Bob Hawke and Let My People Go: the freedom of the refuseniks

May 17, 2019 by Suzanne Rutland
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In 1970 Bob Hawke visited Israel for the first time as the inaugural Senator Sam Cohen Lecturer and he visited Israel as part of the award.

Bob Hawke at the Kotel in 1979

There he met with Golda Meir with whom he established a close bond, emotional bond. She begged him to visit the Soviet Union as ACTU president and campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry a topic that Golda felt passionate about. The Soviet Union had broken off diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 war, and Israel needed intermediaries. Hawke agreed and flew to the Baltic Sea where Alexander N. Shelepin, the Soviet trade union movement’s president, was holidaying. This was the beginning of a magnificent obsession which was to last for the next two decades.

In 1979, Bob again travelled, this time to Moscow, to campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, prior to his attending the International Labor Organization meeting in Geneva in July 1979. First, he travelled to Israel to meet with PM Menachem Begin and Isi Leibler and to be briefed on the latest situation for Soviet Jewry. In Moscow, Hawke met with most of Leibler’s refusenik contacts, as well as key Soviet trade union officials, including Peter Pimenov, Shelepin’s successor.  He claimed he was given assurances that the Soviet government had agreed that all refuseniks who had been detained for over five years would be released immediately, that in future refuseniks would not be detained in the Soviet Union beyond five years. In addition, twelve Prisoners of Zion would be released.

In an emotional statement, Hawke announced these concessions on his arrival in Rome. However, it soon became apparent that the Soviet would not honour these undertakings.  Leibler believed that this change of mind was due to the failure of the US Congress to ratify SALT. Reflecting later on the Soviet denial, Bob Hawke wrote in his memoirs: “I have never experienced such a sense of utter desolation. That I had been played for a sucker by the Soviets was of no moment. That I had, albeit in good faith, raised and then dashed the hopes of these great human beings brought me to a point of desperation that I questioned the value of continuing my own life. I have never seen anything to match the joy in their eyes, and the thought of their despair tormented me.”

Bob and Hazel Hawke with Isi Leibler at the Kotel, 1979

Hawke did not give up his battle for Soviet Jewry and as Prime Minister continued to campaign on their behalf. In December 1987 he made his first state visit to the Soviet Union as Australian Prime Minister to meet with Gorbachev. With him, he had a list of refuseniks who were seeking to be liberated and migrate to Israel. After his disappointment in 1979, Hawke tried not to be too optimistic, especially when he met with twenty refuseniks in the Australian embassy the day before he flew out.

Yet, as he was walking across the tarmac to board his flight back to Australia, Hawke heard that Gorbachev had agreed to release two families – a total of five of the twenty he had met the day before, Yet, Hawke had met Gorbachev at a propitious time – just before the Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Washington, and President Reagan, strongly supported the cause of Soviet Jewry. Just before the meeting a rally in Washington drew 250,000 demonstrators demanding “Let my people go”.

In response, restrictions were lifted and in 1988 the doors slowly opened for Soviet Jews. Among those who left were the refuseniks with whom both Bob Hawke and Isi Leibler had met and retained contact for over a decade. In 1988, Isi Leibler brought 15 of them to Israel and on 17 May 1988, a celebratory night was organized when Bob Hawke was presented with a humanitarian award by Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress.

This event in the Melbourne Town Hall was attended by 3000 members of the Jewish community. In 1987 Bob Hawke had been the first Australian prime minister to visit Israel and he developed a sympathy for the Palestinian cause. During his speech he drew the parallel to “The Palestinian in the occupied territories, as the Jews in the Soviet Union and the black in South Africa, has his aspirations to be truly free”. The shock of the largely Jewish audience was audible and at the private function held at the Leibler’s home, Isi let fly.

Yet, for Bob Hawke, the cause of Soviet Jewry was one to which he remained strongly emotionally committed and he and Isi Leibler were able to rebuild bridges with the opening of the first Jewish cultural centre in Moscow in February 1989. Bob himself was not able to attend the event, but he and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided Isi with significant assistance in organizing the event and enabling two Israeli singers, David “Dudo” Fisher and Yaffa Yarkoni to attend. For all concerned, this was a highlight of a struggle that had lasted for over three decades.

Suzanne Rutland co-authored Let My People Go: untold story of Australia and Soviet Jews with Sam Lipski.



One Response to “Bob Hawke and Let My People Go: the freedom of the refuseniks”
  1. ray lehrer says:

    having been in Joan Childs office in old parliment house with the Refusnics .when Bob came in .they were joyous to see him and thank him \

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