The Jerusalem Post
Our finest hour
‘Many prisoners,” wrote in 1650 the Jews of Istanbul to the Jews of Venice, “multitude after multitude,” they said of the victims of the Khmelnytsky massacres whom they saw herded in the Ottoman bazaar’s slave market en route to customers in Algeria, Egypt and Iran.
Determined to redeem the captives, the Jews of Istanbul now sparked an intercontinental fundraising drive.
“Our heart aches,” wrote the Jews of Venice to the Jews of Frankfurt, “our brethren’s voice reaches us from a distant land,” while a community leader in Padua wrote: “Our brethren... from Poland, who were led to Persia in iron chains... are screaming and begging... for their salvation... we hear them... we will help them” (Israel Halpern, “Capture and Redemption of Captives... 1648-1660,” Zion, Fall 1960).
Jewish solidarity was thus globalized, in a way that would prove useful repeatedly. In 1745, for instance, Ottoman banker Yehuda Baruch averted the expulsion of the Jews of Prague by convincing Sultan Mehmet I to threaten Empress Maria Therese with an invasion. In 1840 prominent Jews from France and Britain undid a blood libel in Damascus.
Alas, such heroes of Jewish solidarity merely treated the symptoms of Jewish vulnerability, never even trying to treat it at the root, a historic failure that culminated in Jewish solidarity’s woeful ineffectiveness during the Holocaust.
Only once in their history did the Jews properly confront an anti-Jewish power. That power was the Soviet Union, and the Jews who confronted it were unsung heroes like Australian businessman and Jerusalem Post columnist Isi Leibler, who died this week in Jerusalem at age 86.
BORN IN prewar Belgium, Leibler arrived in Australia as a child and was recruited in 1960 by the Mossad while a student in Jerusalem. As with the Jews of 17th-century Istanbul, there was no need to explain to him the cause or convince him to sacrifice. He quickly became obsessed.
The Mossad was installing activists throughout the West in order to agitate public opinion. Leibler’s realm was Australia, and he would win it over methodically, turning first to the Jews and the media.
The Jews were captured through public events wisely scheduled for meaningful dates, like August 12, the anniversary of Stalin’s murder in 1952 of 13 prominent Jews. The media’s attention was caught by the Cold War context and the steady growth of Leibler’s audiences.
From the media Leibler proceeded to officialdom, aided by the growing success of the travel agency he established.
To capture the politicians, Leibler approached all parties, including the communists, thus turning Soviet Jewry into a consensual cause, and while at it also benefiting from the communists’ ties in Moscow. In 1962, hardly two years after he joined the cause, Leibler convinced his government to decry Soviet Jewry’s plight at the United Nations.
The struggle thus internationalized, Leibler now took it to clergy. Faced with the 1970 death sentences given to Jews who planned to hijack an airplane from Leningrad to Tel Aviv, Leibler called on all faiths to join Australia’s Jews in a week of prayer, a call that was duly heeded.
The struggle now transcended faith, after having already been joined by conservatives and communists, academia and unions, newspapers and television, and of course any Jewish outfit, from synagogues and schools to men’s clubs and sisterhoods, while spilling to the streets with pickets and vigils wherever Soviet officials could be found, beginning with their embassy.
Leibler, by then the owner of Australia’s largest travel agency, now took the struggle to high politics, by enlisting Bob Hawke, the future prime minister. It was Australian Jewry’s continuation of American Jewry’s inspiration of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which tied Soviet-American trade to Soviet immigration policy.
By 1980 the Soviets saw in Leibler a problem. That is why they tried to torpedo his assignment as the Australian delegation’s official travel agent to the Moscow Olympics, first by withholding the athletes’ visas, and then by detaining Leibler in Moscow, claiming all too rightly that his business trip was but an excuse to meet with and inspire Jewish activists.
A DECADE later, Leibler’s 30-year struggle ended abruptly, peacefully, and with astonishing success: Soviet Jewry was freed, communism vanished, the Soviet Union collapsed, and its successor reconciled with the Jewish state.
No, the Jewish people did not bring to this showdown anything quite like the arms, landmass, demographics and natural resources that made up the Soviet imperium.
Instead, it brought the age-old value and instinct of Jewish solidarity, stirring into action politicians, diplomats, priests, journalists, literati, scientists, jurists, and students through a global movement of volunteers who gave the cause of Soviet Jewry their best years.
Like the Jews of Istanbul in 1650 they sacrificed for Jews they had never met; like the Jews of Padua they said “we hear them” and “we will help them,” and like the Jews of Venice they said “our brethren’s voice reaches us from a distant land.”
Yes, they were all “their brothers’ keepers,” yet the activists for Soviet Jewry’s liberation did not merely redeem their brethren, and they did not merely undo an evil empire’s policy; they helped defeat that empire itself.
The Jewish nation celebrates many victories, from the Exodus through the Maccabean wars to the resurrection
Isi Leibler played first violin in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Jewish people’s greatest political victory since the Exodus
of the Jewish state. Never, however, did the Jewish people defeat anything quite as formidable as the Soviet Union.
Nor was any other Jewish struggle as Jewish as the war for Soviet Jewry, whether in its cause, geography or troops, a multitude of self-conscripted soldiers with no training, arms or high command; soldiers like Isi Leibler, who lived his last decades in Jerusalem, where he hobnobbed daily with Russian immigrants who had no idea how much of their liberty they owed to his enterprise, resolve, and consummately Jewish heart.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.