Let My People Go

May 11, 2015 by  
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A book detailing the efforts made by the Australian Jewish community to relieve the plight of Soviet Jewry, an operation which spanned 30 years, was launched in Sydney yesterday.

The book was written by Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland and was launched at the Sydney Jewish Museum by Robert Goot, president of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Goot was introduced by the Sydney Jewish Museum’s resident historian Konrad Kwiet who thanked Rutland for her years of friendship and professional collaboration.

In thanking Robert Goot, Sam Lipski remarked that Goot had brilliantly mastered his brief to introduce the book and was someone who had both “lived and led the campaign”.

Suzanne Rutland spoke about the wealth of fascinating material she found in ASIO files as well as in Isi Leibler’s “wonderful collection of documents”.  She described a riotous evening in Moscow with Bob Hawke, a key player in the campaign.

Robert Goot’s address:

“When I was asked to launch Let My people Go – the untold story of

Sam Lipski and Suzanne Rutland   Photo: Alex Huber [Moments]

Sam Lipski and Suzanne Rutland Photo: Alex Huber [Moments]

Australia and the Soviet Jews, 1959-89, I had not yet read the book. But I had known and admired each of the authors for more than 40 years and having heard over the last several years from them as to its progress, I had no hesitation in saying yes to their request.

Then I read the book. Having done so, I want at the outset to express my great praise and admiration to Sam and Suzanne for their outstanding efforts in chronicling the unique Australian perspective of heroic saga of the struggle for the rights of three million soviet Jews, which had an important side effect by, in 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 (the People of Israel).

The plight of Soviet Jewry, upon which firstly Australian and then world Jewry focused it efforts over 30 critical years, captured the imagination and galvanized Jewish communities internationally, none more so that in Australia, because it was all of:

  • a response to the miraculous rebirth of Jewish identity of Jews in the Soviet Union who had been repressed as Jews for 50 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989;
  • a collaborative effort between heroes in the Soviet Union and helpers in the west;
  • at its core, a fight for human rights, with which well-meaning people, opinion makers and politicians across the political spectrum, could and did identify; and
  • the reaffirmation of Israel as the Jewish homeland and its unique role in the ingathering of exiles.

Isi Leibler summed it up in late 1985, in his testimony to a US Congressional Sub Committee when he said:

“The renaissance of Soviet Jewry is one of the greatest inspirational sagas of the 20th century. After 60 years of Communism, Stalinist repression, and systematic discrimination, the rebirth of Jewish identity in the Soviet Union has been a triumph of the human spirit and a testament to the persistence of faith, tradition and civilization over tyranny, ideology and the police state. It is the only movement since the Russian Revolution to force real and fundamental change, albeit temporary, in the Soviet system.”

The book’s emphasis on the role played by Australian Jewry and its leadership and Isi Leibler in particular, is of course well placed and known to those of us who were privileged to be part of the unprecedented activism for this cause. Sam and Suzanne however, have chronicled the events with painstaking attention to detail. Suzanne’s research especially of Australian government records and Isi Leibler’s vast archive reveals previously unpublished information and Sam’s insights drawn from his direct experiences in Melbourne, Washington and Moscow, have enabled them to tell the whole story in a truly fascinating, inspiring and riveting account.

And what a story it is. As the book unfolds we are taken on a remarkable journey. The journey starts almost at the end with the public meeting in Melbourne in 1988 to welcome and honour 15 refuseniks by then household names in the Jewish community. Each had waited from 12 to 17 years to leave The Soviet Union. Each had lost their jobs. Each had been harassed, arrested, repeatedly threatened, had their phones tapped, been interrogated and been denounced as parasites and enemies of the state. But they were now free.

The book then returns to the beginning of the journey. We learn of the clandestine Israeli organization, Lishkah’s efforts in 1959 to recruit Isi Leibler and others to take up the challenge; the work of Shaul Avigur and Nehemiah Levanon and Emanuel Litvinoff in London, with all of whom I was privileged to work. We are treated to a part history of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), when the authors revisit the tensions from 1958 to 1968 between the Melbourne and Sydney Jewish leadership, over the preferred course to take. This was a time, as Sam has often noted, when giants strode the earth – Syd Einfeld in Sydney and Maurice Ashkanazy in Melbourne – ‘Syd’ and ‘Ash’ or ‘Ashcan’ as he was known at the bar. Interestingly between them they held the presidency of the ECAJ for twenty successive years – Syd four terms and Ash five terms. Of course that was back in the day of no fixed terms and no Australian Jewish News editorials complaining of ‘recycled Presidents’.

