THE POWER BROKER: MARK LEIBLER AN AUSTRALIAN JEWISH LIFE by Michael Gawenda
Monash University Publishing 2020
RRP: $44.95 (HB)
DATELINE JERUSALEM: JOURNALISM’S TOUGHEST ASSIGNMENT By John Lyons
Monash University Publishing 2021
RRP: $19.95 (PB)
Reviewed by Gerard Henderson
Michael Gawenda is a former editor of The Age in Melbourne. John Lyons is a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and currently Head of Investigative Journalism at the ABC. In recent years, both have written books which cover the Melbourne solicitor Mark Leibler – senior partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler law firm which is based in Melbourne. The Power Broker is an unauthorised biography. Dateline Jerusalem is a polemical booklet, the current manifestation of the political pamphlet of old.
Gawenda uses his account of Leibler’s life with reference to the story of the Jewish community in Australia – which currently numbers about 120,000 – based overwhelmingly in Melbourne and Sydney. The author and his subject came from different traditions within the Australian Jewish community – or, as Gawenda puts it, both “have lived in different Jewish Australian worlds”.
Michael Gawenda (born 1947) comes from the left-wing, or social democratic tradition, of the Bund. This was the international Jewish workers’ party – a movement in Eastern Europe before the Second World War. It was socialist, secular and opposed to Zionism (Zionists wanted to establish, or re-establish, a Jewish state in the area known as Palestine). Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Bund supporters were murdered by the Nazis before and mainly during the Second World War. After arriving in Melbourne in the mid-1940s, Gawenda’s parents became lifelong supporters of the Australian Labor Party.
Mark Leibler (born 1943), on the other hand, grew up in the Mizrachi community which is profoundly Zionist and of the Orthodox Jewish faith. In one of the several interviews for the book, Leibler said, “I am an Orthodox Jew and Zionist” but he conceded that “the world is changing, the Jewish world is changing” on such social issues as marriage and divorce. He added “I think the powers of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel are too great and the way the powers are exercised is often appalling”.
Mark’s parents Abraham Leibler and Rachel Leibler (nee Akermann) arrived in Australia from Antwerp in the late 1930s. He came to conduct business as a diamond dealer and arrived in Australia in June 1939. She was a refugee who fled an anticipated Nazi attack on Europe’s Jews. Rachel’s parents were murdered in Auschwitz. Gawenda’s parents arrived in Australia from Poland via the Soviet Union and a displaced persons camp in Austria in the late 1940s. Both Gawenda and Leibler are the sons of Holocaust survivors.
Mark Leibler has enjoyed a brilliant career as a solicitor and became a partner in Arnold Bloch Leibler specialising in taxation, as a prominent Jewish activist in various organisations – particularly as head of the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) and, later national chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) – and in recent decades as an advocate of Indigenous causes in Australia. Gawenda writes, Leibler’s “influence far exceeds his public profile”.
Influence is the correct word here. Leibler is a most influential Australian across a range of issues. For example, he has enjoyed warm relations with former Australian prime ministers – Labor’s Paul Keating and Julia Gillard and the Liberal Party’s John Howard. But to John Lyons, writing in his Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment, Leibler and AIJAC executive director Colin Rubenstein exercise “unadulterated power”. They don’t – but are influential, nevertheless. Sometimes the words “power” and “influence” are used interchangeably – but “unadulterated power” is something else.
Gawenda’s work The Power Broker is what a biography should be – critical but sympathetic. He has this to say about Mark and his older brother Isi Leibler (1934-2021):
Even their most loyal supporters would agree that the Leibler brothers played their politics [in the Jewish community] hard, that they were always up for a fight, and that they could be vicious about and towards their opponents. They made enemies. They regularly fell out with people; indeed, in the early 1990s, they fell out with each other.
Unlike John Lyons, Michael Gawenda recognises that it “would be unfair to quote anonymous” sources. However, Gawenda cites the view of one anonymous source whom he regards as a person of integrity who has no revenge agenda against Leibler:
The Leibler brothers are brilliant, no doubt about it, and there is no doubting their contribution to the Australian Jewish community. Mark has an incredible intellect, with the ability to immediately recognise the substantive issues. He was a brilliant leader, responsible for building the ZFA into the pre-eminent Jewish organisation in Australia. There is, however, a massive vicious streak running through the genes of both brothers.
