Let My People Go: The untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-1989
By Sam Lipski & Suzanne D. Rutland
RRP – $29.95
Reviewed by Gerard Henderson
LET MY PEOPLE GO
Let My People Go is not only an untold story about Australia and the Soviet Jews in the four decades between 1959 (when the Cold War was at its height) and 1989 (when the Berlin Wall came down and European communism collapsed). It is also a big story from an Australian – and especially Melbourne – point of view.
Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland’s book was reviewed favourably in The Weekend Australian on 4 April 2015. However, so far at least, it has not been chosen for review by Jason Steger – the Melbourne’s Age’s British-born literary editor. This could be due to the fact that Mr Steger has a limited understanding of Australian history in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Or it could reflect The Age’s move to the Green/Left in recent decades and its failure to focus on the attainments of conservatives and social democrats alike. Even those from Melbourne, Victoria.
It is not often that Australia plays an important role in the events of the Northern Hemisphere, outside of military conflict. Yet in the period between 1959 and 1989 Australia helped to obtain the release of around one million Jews from the Soviet Union – many of whom settled in Israel, the most prominent being Natan Sharansky. Sharansky (born 1948) was a founder of the Soviet dissident movement referred to as Refuseniks.
Most of the Australians involved in this campaign were Melbourne based at the time – namely Liberal Party politician Malcolm Fraser, trade union leader and later Labor MP Bob Hawke, businessman and Jewish community leader Isi Leibler and journalist Sam Lipski. Other prominent Melburnians to make an appearance in Let My People Go are Robert Menzies, B.A. Santamaria, Arthur Calwell, Bernie Taft, Judah Waten and Sam Cohen. Menzies and Santamaria were supportive of Soviet Jewry. One time Labor leader Calwell and pro-communists Waten and Cohen were sympathetic to the communist leadership in Moscow.
Yet this was an Australian story as well. On 3 April 1962, William (Billy) Charles Wentworth, the Liberal MP for Mackellar in Sydney, directed a question in the House of Representatives to the Minister for External Affairs, Sir Garfield Barwick. Wentworth asked Barwick whether there had been an increase in anti-semitism in the Soviet Union inspired by Soviet authorities. Barwick responded that there were some indications that this was the case and that he would follow up the matter.
This exchange in the House of Representatives led to a chain of events whereby Australia became the first nation to raise the issue of Soviet Jewry in the United Nations. As the authors of Let My People Go point out, Australia took the lead in framing Soviet anti-Semitism “as a human rights issue”. They add: “Canberra may not have immediately grasped what it had done, but Moscow certainly did.”
The driver of this campaign was Isi Leibler – who was born in Antwerp in 1934, studied at Melbourne High School and the University of Melbourne and founded Jet Set Travel in 1965. Leibler found opponents among his fellow Jews. Sometimes because of turf wars for influence (with, for example, Marcus Einfield in Sydney) and sometimes because sections of the Jewish left admired the communist regime in Moscow (for example, the Labor senator Sam Cohen) and Communist Party members Bernie Taft and Judah Waten.
Yet, over the years, Leibler managed to stitch together a diverse political group in support of his cause. It included such Liberals as Barwick, Menzies, Fraser, Wentworth, George Hannan, plus such Catholic anti-communists as the National Civic Council’s B.A. Santamaria and the Democratic Labor Party’s Jack Kane and such Labor supporters as Hawke, Joan Child and John Wheeldon.
Labor’s Gough Whitlam did not take up the cause. Indeed, when prime minister, Whitlam demonstrated a certain hostility to Israel and that nation’s supporters in Australia. At a breakfast at the Chevron Hotel in May 1974 (organised by the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies) Whitlam reacted to several questions critical of Australia’s position on the Middle East by declaring with condescension aplenty: “You people are hard to please.” As the authors comment, at this event Whitlam burnt “his political bridges with the Jews”.
The campaign to free Soviet Jewry had three parts. First there were demonstrations and lobbying in Australia. This co-incided with similar activity in other nations, most notably the United States. Then there was diplomatic action – at the United Nations and through normal international channels. Ted Pocock, Australia’s ambassador to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, was particularly effective in advancing Australia’s case. Finally, there were trips to the Soviet Union by the likes of Leibler and Hawke.
Hawke’s 1979 visit – when he was ACTU president, before he entered politics – was most notable. Hawke was led to believe – or led himself to believe – that he had achieved the emancipation of Soviet Jews. Leibler, who was not in Moscow at the time, doubted this. It soon became evident that Hawke, who was drinking heavily at the time, had been conned by the Soviet Union’s communist leadership.
