The Powerbroker: Mark Leibler, An Australian Jewish Life

August 4, 2020 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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My first response when I picked up this book was how appropriate it was that a University Press named after one of Australia’s greatest Jews should publish a book about one of contemporary Australian Jewry’s most powerful, and most important Jews.

Much has already been written about this book in both the Jewish and secular press and hopefully, this review will not replicate those words.

Ignoring what is written in this book for a moment, I always had the impression that Mark was the quieter and the more measured of the two Leibler brothers. When I was growing up his brother Isi was always the one in the Jewish press especially in the days first of the tension between the Jewish communities of Melbourne and Sydney and what appeared to be the rotating Presidency of the ECAJ- two years Isi would be president followed by Joachim Scheeweiss from Sydney. Isi was also one of the faces in the campaign for Soviet Jewry. Mark always seemed to me to be the quieter, more measured one. I had the image, and memory, of the two brothers sitting next to each other at Mizrahi synagogue in Melbourne.

As I looked at this book, and much of its publicity initially I had the impression that Mark’s life function in three (public) silos- taxation, Israel and Multicultural/Indigenous issues. Mt first desire in reading this book was to discern if they remained silos or more interestingly how he brought them together.

This is a man who clearly has an impact on others. The book was launched by Julia Gillard- a person who would not share a similar political position but she notes that regardless of all other things Liebler displayed “a care and concern about me as a human being.” The quote on the front cover is by the indigenous leader Noel Pearson which reflects another person who many would think would not be comfortable ‘bed-fellows’.

Mark Leibler

Mark is one of the founders of the law firm ABL [Arnold, Bloch and Leibler] and he was known for his knowledge and contribution to issues relating to taxation. In fact, he has been a confidant of every Federal Treasurer since John Howard in 1981 and the bottom of the harbour tax fiasco. ABL is estimated to be an adviser to many of the BRW’s top 200 people. ABL was built on the remarkable success of Jewish refugees, survivors of the Shoah, who within a couple of decades of their arrival had become wealthy and in many cases “beyond their wildest dreams”. There is an interesting section on how Mark split with Arnold Bloch and sadly the consequences for both families till this day. Also, of interest is how ABL not only survived the split but has grown since. When the split occurred 5 of the 6 partners was Jewish but if the notices in the AFR are to believed it is a diverse, multicultural company today which also reflects one of Mark’s commitments to a diverse Australia [in particular building bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians]

The impression I held, prior to reading this book was that Mark was the ‘quieter’ of the two brothers. Perhaps it was, as Gawenda does suggest that Mark preferred not to go into areas where Isi had already established himself, for Isi was 9 years older. What did surprise me is that there is a third brother, Allan who is the youngest and who has chosen not to take a role in Jewish community leadership. Isi took on the communal role, such as the Board of Deputies and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry while Mark focused his attentions on Zionist causes, both the religious Zionists (and in particular the Mizrahi movement) as well as the State Zionist Council. The reality was that there was a time when the brothers came almost to blows over Israel and to say that the air was tense between them in the early 1990s is an understatement.

One of the annoyances for this reviewer, especially in the first six or seven chapters, was Gawanda’s use of Australian Jewry when in reality in most cases he was writing of Melbourne or Victorian Jewry. Coming from Sydney there was much I did not recognise in his descriptions. Melbourne was, especially after the arrival of the Holocaust survivors almost homogenous of those with origins in Poland and Lithuania and the leadership almost all from survivor backgrounds by the Yom Kippur War.

That is not to say that Sydney Jewry was all nice and peaceful but many of the internecine skirmishes of Melbourne were not experiences in Sydney. At least not until the Yom Kippur War and in the years afterwards the emergence of first the Begin government in Israel as well as less commitment to Israel’s Labor party as well as disaffection with the ALP beginning in the Whitlam years and evolving through Bill Hayden’s tenure as Leader and finally with Bob Carr’s sojourn as Foreign Minister.

Mark’s involvement in the Indigenous issues really began when the late Ron Castan QC asked him, through ABL, to become involved in the Yorta Yorta Indigenous land claim. When Howard was PM, he asked Leibler to chair Reconciliation Australia. He is a strong advocate for Indigenous recognition in the Constitution which is reflected in his serving as Co‑Chair of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.

As I read this book I asked myself whether it will again be possible for quite young people like both Isi and Mark Leibler to be the future leaders of our communities.

This book is a solid read. It is stated that it is an unauthorized biography even though Gawenda did interview Leibler a number of times. It is an important contribution to our understanding not only of Australian Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century but continues to be written for Mark is a vigorous man who is yet to attain the Psalmist’s promise “by reason of strength, eighty years.”

Author: Michael Gawenda

Publisher: Monash University Publishing, 2020 365 pages

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is a clinical researcher. He has been Associate Professor in Notre Dame’s School of Medicine; Visiting Senior Research Fellow at UNSW Medicine; CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum; and Director of Pastoral Resources, Missouri’s Department of Mental Health.


One Response to “The Powerbroker: Mark Leibler, An Australian Jewish Life”
  1. Miriam Rosenman says:

    What a disappointing review of a most amazing biography of an extraordinary man. As I read this book ( which by the way I could not put down) I firstly felt enormous pride that a Jewish communal leader had done more than most to further the aspirations of indigenous people. Noel Pearson’s descriptions of what Mark Leibler taught him with regard to advancing the cause of indigenous people are just inspirational.
    Secondly as a woman I again took pride in what Julia Gillard had to say about Mark. He is of a generation that where one might not have expected him to treat her with such equality.

    Surely whether Michael Gawenda refers correctly to the Melb community and not the Jewish community is of trivial importance. Who really cares which brother was more famous or if they had a falling out or that there is a third brother. This again trivializes the book but more importantly the man.

    I certainly would not be tempted to read the book after this review – this is a pity because I think it is a page turner as Michael Gawenda has done an excellent job in this portrait.

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