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New Biography Explores a Defender of Israel

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avatar by Jonathan Arkush


An aerial view of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Lone Voice, The Wars of Isi Leibler, by Suzanne Rutland, Gefen Books (2021)

Communal leaders who take on establishment bodies and challenge accepted wisdom are not the norm. Leadership is no route to a quiet life, and can all too easily impact on personal relationships. Accommodation comes more easily than confrontation to many who have climbed the greasy pole of politics, and communal politics are no exception.

But Isi Leibler is no ordinary leader. His career and record marks him out as an exceptionally resourceful fighter for Jewish rights. He is no less demanding in his insistence for transparency and probity from communal leadership bodies. Leibler’s turbulent life is chronicled in a new work by Australian Jewish historian Suzanne Rutland. It portrays him as a lone voice at times, and he certainly had no shortage of battles, most of which he chose to enter.

Drawing on his extensive archive and with material from countless interviews and contemporary sources, Rutland has given us a substantial picture of Leibler’s life and “wars.” At 642 pages it is largely uncritical, yet very readable, but it is not a short read. Rather than be deterred by its length, one can skip the detail. For others, it is the detail that supplies veracity and color.

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Born in 1934 in Antwerp, Leibler’s family reached safe haven in Australia just three months before the outbreak of World War II. Australia was something of a Jewish outpost as he grew up, but the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 while he was in his bar mitzvah year marked him for life. He was brought up within a religious Zionist family and has never wavered from that path. From an early age, he was a communal activist. He saw, far earlier than most, that the significant Jewish community in Soviet Russia was in a desperate plight that demanded international attention.

This developed into what the author aptly terms a magnificent obsession. As early as 1959, Leibler began campaigning for Soviet Jews, working with a small international network that included Emanuel Litvinoff and Arieh Handler in London. It was not well known at the time that Israel ran a clandestine operation to help beleaguered Soviet Jewry that reported directly to the prime minister. It cannily identified Leibler as an effective mover and shaker, even though he was still in his 20s. He began a press and lobbying campaign that resulted in Australia becoming the first country to raise Soviet Jewry as a human rights issue in parliament and subsequently at the United Nations. It alarmed the Soviet government so much that its official representatives — including General Secretary Khrushchev himself — felt the need to publish rebuttals.

Years were to pass before campaigns like Leibler’s were to be emulated to any degree by major Jewish communities such as the US and Great Britain. This was no small achievement for Leibler, not least as he was operating from the far smaller and geographically distant community of Australia. In a sad comment on communal politics (some things never change!) the prominence of the Soviet Jewry campaign caused deep resentment within the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the equivalent of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which felt its authority to speak for the community had been undermined. However a far more significant issue of principle arose with none other than the legendary Nahum Goldmann, one of the founders of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and its controlling figure from 1948 until 1977.

Goldmann is rightly credited with leading the negotiations with West Germany that led to German reparations to Jewish individuals and Israel. On Soviet Jewry, Goldmann’s policy was of quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. It was the antithesis of Leibler’s robust and loud approach. By the mid-1960s, Leibler’s campaign had made him a player on the international Jewish stage, and a clash with Goldmann was inevitable.  By the time it came, Goldmann’s approach did not have the support of the Israeli government, or many leading campaigners, and it drew criticism in an editorial in the Jewish Chronicle in London. At the age of 30, Leibler was not deterred from pressing his case. By the late 1960s, the WJC moved towards more robust action. Leibler had won the argument. His rejection of the traditional Jewish approach of quiet diplomacy behind the scenes was to remain a theme of his life for the next 50 years, and continues to this day.

Leibler remained a front-line campaigner for Soviet Jewry throughout the next 20 years. It inspired generations of young Jews like me to throw everything they could into active involvement under the motivating banner of “Let My People Go.” Risking my degree and the ire of my parents and tutors, I took part in the second World Conference on Soviet Jewry in Brussels in 1976, where Leibler was, to me, an iconic figure. In his business life, he was building Jetset Tours into the largest retail travel organization in the southern hemisphere. He was formidably active and influential in political life in Australia. He battled for Israel and against antisemitism, and often against communal opponents, all charted in detail in the book. He rose to be President of the Executive Council for Australian Jewry in 1978-1980, again in 1982-1985, for a third term in 1987-1989, and a final term in 1992-1995.

