Lone Voice -The Wars of Isi Leibler

May 26, 2021 by J-Wire
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The 642-page book researched over years by Suzanne Rutland on the late Isi Leibler was launched on Sunday at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Book signing by Suzanne Rutland Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

As the late Isi Leibler was a former president of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, it seemed proper that co-CEO of the ECAJ should launch the book and he himself was introduced by another former president of the ECAJ Robert Goot.

Robert Goot said: “On March 16, 2021 “Lone Voice – The Wars of Isi Leibler” by Suzanne Rutland, was launched in a moving and memorable online ceremony in Israel at which Isi and his wife Naomi were active participants. We were all shocked when less than one month later, Isi passed away.”

Robert Goot

He said that he had known Isi Leibler for more than 50 years and said “he changed how we think and act as a community both here and internationally”.

He added: “I believe Isi’s greatest accomplishment amongst so many and his abiding legacy, was in his championing of the cause of Soviet Jewry. The Soviet Jewry campaign 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.

We will sorely miss Isi Leibler’s Jewish advocacy, influence, insights, and wise counsel.”

In launching the book, Peter Wertheim remarked: “When I first received Suzanne’s book, I looked at the sub-title – “The Wars of Isi Leibler”.  Then I noted the thickness of the volume – 642 pages plus Bibliography and Index.  From those two things alone, it would be hard to avoid developing a certain first impression about Isi even before one starts reading.

So it was with considerable curiosity that I started to read the book, and I was not disappointed.

For me, the best parts of biographies are often those which deal with the early formative years of the subject.  I wanted to know what Isi was like in the very short time of his life before he became a public figure, and which of his early experiences were to have the most lasting impact on his life.  The early chapters of Suzanne’s book are illuminating.

He had natural gifts such as an ability to learn a new language quickly, a photographic memory, an ability to connect emotionally with others and a keen intelligence.  But perhaps his greatest gift was his sense of self, and the self-assurance that came from a conviction that he was part of something big in the world and in the cosmos – the Jewish people, Jewish civilisation and the Jewish religion.

Peter Wertheim told the substantial gathering about Isi’s mother’s influence on him and he mentioned that another influence..his wife Naomi.

He said: “Her role in all the different facets of Isi’s eventful life are an overt theme of the book.  Suzanne has quite rightly made a conscious effort to bring Naomi into the limelight and to give her her due.”

Peter Wertheim

He continued: “In his advocacy of the causes he cherished Isi might have seemed like a lone voice on occasion, as the title of the book suggests, but he was never a ‘lone ranger’.  In truth, Isi was always very well-networked in everything he did.  He had a great instinct and gift for building alliances – political, communal and business – with very diverse people, some of whom hated each other”

Australia was the first country to raise the issue of Soviet Jewry in the UN. He said Isi believed public campaigning should be combined with private diplomacy at the highest levels; avoid allowing community interests to become hostage to partisan politics; beware the status-quo bias of the public service; address your message to appeal to the wider Australian community, and not only the Jewish community; except in a crisis, use high-level contacts sparingly, so as not to wear out the welcome mat.  Isi could have written a textbook on effective communal leadership.”

He talked about Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam saying “There has probably never been an Australian Prime Minister more hostile to Israel than Whitlam.  I won’t recount here all of the actions taken by him and his government that could fairly be characterised as anti-Israel, if not antisemitic.  The book goes into this in great detail.”

He concluded by saying: “All I can do is whet your appetite, and recommend that you read the whole extraordinary tale of an extraordinary life.  The book deserves not merely to be read, but studied.  Don’t be deterred by the thickness of the tome.  It’s definitely worth the effort.

Historian Suzanne Rutland has been researching Isi Leibler’s life for over 20 years and availed herself of Isi’s enormous library. Isi Leibler’s health took a turn for the worse shortly after the book was launched in Israel. He passed away the day before Suzanne Rutland was due to return to Sydney and she was able to attend his funeral.

Suzanne Rutland said: “There are so many facets to Isi’s life that in this short launch we can only touch on a few aspects. I have been asked about the title ‘Lone Voice: the Wars of Isi Leibler’ – really the suggestion of my editor, Elliot Jager. However, I knew that the title had to have the concept of Isi the fighter in it, because Isi was a fighter all his life – from his responding to antisemitism in his government high school, to his thirty years of struggle for Soviet Jewry image, including his chutzpah in standing up to Dr Nahum Goldmann, through to his battles with Qantas, the story of which is quite unbelievable, to what might be called one of the great battles of his life with the World Jewish Congress. Isi was never afraid to stand up for what he believed in.

Suzanne Rutland

In a letter to Isi upon reading the book, Rabbi Hirsch, Honorary Life President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, wrote that one thing that made Isi unique among lay leaders was that and I quote generally “most lay leadership was a consequence of their philanthropic contributions. Your leadership, Isi, is also philanthropic, but primarily intellectual.

I grateful to Isi for giving me this opportunity to take this journey into his amazing life, to Naomi for being such a supportive life partner, to his son Jonathan for his assistance and enthusiasm, to my editor Elliot Jager who contributed so much to the book, to Judith Landau, Isi’s PA for all her willing help and patience, and to my own children – my daughter and grandchildren in Sydney accepting my long trips to Israel, and my son Benjy, now with his new wife, for all his support and assistance.”

Two videos were shown. One a tribute to Isi Leibler from former Prime Minister John Howard and an interview with Isi conducted by Ehud Yaari.

Suzanne concluded by saying: “May we all be inspired by Isi’s battle to keep fighting for human rights and the well-being of Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael.”

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