In response to this comment, Mark Leibler conceded that he might have been angry at times when he was younger and that he had sometimes played politics hard. But he maintained that any such conflicts had always been about policy differences which had turned on which organisation should speak for the Jewish community. And there were disputes of a business nature, not unusual in the world of business.
In short, The Power Broker is no hagiography. The author details Mark Leibler’s disputes with Arnold Bloch who set up what became Arnold Bloch Leibler. Essentially, Bloch decided to leave the partnership but wanted to use the Bloch name in a consultancy in a way that Leibler believed would be disadvantageous to the partners who remained at the firm. Mark’s fallout with Isi turned on Isi’s insistence that the Zionist Federation of Australia should focus on Israel and leave matters directly affecting the Australian Jewish community to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which Isi headed.
Gawenda describes this as a “brutal conflict between Australia’s two most significant Jewish organisations and between its leaders”. In time, personal relations between Mark and Isi were restored and the brothers got on well until Isi’s death in Israel in April 2021. However, Mark never conceded that the role of the ZFA should be restricted in the way that Isi had believed should be the case. Isi’s most significant achievement on the international stage was his role in bringing about a situation where Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union when it was still a communist dictatorship. Most settled in Israel.
Over the last couple of decades, Mark Leibler’s focus has been on Indigenous affairs and here he has played an important role in supporting Indigenous leaders like Noel Pearson – who wrote an endorsement for The Power Broker. In recent times, Leibler has lent considerable support to the Uluru Statement from the Heart which was endorsed by Aborigines throughout Australia in May 2017.
For the most part, Leibler’s involvement in this non-Jewish cause has not been controversial. Unlike his role as the national chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Early in Chapter 1, Gawenda cites the criticisms made by Kevin Rudd (when he was prime minister and subsequently foreign minister) and Bob Carr (when he was foreign minister in the Gillard Labor government) of AIJAC and what is called the Israel Lobby. As Gawenda puts it:
…Both Rudd and Carr came to believe that Leibler and the “Israel Lobby”, as they called it and which Leibler led, was a malign force in Australian politics, one that distorted Australia’s policies on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and turned many politicians and journalists into the Lobby’s puppets, or, to use Carr’s word, “poodles”.
Certainly, AIJAC in general and Leibler in particular have significant influence. For example, working through (then) Labor foreign minister Bill Hayden – and to a lesser extent (then) Labor prime minister Bob Hawke – Leibler was involved in Australia’s role in having the United Nations rescind UN Resolution 3379. Introduced in 1975, Resolution 3379 stated that Zionism is a form of racism.
Before Australia’s involvement in taking up the issue in the United Nations, it was necessary to get a resolution to this effect through the Labor caucus (where Hayden led the way) and the House of Representatives and the Senate in late 1986. Before Leibler engaged with Hayden over this issue, Hayden had been a critic of Israel. The motion was supported by the Coalition led by John Howard in Opposition. The United States Congress subsequently adopted a very similar resolution. In December 1991, Resolution 3379 was rescinded by Resolution 46/86 in the United Nations Assembly.
Leibler’s initiative in the mid-1980s indicated that he had significant influence – but no more than that. At the time, Hawke was prime minister and Howard opposition leader and most Australians were supportive of Israel. Over three decades later, the situation has changed – due primarily to opposition to Israel’s policies from the Greens and the Labor left – although such critics of Israel as Rudd, Carr and former foreign minister Gareth Evans are not members of Labor’s left faction.
It is widely known that Rudd has blamed News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch for the fact that he lost the support of his Labor Party colleagues and was replaced by Julia Gillard as ALP leader and, consequently, prime minister in June 2010. The Power Broker reveals that Rudd also believes that Leibler was somehow responsible for Gillard defeating him to become prime minister in 2010. This is absolute tosh. Rudd lost the support of the majority of Labor parliamentarians in the caucus room – that’s all.
Likewise, the suggestion by Rudd and Carr that, when in office, Leibler threatened them to change the Labor government’s policies – with some success. As Gawenda comments, “the idea that a Jewish leader, even a tough one like Leibler, could intimidate or seriously threaten politicians like Carr or Rudd seems far-fetched”.
