Isi Leibler: 1934-2021. A giant amongst us is no more

April 13, 2021 by Henry Benjamin

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The subject of a newly-released book “Lone Voice: The Wars of Isi Leibler” has passed away in Jerusalem at the age of 86.

Isi Leibler at home in Jerusalem

Tributes have poured in from community leaders.  Isi Leibler ran a highly successful travel business in Melbourne where his family emigrated just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Isi Leibler left Melbourne to make Aliyah to Israel in 1999.

A prolific writer his weekly column was a welcome read in J-Wire for many years.

Although his wars were varied, the successful one to free Soviet Jewry made Isi Leibler the toast of worldwide Jewry.

The Zionist Federation of Australia is deeply saddened by the passing of Mr Isi Leibler Z”L and extends its deepest sympathies to Mrs Naomi Leibler and his children, grandchildren and family in Israel and Australia.

ZFA President Jeremy Leibler said,

“We mourn the passing of a communal giant – a true Gadol Hador. Isi had a profound impact on both the Australian Jewish Community and on the global Jewish world. He demonstrated that one individual can indeed change the world – and that is exactly what Isi achieved in the role he played in the fight to free Soviet Jewry. He was fearless and uncompromising in his dedication to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. He enjoyed success in all aspects of his life but his passion was always defending the Jewish people and ensuring the centrality of the State of Israel to Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Isi was also my uncle and I was privileged to see the private side as well as his public persona. The only subject matter that trumped Jewish affairs was Isi’s unyielding dedication to his family and in particular to my grandmother, Rachel Leibler Z”L. He was the very embodiment of the principle espoused in Pirkei Avot that ‘those who exert themselves on behalf of the community … their righteousness endures forever’.

Isi’s leadership and commitment to his people and his family will continue to be an inspiration to me and many others within the Jewish community. May his memory be a blessing”.

“The sudden passing of Isi Joseph Leibler in Jerusalem, closes a chapter on one of the most remarkable and accomplished periods of Australian Jewish leadership”, said ECAJ president Jillian Segal.

“Isi successfully brought passion, intellect, learning and unflinching commitment to so many areas critical to Jewish life both in Australia and on the wider international stage, the likes of which we will probably never see again.”

Isi Leibler, an Honorary Life Member of the ECAJ, was its longest-serving President, having held that position for a total of 11 years during the period from 1978 to 1995.

“He is best remembered for his pioneering work to free Soviet Jewry recounted in great and enthralling detail in the 2015 book “Let My People Go – The untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89”, co-authored by Sam Lipski and Suzanne Rutland” said Ms Segal.

“That book chronicled the unique Australian perspective of the heroic saga of the struggle for the rights of 3 million Soviet Jews, which had an important side effect by helping to redefine the manner in which the Australian Jewish community and its leadership discharged its role in matters of critical importance to Am Yisrael. Isi Leibler was foremost in that leadership.

“However, his work was much more extensive, and touched all of the critical aspects of Australian Jewish life over many decades and had great impact in the wider fields of politics and business. Suzanne Rutland’s just-published biography “Lone Voice” makes clear the wide range and influence of the many facets of Isi’s public life.

“Australian Jewry is greatly diminished by Isi’s passing. On behalf of the Australian Jewish community to which he gave so much, we convey out heartfelt condolences to Isi’s beloved wife Naomi, their children and grandchildren, Isi’s brothers Mark and Allan and their families, and to the whole Leibler family in Australia and Israel. May his memory be a blessing”

Jeremy Jones, Director of International and of Community Affairs for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, who was Honorary Secretary during Isi Liebler’s Presidency of the ECAJ and subsequently President of the ECAJ said, on learning of the passing of Isi Leibler:

“Isi Leibler left an indelible mark on the Australian Jewish community. His service, in many roles, was always marked by immense intellect, passion, commitment and a genuine desire to right wrongs.

I first met him when I was still at high school and he was a leader of the international movement to give the Jews in what was then the USSR the right to live as Jews and to leave to lead Jewish lives in Israel and the free world. He inspired many others to join the movement and was forthright in his public advocacy.

When I first worked for, and then became an elected officer of, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, there were numerous occasions in which Isi was at loggerheads with other equally impressive and passionate leaders, although there was never any question as to the strength of his belief that he was always fighting for what was best for Australian and world Jewry.

When I was elected to serve as Honorary Secretary under his Presidency, I almost lost count of the number of times I was told that he would be more than a little difficult to work with and that I would regret my decision, I found, to the contrary, that Isi welcomed constructive critique and would always listen to alternative views. Further, he was always open to the view that there were matters in which others had the expertise and his role was to support them in their community work. I was the beneficiary of his wisdom and encouragement as the ECAJ expanded its activities.

