Stalin in 1948. With Hawke’s help, Leibler finally succeeded in persuading Gorbachev to free a number of key refuseniks. Soon they were to be followed by the more famous of the prisoners of Zion, including Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein, and later by more than a million others, a large share of them coming to Israel.
Sharansky, now the chairman of the Jewish Agency, who was released in 1986, told Lipski that “the liberation of Soviet Jewry... tore a gaping hole in the Iron Curtain, one that would eventually spell the end of the Soviet empire.” Sharansky described the book as “a unique testament as to how a small group can play a unique role in history.”
“In retrospect,” said Leibler, referring to the resilient refuseniks such as Sharansky, “a handful of heroic Jews not only changed the course of Jewish history but undoubtedly also made a major contribution toward the collapse of the ‘Evil Empire.’” The launch of Let My People Go at a packed hall in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on October 7 was addressed, inter alia, by Sharansky, Rutland, Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and Leibler. Now a popular Jerusalem Post columnist who lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Leibler defended the very public campaign he led for the release of Soviet Jewry more than three decades ago.
“Relying on silent diplomacy is not the Jewish way, and not the way to promote Israel today,” he said. “I think that was proven overwhelmingly by our coordinated support for Russian Jews on a public level, which of course could never have taken place without the heroes who paved the way. That support was extraordinary, and being public, it had its impact.”
Most importantly, Leibler said, if there had not been a State of Israel, nothing could have saved Russian Jews. “We would have been as powerless as we were before, and even if we would have achieved a breakthrough, there would not have been countries willing to accept these Jews.
The State of Israel makes that possible. Every day we should look in the mirror and remind ourselves, and not take Medinat Yisrael for granted.”
Leibler ended his speech with a plea for teaching the subject of the Soviet Jewry struggle at schools here and abroad.
“Above all, the heroic story of Soviet Jewry should become a critical ingredient in the curriculum in every Jewish school.”