Likewise the theory that, under AIJAC’s Rambam Israel Fellowship scheme, which pays for visits to Israel by politicians and journalists/commentators, AIJAC somehow brings about a situation where informed Australians are turned into “poodles”. The fact is that sections of the Australian media – including the ABC, Nine Newspapers’ The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, SBS and The Guardian Australia – carry much criticism of Israel. As Gawenda acknowledges, when editor of The Age, he was frequently criticised by AIJAC concerning the newspaper’s Middle-East coverage. Gawenda writes that the experience “can be bracing to say the least”. But this did not change The Age’s coverage of Israel.
Gawenda wonders, at times, whether AIJAC’s advocacy is so strident that it becomes counter-productive. Moreover, he raises the issue that “if the AIJAC and Israel Lobby were so powerful”, how was it that the 2018 Labor Party national conference could pass a resolution “supporting the official recognition of Palestine as a state, when AIJAC and Leibler opposed the resolution”, Carr did not respond to Gawenda’s request for an interview on this issue.
AIJAC does not prevail with respect to all its causes – but it does lobby with considerable success. The point is that if the Jewish community of some 120,000 Australians can present, often successfully, its cause to Australian politicians – why not the much larger Arab community? As Julia Gillard told Gawenda:
I think it would be fair to say that those who would want to put an alternate view, Australians of Palestinian heritage or people with a particular sympathy for the Palestinian cause, have not been as good over time at developing those political networks. I hope they do because it’s best if decision makers hear from all sides of the debate.
When asked about the influence of AIJAC and Leibler on her during her prime ministership, Julia Gillard had this to say:
I was always open to hearing different views, but people make their own choices, and you don’t fall from the sky in making those choices. You are an inheritor of a political tradition. I was very conscious of being a Labor prime minister, of being an inheritor of what I think is a very precious political tradition and that political tradition is one of support for Israel and advocacy for a two-state solution. The actions I took as prime minister were in line with that long-term inherited Labor wisdom and tradition.
The point here is that both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party have been strong supporters of the right of Israel to exist within secure borders over the decades since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. AIJAC is an Australian Jewish organisation which lobbies in support of Israel – whether the Coalition or Labor is in office. The relationship between the Australian government and the Australian Jewish community has only been under significant stress when Gough Whitlam was prime minister in the early 1970s. This followed a meeting when the then prime minister referred to Jewish Australians as “you people”. For the most part, however, successive Australian governments have been broadly supportive of Israel for over seven decades.
According to Gawenda, Leibler has mellowed somewhat in recent years. However, very few Jewish Australians who are critical of Leibler went on the record for this book – with the notable exception of the Melbourne-based academic Mark Baker.
The author had access to all the material in Leibler’s extensive archive – including correspondence. But The Power Broker is more than the study of one of Australia’s most influential Jews. It also provides a snapshot into a community which has produced some many successful men and women – of which the extended Leibler family is one example.
John Lyons’ Dateline Jerusalem provides an insight into what currently passes for editorial standards at the ABC where the author is a senior executive. Dateline Jerusalem is essentially an attack on the alleged influence of AIJAC and, in particular, Mark Leibler and Colin Rubenstein. Yet Lyons did not interview either man when writing his booklet. Moreover, Dateline Jerusalem contains numerous exaggerations and unchecked errors. Also, it relies substantially on anonymous sources.
For a detailed critique of Dateline Jerusalem see the editorial in Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog blog (Issue 563, 15 October 2021) and the article dated 23 October 2021 by Allon Lee and Tzvi Fleischer in Fresh AIR titled “Some points everyone should understand about John Lyons’ new booklet, Dateline Jerusalem”. Fresh AIR is produced by AIJAC.
The essential problem with Dateline Jerusalem is not that it is a polemic (which it is), Rather, the problem is that it is essentially a hatchet job on Leibler, Rubenstein and AIJAC. Also Lyons’ work is self-centred in that it focuses on criticism which he alleges has been directed at him by what he regards as the Israel Lobby.
According to Lyons, he was called various names when working as The Australian’s foreign correspondent in Jerusalem by members of the Australian Jewish community. For example, he claimed that an “unnamed member of the Melbourne Jewish Community” wrote to him claiming that he was “Goebbels”. No name was named – so the claim cannot be checked. Also, Lyons alleges that critics of contemporary Israel are accused of anti-semitism. But he does not support the claim with any evidence.