It was my honour to accompany him to many international meetings and to support his efforts to bring about the best governance of, and the best outcome from, the most important international Jewish organisations.

During my ECAJ Presidency, he was supportive in every respect and I grew to consider him not just a mentor and senior colleague but also a friend.

Deputy President of The Executive Council of Australia, Robert Goot. Has a history of working with Isi Leibler going back to fifty years,

In his tribute, Robert Goot wrote: “Just a few short weeks ago Isi Leibler’s autobiography Lone Voice” by Suzanne Rutland, was launched in a moving and memorable on line ceremony in which Isi and Naomi were active participants. It is surreal to think that he is no longer with us.

Isi’s lifetime of Jewish leadership was truly extraordinary in its vision, intensity and impact here and overseas. He was an educated, passionate and articulate Jewish advocate of the highest order. He was incisive and uncannily perceptive.   And he changed how we think and act as a community.

I had the great good fortune of working closely with Isi for more than 50 years in Australia and overseas.  I was a regular visitor to his and Naomi’s home in Jerusalem. We agreed on many things and disagreed on some, notably in later years when I thought his public criticisms of the Claims Conference leadership were excessive in substance and tone, even for Isi.

No one could ever doubt what Isi was thinking. At times he could be brash, combative, obsessive and impatient, but more often he was caring, loyal, engaging and hospitable.

I believe Isi’s greatest accomplishment amongst so many and his abiding legacy, was in his championing the cause of Soviet Jewry and in particular changing the approach to that issue from private diplomacy ‘shatlonus’to an open and very public campaign,  thereby creating a new and what became an extremely successful model for Jewish advocacy.

In the campaign for Soviet Jewry, Isi captured the imagination of and galvanised, Jewish communities and others in response to the miraculous rebirth of Jewish identity of Jews in the Soviet Union after  decades of oppression and reaffirmed Israel as the Jewish homeland  and its unique role in the ingathering of exiles.

For most in the Jewish community especially its younger members, the campaign for Soviet Jewry was their first experience of public Jewish activism. Jews and non-Jews alike signed up for the campaign: they protested; lobbied; wrote letters; organized petitions; marched on the streets; held vigils; and generally did everything possible, often with great imagination and effect, to highlight the plight of Soviet Jewry.

That campaign and Isi’s role in it, had lasting effects on the community and its leadership.  It provided the model for young Jews in particular, to promote other Jewish causes, notably Israel; it produced a new generation of Jewish leaders and Jews committed to the rigorous public advocacy of Jewish causes, greatly encouraged by the then leadership of the community; and it cemented the approach to be adopted and since adhered to, that when it comes to Jewish rights including the State of Israel, Jewish communities had to speak up publicly, albeit in calibrated and reasonable terms, and had to enlist the support of like-minded individuals across the political, media, civil society and general communal, landscapes.

Isi Leibler’s  Jewish advocacy, influence, insights,  and wise counsel will be sorely missed.

I extend my heartfelt condolences to Naomi and all the family. May his memory be a blessing.

Executive director of The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council,  Dr Colin Rubenstein said: “Isi Leibler was a towering figure in Australian Jewish communal life and will be forever remembered for his contribution to the worldwide campaign for the liberation of Soviet Jewry, advancing ties between Australia and Israel and his pioneering work in Israel-Asia Relations.

“Among his many accomplishments was his establishment of the Australian Institute of Jewish Affairs, which became part of AIJAC and continues to inform our activities.

“After making Aliyah to Israel, Isi often generously shared insights on Israel and the Jewish world with visiting Australian parliamentarians, journalists and religious leaders, many of whom were visiting as part of AIJAC’s Rambam program.

“His passing leaves a void that will be felt for years to come.”

Daniel Aghion President of The Jewish Community Council of Victoria stated:

Isi Leibler was an inspirational and respected leader of the Jewish community. He was President of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies from December 1972 to March 1977 and an insightful, loyal Zionist whose impact extended beyond Australia to Israel and around the world. Isi Leibler dedicated his life to supporting Israel and the Jewish people, in Victoria, Australia, and elsewhere.

In particular, Isi is well-known for working tirelessly for the cause of Soviet refuseniks. He successfully encouraged many Australian Governments of all sides of politics, to act as leaders in advocacy for their freedom.

The fact that Melbourne is home to a significant community of Jews from the former Soviet Union, is in many ways thanks to Isi’s heroic efforts to provide them with a pathway out of oppression and to a safe haven.

The JCCV offers its deepest sympathy to his wife Naomi and family, and will always remember and embrace his vision to enrich the Jewish community of Victoria and across the world.

Isi Leibler

Born: Antwerp, Belgium October 9, 1934

Died: Jerusalem, Israel April 13, 2021

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