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Leibler, Isi Joseph (1934–2021)

by Alan Howe

from Australian

Isi Leibler’s lively mind thought in monochrome. It saw the world in the black and white of binary truths. Things were either good, or bad. Like people. And Leibler was a god-fearing Jew who feared no one else.

He understood the plight of Russian Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain, how they were culturally and religiously persecuted — sometimes targeted in waves of arrests and murders — so he decided to take on the Soviet Union. From the suburbs of Melbourne.

Aged 27, he organised a campaign to convince newspaper editors and Canberra politicians that the fate of these people was an issue for us all. Australia had been instrumental in shaping the United Nations’ Charter to better ­reflect the interests of smaller countries; now it could roar on ­behalf of a repressed minority.

We were a founding member, and in 1948 Australia was elected to the presidency of the UN, the year the state of Israel was proclaimed. Leibler’s work led to the government of Sir Robert Menzies raising the issue of Soviet Jews in 1962, the first nation to do so.

Three years later, Leibler published his book Soviet Jewry and Human Rights, describing the state-sponsored anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union where Jews’ human rights counted for nothing. The book brought its author international attention — with the handy by-product that it divided Australia’s communists.

By this time, Leibler’s father had passed away and he had shelved plans for a career in academia. After a stint running his family diamond business, he launched himself into another industry with a one-shop, one-man travel agency in hardscrabble Sunshine, on the fringes of Melbourne’s tough western suburbs comprised mostly of newly arrived migrants from Italy and Greece fleeing a war-exhausted Europe, but always with plans to go “home” when they could afford to do so.

Jetset Travel grew quickly to become Australia’s biggest travel booking agent. In 1986, Leibler sold out to Air New Zealand.

He travelled regularly to Russia from 1978, working with its Jewish community and “the refuseniks”, those Jewish activists whom the Soviets had repeatedly prevented from emigrating to Israel.

Through Jetset, he had made a vital contact in Hebrew-speaking George Zoubkov, vice-president of Soviet travel agency Intourist and a former member of the Soviet diplomatic corps, who had lived in Tel Aviv. Leibler also became good friends with Bob Hawke years before Hawke entered parliament. The future prime minister took up the issue of the welfare of Russia’s Jews on a trip there in 1979. Later, as PM, he encouraged Russian leaders to allow refuseniks to emigrate to the Jewish State.

In Moscow in 1987, Hawke met some Jewish activists and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who symbolically allowed some high-profile refuseniks to leave, announcing this privately to Hawke.

This turned into a flood as the Soviet Union collapsed. A million migrated to Israel, where they have played a prominent role in ­Israeli life. One of those refuseniks, Yuli Edelstein, was for seven years Speaker of the Knesset and then minister for health.

Leibler did much more, not all of it obvious. In behind-the-scenes meetings with then Indian prime minister P. V. Narasimha, he worked to encourage the establishment of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and New Delhi, which were sealed in 1992.

This was quite an achievement; India had voted at the UN against the creation of Israel. Similarly, he worked on China’s foreign minister and vice-premier Qian Qichen, helping achieve the same result in the same year.

Leibler was the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress. He left the WJC after claiming incompetence, impropriety and financial irregularities at its highest levels. The WJC sued Leibler for defamation. This action was withdrawn and the subsequent scandal vindicated Leibler’s concerns.

Leibler was feisty and, with intellectual force, moved forward some of the great debates of his time. He took what some saw as a hard line against the Palestinians. Some were incensed by a column in The Jerusalem Post — for which he was a weekly commentator after moving to live in Israel in 1999 — that stated: “There is irrefutable evidence of the barbaric and genocidal nature of Palestinian society. Indeed, the reality is that despite maintaining a ‘moderate’ stance to the outside world, internally the Palestinians and ISIS are birds of a feather — although the Palestinians are probably more corrupt.”

He defended it with aggression equal to those who attacked him, including an opposition newspaper that labelled him a “revolting racist”, pointing out that the Palestinian Authority not only demonised Jews as “the offspring of apes and pigs”, and made heroes of those who murdered them, but called for their extermination. On his 80th birthday he said: “I have never in my life felt inhibited by anti-Semites. I feel superior to them. I feel I can take them on.”

He could be equally fiery at home. Michael Danby, the former member for Melbourne Ports, said his “loud and proud (and) incorruptible” friend had “no peer in Jewish diaspora leadership … (and) many senior politicians I introduced him to revelled in his fruity evaluations”.

Former columnist for The Australian Sam Lipski, a friend for 70 years, said this week that he had lost a “mentor, colleague and collaborator on many of the great Jewish issues which were at the core of his being”.

Melbourne businessman Albert Dadon, who founded the ­Australia UK Israel Leadership Dialogue, said no visit to Jerusalem was complete without a trip to the Leiblers’ home, where you might find Australian leaders, members of the Knesset, ambassadors and sometimes the Prime Minister of Israel.

His columns for The Jerusalem Post — he was writing up until ­recently while on dialysis as the ­result of kidney disease — did not prevent the newspaper’s acerbic judgment of his disposition. Writing about the biography of Leibler’s life, it reported: “He could be ruthlessly nasty to opponents, ­especially if they had communist or fascist connections, and his anger was occasionally expressed in explicit, vulgar language, despite his first-class education and exemplary university results.”

That would not have bothered Leibler one bit. He loved the ­biography’s title, Lone Voice, and its subtitle The Wars of Isi Leibler might have been scripted by him.

Leibler put it simply: “To be successful in politics, the most ­important thing you have to do is understand your opposition. I want to know what the enemy are saying and thinking, so I can screw ’em!”

Leibler was made both a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Original publication

  • Australian, 15 April 2021

Other Obituaries for Isi Joseph Leibler

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alan Howe, 'Leibler, Isi Joseph (1934–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/leibler-isi-joseph-31701/text39161, accessed 10 May 2021.

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