Leibler’s role in the campaign for Soviet Jewry was nothing short of titanic. Leibler enjoyed a long friendship with Bob Hawke, Australia’s Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991. Until Hawke turned against Israel, he was a philo-semite who was utterly committed to the welfare of Soviet Jews. He visited refuseniks in Moscow and swung Australia’s international diplomacy behind the campaign for their freedom. Hawke succeeded Malcolm Fraser, who had also championed the cause. As the preeminent leader of Australian Jewry, the part played by Leibler’s advocacy and determination cannot be understated. Leibler’s role in achieving the freedom of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, and equally to live as Jews in the USSR, was nothing less than titanic. It is impossible to do justice to it in a book review, but reading this work will convey more than a flavor of Leibler’s leadership, strength of purpose, and drive during the long years of campaigning at home and abroad. For this reviewer, it stands as his most exceptional and lasting achievement.

In 1998, Leibler and his wife Naomi made aliyah, and Jerusalem has been their home ever since. The disposal of his business interests in Australia allowed time to focus on major preoccupations including life and politics in Israel, Diaspora-Israel relations, and combating assimilation. It also brought him back into active involvement with the WJC. Today’s WJC, whose president is Ronald Lauder, has a skilled professional leadership who steer its affairs, including its decision-making and finances, with openness and transparency. That was not the case in 2000. The WJC’s top professional was Israel Singer, who enjoyed the patronage of then president Edgar Bronfman. In Leibler’s perception, the Bronfman-Singer relationship was too close to be healthy and the WJC’s governance had been reduced to something akin to a personal fiefdom between themselves and their coterie. Leibler also sensed a need for greater financial transparency. The fusillade of hostility and even abuse that this brought down on Leibler was extraordinary. In time it emerged that Singer had plenty to hide. There were financial skeletons in the closet. The unspooling of the sorry chapter in the WJC’s history is told in one of the most compelling chapters in the book. The saga of denigration, dirty tricks, showdowns, an investigation by the New York Attorney General, and a $6 million libel action brought by the WJC against Leibler is nothing short of horrifying. If Bronfman-Singer thought they could intimidate Leibler they had chosen the wrong opponent.

Audits could not account for millions of dollars of WJC money, and one unsavory revelation followed another. Despite enormous pressure, and not much support from world Jewish communities other than Australia, Leibler stuck to his guns. Eventually, the WJC backed down when it became impossible to conceal that it was mired in scandal. Singer had charged the WJC for expenses and consultancy fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to his salary. He stood accused of misappropriation funds on a huge scale.

Finally, in March 2007, Bronfman fired him. Later Bronfman acknowledged that he had been betrayed by Singer, who “helped himself to cash from the WJC office.” Singer has largely disappeared from public Jewish life and keeps a low profile. A full accounting of the money that came into his hands has never been established. In June 2007, Bronfman stepped down and Ronald Lauder succeeded him. Lauder and his team have restored the reputation of the WJC, which is now in a very different place. Leibler can take the credit for rescuing it.

Can there be more ? One further battle has to be related. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany administers German reparations money. The annual sums are many millions of dollars, paid to survivors around the world. Many are aged, sick, and say they are not getting sufficient assistance. Since 2007 Leibler has written a “Candidly Speaking” column in the Jerusalem Post and via direct email (it’s well worth reading). Over recent years questions have come to be asked about the transparency of the decision-making and finances of the Claims Conference. Leibler wrote a series of trenchant pieces on the subject. The Claims Conference had a tin ear for any questioning of its actions and seemed to believe that attack is the best form of defense. I have some experience of my own here. As President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, I had a seat as a director of the Claims Conference from 2015-2018. This was during the aftermath of a damaging scandal in which it emerged that a Claims Conference employee, who has since died, engineered a fraud from its Frankfurt office which caused at least $42 million to be paid out in fake claims for compensation. The management at the Claims Conference did not accept any responsibility.

After its own ombudsman, Shmuel Hollander, a respected top Israeli civil servant, issued a scathing report of deep management failure, the Claims Conference terminated his contract (claiming it was for budgetary reasons). Immediately afterwards, I was present at the directors meeting in July 2015 and asked who was prepared to take responsibility. When the answer was silence, I called for the officers of the Claims Conference to resign. There was more silence. Its longstanding President, Julius Berman, remained in office until June 2020. In this reviewer’s opinion based on personal experience, Leibler’s columns calling for reforms were fully justified.

When Leibler wrote articles lambasting the Board of Deputies for what he thought was timidity and misplaced quiet diplomacy, I took issue with him and demonstrated that he had been misinformed. He courteously listened to my responses to his criticisms and was big enough to accept that he did not have all the information needed to make a judgment. Out of our initial tense exchanges, a friendship grew that lasts to this day. The strong leadership he brought to communal and international Jewish life deserves respect and admiration. This book stands as a comprehensive record of the life and battles of a central participant in modern Jewish history.

Jonathan Arkush was President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 2015-2018.

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