Notwithstanding the old adage that behind every great man there stands a great woman, too many great men forget to acknowledge the women who walked with them in the wilderness and who shared the struggle in the days before the glory. Not so Isi Leibler, a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who publicly stated this week that without the support and wholehearted participation of his wife, Naomi, he would not have been able to accomplish the things that he did.
Leibler, who for several years now has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post, was feted by a series of speakers at the launch on Wednesday of the book Let My People Go, the untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-1989. The event was organized by the World Jewish Congress and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which operates under its auspices, together with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
While the book by Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland highlights Leibler’s courageous and unrelenting 30-year role in the forefront of the struggle for Soviet Jewry, it also demonstrates the impact of a small continent at the bottom of the world, which previously had minimal influence on global policies, but whose DNA carried an impressive record of putting up a good fight for the underdog. At the United Nations, Australia was the first country to raise the issue of Soviet civil rights abuses.
Ambassador Dave Sharma said that, as an Australian, he was proud to read the book and to realize what a pivotal role had been played by Australian community leaders, politicians and activists in the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, and added that he is also proud that Australia produced so great a figure as Leibler.
Supreme Court Deputy President Elyakim Rubinstein, who while assistant to then-foreign minister Moshe Dayan first met Leibler in the 1970s, said that Leibler is characterized by courage and says what he has to say without fear. Rubinstein recalled that there had been debate not only in Australia but also in Israel as well as in other countries as to whether the campaign should be conducted publicly or through quiet diplomacy.
There is no question that the public approach and continued pressure that Leibler led in Australia was the right one, he said.
Rubinstein who served as cabinet secretary under prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, the one hundredth anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated this month, said that the Soviet Jewry issue was like a fire in Shamir’s belly, and the policy of his administration was to bring as many as possible Soviet Jews to Israel. “It is not our goal to convince Jews to leave Russia,” he declared. “It is our goal to get them to come to Israel.”
Shamir’s commitment to the cause was also mentioned by Herzl Makov, the executive director of the Begin Heritage Center, who worked closely with both Menachem Begin and Shamir and said that both were champions of the campaign for Soviet Jewry. Describing the campaign as “a holy mission,” Makov said that nearly all Jewish leaders throughout the world participated in it.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, the most famous of refuseniks and of Prisoners of Zion, has a gift for injecting humor into what was a traumatic period for him personally and for Soviet Jewry in general. He is one of several former Prisoners of Zion with whom Leibler has maintained contact. It should be remembered that Leibler not only influenced Australian government policy and risked his life in eluding, and in encounters with, the KGB, but also shelled out tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in activities on behalf of the cause.
Sharansky had everyone laughing when he related the story of playing with his daughters in the back garden of his home when the girls were still very young. Next door were veteran immigrants from New York who looked over the fence and reminisced about how great it had been to be part of the Soviet Jewry movement in which there had been such a spirit of unity and where young people dated and in many cases got married. Ignoring the fact that Sharansky and others had languished in prison for years, the neighbors yearned for a return of those good old days. “The challenge for us is to have these great days without going to prison,” said Sharansky.
On a more serious note, he commented that as someone who was central to the activities of Jewish activists in the Soviet Union, he thought that he knew everything about the Soviet Jewry campaign, in which Elie Wiesel’s book The Jews of Silence was a turning point. But when he read the draft of the book by Lipski and Rutland, he was surprised to discover things that he didn’t know – for instance, that Australians had been campaigning for Soviet Jews as early as 1959. “Whoever heard of Australia? How did they hear about us?” Contrary to popular misconception that the Soviet Jewry campaign was one united effort, Sharansky said that it was a typical Jewish struggle in which there were many organizations that hated each other and fought each other, but on the other hand it was a good thing because it helped to mobilize Jews of every ideology and background toward a common cause.
Sharansky was pleased that even now, after it was thought that all Jews from the former Soviet Union who wanted to leave had done so, Jews are still coming from Moscow and Ukraine, and there has been an ongoing increase.
Rutland, who is head of the department of Jewish studies at Sydney University, is a meticulous researcher with access to material that is generally classified, so much so that when she was finally permitted to peruse such files, she was placed by herself in a small, closed room and told that she must not photograph or photocopy anything.
Among the files that were labeled for her eyes only were those of ASIO, the Australian equivalent of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), in which 800 pages had been devoted to Isi Leibler. This was partially due to Leibler’s attempts to contact Australian communists to try to get them to speak out against the abuse of civil rights in Russia. All his telephone conversations with members of the Australian Communist Party had been recorded.
Although Leibler has been widely heralded as the hero of the Soviet Jewry campaign, Rutland said that in all of his writings Leibler had consistently described all of Soviet Jewry as the heroes of their generation.
Another Australian hero in the struggle for Soviet Jewry was the colorful Bob Hawke, first as a trade union leader and then as prime minister.
Rutland read an excerpt from the book of Hawke’s disdain for the KGB during one of his visits to Moscow, to the delight of the many Australian expats sitting in the auditorium of the Begin Heritage Center. Also in the audience were former Prisoners of Zion and former Soviet Jewry activists from the UK and elsewhere.
It was almost like a reunion.
Stressing the importance of the book in terms of contemporary Jewish history, publisher Ilan Greenfield of Gefen Publishing House said that the book should be compulsory reading in schools and that its contents should be widely disseminated. He urged everyone who bought a copy to publish a review on Amazon so as to create greater public awareness.
Leibler himself recounted an episode – which appears in the book – where he, at age 30, clashed with venerable World Jewish Congress leader Nahum Goldmann at a meeting in Strasbourg in 1965.
Goldmann, then 70, insisted on quiet diplomacy. Leibler accused him of missing an opportunity to secure the freedom of Soviet Jewry, and to his surprise received a standing ovation. Goldmann then spent an hour disparaging Leibler and his ideas, which in effect made the young man from down under an overnight celebrity.
Both Sharansky and Leibler made the point that within the Soviet Union itself, the number of Jewish activists was sparse in relation to the overall Jewish population. Even so, according to Leibler, those few hundred people changed the face of Jewish history. On a more sobering note, Leibler said that had the State of Israel not been in existence, “nothing would have saved Soviet Jewry.”