The authors explain the Senator Sam Cohen ‘affair’ of the early 1960s

Konrad Kwiet   Photo: Alex Hubern [Moments]

Konrad Kwiet Photo: Alex Huber [Moments]

and its effect on relationships not just within the Jewish community leadership, but importantly on and within the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its impact on bipartisan support for Soviet Jewry in the Australian parliament. These were times of high emotions, strong passions and robust debate. Indeed, the debate was arguably too robust. In a candid comment in the book, Sam Lipski acknowledges that the use of “J’accuse” as the heading and within his front-page editorial pillorying Senator Sam Cohen in the Australian Jewish Herald in October 1962, was in retrospect unfair.

But these ECAJ leadership issues, which the book notes resurfaced in the events leading up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics (and which I am happy to report are a thing of the past), set the background for a fascinating analysis of the important if not pivotal role that successive Australian governments played in helping to place the Soviet Jewry issue on the international stage and in particular at the UN.

We learn of the initial intervention of W.C. Wentworth in 1962 with

Robert Goot   Photo: Alex Huber  [Moments]

Robert Goot Photo: Alex Huber [Moments]

Garfield Barwick, Menzies’ Minister for External affairs, which resulted in Soviet Jewry as a human rights issue being raised, for the first time by any government, in the 3rd Committee of the UN (despite the opposition of DET the precursor to DFAT).

“The Australian delegate detailed “violent and inflammatory” examples of anti-Semitism, referred to the ban on baking matzot (the unleavened Passover bread), noted the high proportion of Jews sentenced to death for “economic crimes”, and pointed out that Jewish communities around the world had “expressed concern at the treatment of Jewish people in Russia.”

“As instructed, he introduced the significant additional request:

“… should the USSR find difficulty in according to Soviet Jewry full freedom to practise their religion, it should, we believe, permit them to leave the country. Indeed, it had a moral obligation to do so under article 13, paragraph 2, of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which said: “Everyone has the right to leave a country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

That was in 1962. That was the beginning.

The impact of that intervention cannot be underestimated. It influenced the stance taken by the US administration and significantly, by the Government of Israel, by the Soviet Government and most importantly by Soviet Jews themselves. As Moshe Dechter observed:

Australia’s succinct and marvellous United Nations intervention was of great value and significance. It was unprecedented in that this was the first time that the problem of Soviet Jewry was discussed at the UN on an official governmental level. It was valued on two counts:

  1. a) it helped to make the Soviets more aware than ever before of the concern felt in the West about Soviet Jews;
  2. b) it impressed other UN delegates with the seriousness of the question … so that the door has been opened for further and more systematic efforts by the UN.”

The chapters in the book examining the debates, correspondence and dialogues within and with the CPA and the publication of Soviet Jewry and Human Rights and later Soviet Jewry and the Australian Communist Party, is recognition of another of Isi Leibler’s seminal roles in the struggle. This was a unique and critically important interaction with Bernie Taft, Rex Mortimer and others, which ultimately led to the public recognition by the left of the debasement of the human rights of Soviet Jews by the Soviet Union. For his efforts, Leibler also came to the attention of ASIO whose files have been accessed by Suzanne.

Leibler’s sometimes brash, combative, obsessive and impatient approach, which had at times earned the displeasure, to use a neutral term, of many in the Jewish leadership both in Sydney and Melbourne and others, was now to be played out in the councils of international Jewry and in particular at the World Jewish Congress.

The president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), Nahum Goldman’s approach to the Soviet Jewry issue was one of quiet diplomacy or shatlonus, the term Isi was fond of using to deride it. From 1965 to 1966, in Geneva Strasbourg and Brussels, at meetings of the Executive and Governing Board of the WJC, Leibler with his trademark tenacity if not chutzpah confronted and challenged Nahum Goldmann – the ‘King of the Jews’, on both tactics – public activism vs private diplomacy, and policy – pressing the right to emigrate, gradually garnering support as he went. Leibler’s approach was supported by the ECAJ under Ashkanazy who entered the fray telling Goldmann ‘We will not desist with those who think as we do, we shall go forward’.