Lyons asserts that AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein instructed journalists what they could not say about a private meeting with the then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2017. But he does not mention that the meeting, organised by the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, was designated as an off-the-record event. Consequently, Rubenstein was in no position to influence anyone on this issue. It seems that Lyons just made up this story, without the benefit of fact-checking.
Michael Gawenda recognises that Leibler has influence – he sometimes refers to this as “power”. But according to Lyons, Leibler and Rubenstein have “unadulterated power”. Lyons also asserts – without a scrap of evidence – that only Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan Murdoch and, wait for it, Colin Rubenstein can tell The Australian’s editor what to publish or not publish. This is arrant nonsense – a hyperbolic assertion bereft of evidence.
Dateline Jerusalem is replete with allegations about the Israel Lobby. Writing in the Crikey newsletter on 7 October 2021, Peter Fray (like Lyons, a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald) referred to the author’s “cold rage”. Fray commented: “Much of Lyons’ essay relies on anecdotes…a few more facts wouldn’t have gone astray.” He also pointed out that, in his booklet, Lyons “largely ignored the scores of hard-nosed reporting” done on and about Israel in the Australian media by the likes of Paul McGeough (SMH/Age), Sophie McNeill (ABC) and John Lyons himself (when at The Australian and in an ABC TV Four Corners program titled “Stone Cold Justice” program which he presented in February 2014).
What Dateline Jerusalem needed was a good editor who had the intellectual courage to stand up to the author – in order to check facts, provide evidence, reduce self-pity and abandon conspiracy theories and gross exaggerations. And a good editor would not have allowed a self-indulgent first paragraph like this one:
As someone who’d tried to avoid running most of my life, I was surprised to find myself, at the age of 52, pounding along the old railway track in Jerusalem, sweating under the Middle Eastern sun but determined to be ready for the prize fight. Over four months, I’d become the fittest I’d been since I was eighteen. I needed to be: I was about to face the full fury of Australia’s pro-Israel lobby. I was busy working on a story — “Stone Cold Justice” — as a guest reporter for Four Corners. I knew the hardline supporters in Australia of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories well enough to understand that this story would unleash a propaganda fatwa against me.
So there you have it. Once upon a time, John Lyons “found himself” running in Jerusalem and was “surprised” to have done so. This seems like an out-of-body experience. He claims that he needed to be physically fit in order to write an email or do an interview defending his reporting in what he describes as an anticipated “prize fight” with the Israel Lobby. He did not say why – except to imply that he needed to be fit to cope with the Israel Lobby’s “propaganda fatwa”. He does not say what this is. The evidence suggests that John Lyons has enjoyed a successful career in the Australian media – at The Australian, Channel 9, the Sydney Morning Herald and now at the ABC. This would have been impossible if the so-called Israel Lobby has unadulterated power to wage a so-called fatwa against him – as he claims.
Moreover, if the Israel Lobby really enjoyed unadulterated power – Lyons would not hold such a well-paid and influential role at the ABC. Like so many journalists, John Lyons is super-sensitive to criticism. However, the public decade in Australia is made stronger by the input of the likes of Mark Leibler and Colin Rubenstein.
Early in his unauthorised biography, Michael Gawenda has this to say:
Leibler is a man of contradictions. He is considered to be a political conservative, yet most of his closest relationships with politicians have been with Labor prime ministers. He is an Orthodox Jew who, nevertheless, publicly supported the yes case in Australia’s 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey. He is a lifelong Zionist who, as a Zionist leader, urged and encouraged Australian Jews to go and settle in Israel as the ultimate fulfillment of a Jewish life, yet he never did so himself. This is perhaps the greatest contradiction in the life Leibler has led.
One of the strengths of The Power Broker: An Australian Jewish Life is that such perceived contradictions are explained. The essential weakness of Dateline Jerusalem turns on the fact that its attack on the Israel Lobby is simplistic.
What the books of Mark Leibler and John Lyons have in common is that neither has an index. Monash University Press should be able to do better than this – especially for a non-fiction work like The Power Broker. Booklets do not require indexes – serious biographies do.
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Gerard Henderson is the executive director of The Sydney Institute. He is a friend of Mark Leibler and Colin Rubenstein and has enjoyed a professional relationship with John Lyons.