Leibler, who met Hawke at Rome Airport after he left Moscow, recorded the occasion as follows:
Hawke had blanks in his memory. He was unable to sit up in the car, and…the combination of alcohol, physical stress in both Australia and Israel combined with the emotional impact of meeting the refuseniks has made him fall apart. I am terribly concerned.
Hawke entered Parliament in 1980 and continued to support Soviet Jewry as prime minister. However, he used the occasion of a celebration at the Melbourne Arts Centre in May 1988 – which was attended by 15 former Refuseniks who Mikhail Gorbachev had allowed to leave the Soviet Union some months earlier – to criticise Israel. Liberal Party MP John Howard spoke first – he praised Hawke’s role in supporting the Refuseniks’ cause and also expressed pride at the Liberal Party’s record on Soviet Jewry, Israel and the Jewish community.
Then it was the prime minister’s turn. Initially Hawke celebrated the Refuseniks’ release but then criticised Israel. In a surprising over-statement he linked “the Palestinian in the Occupied Territories” with “the Jew in the Soviet Union and the black in South Africa”. All, Hawke declared, had aspirations to be truly free.
This was hardly the occasion for Hawke to qualify his long-term support for Israel. Leibler told Hawke after the event that he was obsessed with believing that he could make history and resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. A few years later, Hawke imagined that he might be a negotiator between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) and the Bush administration. Both stances were inherently naïve.
However, in an interview with Sam Lipski, Hawke looked back in happiness at his role as a supporter of Israel. In 2010 Hawke told Lipski:
The Cabinet knew my position [on Soviet Jewry] and they respected that. It was never an issue at the cabinet level. One interesting point was that [Paul] Keating came in one time and he said: “Alright for you, and your Jewish mates in Israel. But I’ve got a whole lot of Muslims in my electorate and it doesn’t help me.” And I said, “Well, Paul, I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way it is, mate.”
As the cliché goes, success has many fathers. Fortunately, Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland do not exaggerate the influence of Australia on the fact that thousands of Jews were able to leave the Soviet Union before the collapse of Soviet communism.
Obviously the courageous Refuseniks played their part within the Soviet Union. In the United States, Democratic Party Senator Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson in the early 1970s put economic pressure on Moscow to release Jews from the Soviet Union. And the various US administrations played a role at times. Moreover, Jewish organisations in the US were in the forefront.
The point is not that Australia freed the Soviet Jews. But that Australians played a key role in the process. In particular, the Menzies government’s early support for Soviet Jewry encouraged the government of Israel to take up the cause – previously it had been reluctant to do so, thinking that such action might be counterproductive.
It’s not surprising that in Australia there was much disputation within the small Jewish community as alliances were formed and broken over strategy and tactics. At one time the anti-communist Melbourne University Frank Knopfelmacher rowed with the anti-communist Leibler, both had once been friends.
During a television debate, Leibler dismissed Knopfelmacher’s criticisms of his tactics with respect to the Soviet Union. The Melbourne University academic was not prepared to be lectured at by the chairman of Jet Set Travel and responded with reference to the Jewish born philosopher Baruch Spinoza who clashed with Jewish leaders:
Well, you see, at least Spinoza was excommunicated by learned rabbis. I’ve been excommunicated by a travel agent.
Let My People Go concludes with Sam Lipski’s accounts of two meetings – one in Moscow, the other in Melbourne.
In September 1987 Sam Lipski and his wife, the singer Aura Lipski, along with Isi and Naomi Leibler met up with a group of Refuseniks in Moscow – around the time of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah). It was an occasion of religious celebration along with some political activity. The Australian party met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Andrei Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner – the former had just returned to Moscow after six years of “internal exile” in Gorky. A couple of years after this visit, over a million Soviet Jews were allowed to fly direct to Tel Aviv – one of the greatest mass migrations of the 20th Century.
In 1999 Sam Lipski met Mikhail Gorbachev during his visit to Australia. The meeting took place at Raheen in Melbourne, the home of Richard Pratt and Jeanne Pratt. Sam and Aura Lipski took the occasion to thank the former leader of the Soviet Union for allowing Jews to leave. Though an interpreter, Gorbachev replied as follows:
Thank you, I never wanted them to leave. They were our most educated people. We had invested so much in them. We needed them. I wanted them to stay. We lost so much when they left us. But I had no choice. The world wouldn’t let us keep them.
One of the reasons why the world would not let the Soviet Union continue to prevent its Jewish citizens from leaving turned on the role of a small number of Australian Jews, Christians and agnostics alike. At last, the story is documented in Let My People Go.
Gerard Henderson is the Executive Director of The Sydney Institute, a columnist with The Weekend Australian and author of the weekly blog Media Watch Dog. His most recent book is Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man, MUP, 2015