The Australian approach met with significant initial resistance in the WJC and the debate continued, but the WJC and Goldman were relegated to the sidelines by the early 1970s, as the by then very public Campaign for Soviet Jewry, gained momentum and traction both inside and outside the Soviet Union. That militancy was the death knell of quiet diplomacy.

Meantime back in the USSR, the Soviet response to the Israeli victory in the 6 day war including the re-publication of Kitchko’s notoriously antisemitic “Judaism Without Embellishment” and Ivanov’s “Beware Zionism” the communist version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was accompanied by further active measures against Jews in religious and cultural life and of course visa refusals for the growing numbers of Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel.

By 1970, it was estimated that somewhere between 80,000 and 240,000 Soviet Jews had applied to leave. The Soviet refusal to grant exit visas in accordance with international law, only further emboldened both Soviet Jews to take the extraordinarily courageous step of applying for visas, and their supporters in the west:

“The first such group to attract significant international attention were eighteen Georgian Jews who petitioned the United Nations on 6 August 1969. Another letter, to UN Secretary-General U Thant, and signed by 531 Georgian Jews, ended with the cry: “Israel or death.” In March 1970, 39 Moscow Jews wrote supporting this petition, and in an appeal to Soviet leaders, 37 Leningrad Jews wrote:

‘Our motives are not social or political; our motives are deeply national and spiritual. We want to live in the re-born State of our ancient people … We want to live in our historic motherland, in our own country.’”

The Georgian Jews’ petition to U Thant finally convinced the Government of Israel to abandon the policy of only pushing for emigration by secret negotiations, in favour of direct and public calls for the grating of exit visas. Golda Meir 21 years after becoming Israel’s Ambassador to Moscow, read to the Knesset:

“We sincerely believe the day will come when we shall witness a large wave of immigration from the Soviet Union of old and young alike … We cannot abandon our legitimate interest in the fate of Soviet Jewry for the sake of some doubtful friendship with the Soviet Union, a country which, by its actions in this region, has put a question mark on our very existence”.

In 1970 in Australia, the ECAJ under its President Gerald Falk, initiated the Campaign for the Rescue of Soviet Jewry under the chairmanship of Marcus Einfeld. Many of us well remember the 3000 strong rally at Sydney Town Hall on 30 August 1970, listening to Marcus’ galvanising and inspiring address, shortly after the arrests of Edward Kutnetsov and Mark Dymshits and 32 of their courageous fellow Jews, responsible for the Leningrad hijack attempt – The first “Prisoners of Zion”

The Leningrad Hijack trials and the sentences of death by firing squad imposed on Kutnetsov and Dymshits led to further international outcry. In Australia there were protests and vigils in Canberra and elsewhere, petitions and letters of protest. John Gorton as Prime Minister was sympathetic to the Jewish community’s pleas to speak up, but Foreign Minister McMahon was inclined to accept the advice of DFAT, which was:

“… We need to be careful that we do not intrude too far on the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs – a principle which we, generally, strongly support.” 

Gorton rejected that advice and in response to an appeal from Golda Meir, wrote to U Thant asking that the severe punishment not proceed. He did so in the face of Departmental advice advising against any action:

“These people are Soviet citizens, dealt with presumably in accordance with Soviet ‘law’. We invite retaliatory complaints with either (i) the aborigines (ii) PNG (Papua and New Guinea)…

“We have always failed to see what special interest Israel as State has in relation to people, citizens of other States, who happen to be Jewish. Do we, for instance, concede to Israel some rights in connection with Australian citizens of the Jewish race?”

Gorton’s stance was supported by the media and the ALP, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and others. The death sentences were eventually commuted to 15 years hard labour and Kutnetzov and Dymshits were freed in 1979 and were welcomed in Israel as heroes.

The importance of this openly mass public phase of the campaign, which is perhaps more widely known that the earlier ground breaking achievements of the 1960s, cannot be underestimated. For most in the Jewish community especially its younger members, it was their first experience of public Jewish activism. In the 1970s people signed up for the campaign: they protested; wrote letters; organised petitions; marched on the streets; held vigils; bussed to Canberra for rallies outside the Soviet Embassy; and generally did everything possible, often with great imagination and effect, to highlight the plight of Soviet Jewry.

I believe this public mass activism had at least three lasting effects on the community and its leadership. Firstly, it provided the model for young Jews in particular, to take up other causes, notably Israel during the campus anti Israel – ‘democratic secular state’ activities, on campuses and elsewhere in the 1970s and beyond. Secondly, it produced a new generation of Jewish leaders and Jews committed to the rigorous public espousal of Jewish causes. It needs to be noted that the then leadership of the community both in Sydney and in Melbourne, did everything to encourage that transition. Thirdly, it cemented the approach to be adopted and since adhered to, that when it comes to Jewish rights including of course the State of Israel, the community 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, union, NGO and general communal landscapes. These were the lasting effects in Australia, of the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which have guided Australian Jewish advocacy since that time and continue to do so.

As the book makes clear, the public pressure was achieving results. The Leningrad Hijack trials gave considerable momentum to the international Soviet Jewry movement. The US formed a national committee for Soviet Jewry led by Jerry Goodman. World Conferences on Soviet Jewry were convened in Brussels in 1971 and 1976 and in Jerusalem in 1983. I was privileged to represent Australia at the 2nd Brussels conference where all in attendance were inspired by the depth and nature of Golda Meir’s involvement.

The struggle continued with the 1972 ‘Ransom Tax’ decree requiring those applying for visas to compensate the Soviet government for the cost of their education on an exorbitant scale. Once more there were massive international protests and the international campaign was galvanised into action. The Australian community both Jewish and non-Jewish, was not found wanting. The McMahon government raised the issue directly with the Soviet Government. The Ransom Tax decree led directly to the historic Jackson/Vanik amendment to the US/Soviet Free Trade Agreement, conditioning the granting of MFN status to the Soviet Union, on the rescission of the Ransom Tax.

As a result of Jackson’s audacious statesmanship, Soviet Jewry assumed a key position in the US Soviet relationship. The book provides fascinating detail of this impact: – the role of Richard Perle; the attitude of Henry Kissinger; the moves by Nixon and Kissinger towards détente and the SALT talks; the Nixon Brezhnev June 1973 summit   and much more. Sam Lipski at the time, the Washington correspondent for the Australian Newspaper had a unique opportunity to observe and report on these developments, including his meetings with Golda Meir on her four visits to the Nixon White House. His insights and observations on this critical period and others, are an important and fascinating part of the book.

While Golda and her US Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, knew that the Jackson amendment troubled the US administration, they were not aware of the true extent to which Soviet Jewish emigration worried Nixon and Kissinger. In December 2010, Nixon’s White House tapes were disclosed as having recorded the following exchange between Kissinger and Nixon:

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Nixon responded:
 I know. We can’t blow up the whole world because of it.

And, Kissinger’s further comment:

“I think that the Jewish community in this country on that issue (Soviet Jewry) is behaving unconscionably. It’s behaving traitorously.”

Reader’s of Christopher Hitchens’ “The Trial of Henry Kissinger“ will hardly be surprised at Kissinger’s perfidy. Golda Meir however, refused to agree to Kissinger’s demand that she influence US Jewish leadership to drop their support for the Jackson amendment, described by Richard Perle as ‘the single most important piece of human rights legislation in the 20th century’. The Ransom Tax became a dead letter and in 1972-73; some 66,000 Jews left Russia for Israel.

Meanwhile in Australia, the Jewish community was coming to grips with the Whitlam government. It was a very troubling period as the title of Chapter 12 ‘You People are Hard to Please’, indicates. As far as the Soviet Jewry movement was concerned Whitlam’ record was at best mixed, but the anti-Israel campaign after the 1973 Yom Kippur war gave the community other issues with which it had to deal.

Malcolm Fraser by contrast, was much more sympathetic to the Soviet Jewry cause. It was under his prime ministership that on the petition of W.C. Wentworth the Australian parliament, despite the misgivings and discomfiture of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), established in 1977, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence’s Inquiry into Human Rights in the Soviet Union. The Committee met 28 times and heard from 25 witnesses, including Professor Alexander Voronel and produced a 1059 page report, which was tabled in parliament in November 1979. The report was an historic and landmark document which received widespread approval in Australia and overseas.

A significant part of this wonderful book focuses on events surrounding the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the way in which that event not only presented opportunities for the Soviet Jewry movement, but also demonstrated the lack of leadership consensus on how to leverage those opportunities – to boycott or not to boycott. We read of the appointment of Isi Leibler’s company Jetset as the Australian Olympic Committee’s official travel agent for the games and the controversy that generated; the opportunities that the AOC appointment provided Isi Leibler to visit Russia, meet with and advance the cause of the refuseniks; the Hawke visits; the Australian government’s boycott of the games; and much more. It is a part of the story filled with excitement, allegations of conflict of interest, leadership schisms, intrigue, shady KGB operatives; lots of vodka, some beer (in deference to Hawke), hope and despair, but above all of Soviet Jewish heroes. In short, the book conveys a fascinating plot, larger than life characters and most importantly for Soviet Jewry, a happy ending. And not only is it true, but it recounts a part of the saga that is driven uniquely by Australians.

At the centre of it all is one Isi Joseph Leibler. I should declare that I have worked with and known Isi closely for more than 45 years. We agree on most things and disagree on some. I have successfully mediated disputes between Isi and others in Australia and overseas, sadly only on a pro bono basis. One of those mediations is referred to in the book, and related to the controversy of Isi benefitting commercially from Jetset’s Moscow Games appointment and the potential impact on his quest to become the president of the ECAJ. At a critical point in the discussions I was in the Buena Vista private hospital my knee having been under the knife of Dr Cecil Cass as a result of a skiing accident. The small hospital’s switchboard was, on a number of occasions, clogged by calls from and to Jewish leaders around Australia. They were not well received by the hospital management and did nothing for my recuperation. I even received representations in hospital from Philip Klutznick the then president of the WJC, who was visiting Australia, albeit in some bewilderment.

Interestingly, Isi was described in this week’s AJN as ‘a former titan of the Australian Jewish community’. Titan has two meanings according to the SOE Dictionary: 1- “sun god”; 2- “machines of great size and power, a dredger, crane.” The sun god definition might explain why Isi was so opposed to daylight saving – he was not going to get up early for anyone.

However, whether you think that Isi was a titan or not, he was on any measure at the very least, in the Syd Einfeld /Ashcan ‘giant’ league of Australian and international Jewish leadership, and his unique and pivotal role over three decades in fighting for the rights of Soviet Jewry, has been fulsomely and correctly captured by Sam and Suzanne in Let My People Go. His was a contribution of which the Australian Jewish community can be justifiably extremely proud.

On 9 November 1989, the Berlin wall fell. On 30 September 1990, Gorbachev agreed to direct flights from the Soviet Union to Tel Aviv. In August 1991 Gorbachev lost power and the Soviet Union was dissolved. By 1996 more than 1 million Soviet Jews had arrived in Israel and another 300,000 had emigrated to USA, Germany and Australia. That exodus changed Israel and significantly impacted on the diaspora communities to which they came.

Sam and Suzanne have performed a most important service in writing this book. They have provided a detailed and fascinating account of how Australian Jewry rose to one of the great challenges of our time – described by Sam as the third Himalayan peak of the twentieth century, after the Shoah and the establishment of Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel), and did so to the great benefit: firstly of Soviet Jewry; secondly to the State of Israel, the economic and social development of which was vastly enhanced by one million Soviet immigrants; and thirdly to the benefit of our own sense of purpose, identity and future in this great country.

I urge you to read Let My People Go. It should be in the libraries at least of every Australian Jewish day school. It should be required reading within their Jewish Studies curricula. I am very proud to have had the opportunity to play a small part in this drama and grateful for the opportunities and the assistance of others, that allowed me to develop my other roles in the Jewish community, here and overseas. I am deeply honoured to launch this important contribution to the Soviet Jewry story and the history of Australian Jewry.”

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