Australian Notes

Australian notes

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

Where can the ALP turn? As the NSW election made plain, the Coalition occupies the reforming Centre and the Greens are taking over the Left. The result in NSW is that Labor suffered its second worst defeat in 100 years. What does it rely on now? Sinophobia?

‘I had no idea you are such a great Jew!’ said Michael Josselson (who then ran the Congress for Cultural Freedom from Geneva) to his friend Richard Krygier (who ran the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom from Sydney.) Taken aback Krygier asked: ‘What do you mean? I am not a great Jew.’ ‘Your huge passion for Soviet Jews,’ replied Josselson (who was himself a Jew, originally from Estonia; Krygier was from Poland.) The period was fifty or so years ago and Krygier had just shown Josselson the booklets on Soviet anti-Semitism written by Isi Leibler of Melbourne. He urged Josselson to distribute hundreds of copies throughout the international Cultural Freedom network. ‘I’m not doing this only for the Jews,’ said Krygier. ‘It’s because exposing the viciousness of Soviet treatment of Jews will help bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union.’ In the end he won Josselson over. I vividly recall him telling me about this exchange when he returned to Sydney. It does not appear in the absorbing new book by Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland Let My People Go. The Untold Story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89 (Hybrid). But it illustrates the state of opinion in the 1960s before everything began to change.

The anecdote takes us back to the time when there was no vast worldwide interest in the fate of Jews behind the Iron Curtain. When the Nobellist Elie Wiesel wrote his path-breaking The Jews of Silence in 1966 his title did not refer to the Soviet Union but to the West where Jews still appeared to take inadequate interest in the fate of Jews elsewhere. How all this changed and Australia’s role in the change is the subject of the Lipski and Rutland book. (To cut a long story short Rutland researched and drafted the book and Lipski rewrote it, sometimes in first-personal mode.)

The drama begins in 1959 when the ‘Bureau’ in Israel recruited Isi Leibler. His assignment was to make contacts among Soviet Jews (there were three million) and support them against Soviet oppression, especially by publicising their plight in international forums. It ends thirty years later when 3000 Jews assembled in Melbourne’s Concert Hall to celebrate Gorbachev’s liberation of Jewish refuseniks (and the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.) Lipski writes: ‘I still recall clearly the pride, elation and tears, as each of the refuseniks spoke.’

The story ranges widely. Front and centre was always Leibler, but it includes all the big names from Bill Wentworth and ‘Gar’ Barwick to Sam Cohen and Syd Einfeld, among many others. The 1979 Report of Senator John Wheeldon’s Parliamentary committee on ‘Human Rights in the Soviet Union’ was a ‘landmark’ exposure, and his anti-Soviet preface remains ‘a neglected masterpiece of Australian political writing.’ (I see that even I, a tiny bit player, get a tick in passing: Referring to the Bulletin of 1962, Lipski writes ‘Coleman’s initiative to take up the Soviet Jewry issue was an important turning-point in the campaign.’ News to me.)

But Lipski also tells in detail the headline case of Bob Hawke and the sad fiasco of his interventions in Moscow in 1979. Drunk and exhausted he brought himself to believe that he had persuaded the Soviet authorities to release all ‘prisoners of Zion’ and allow the refuseniks to emigrate to Israel. It was, he thought, the greatest success of his life. He wept as he rang Leibler: ‘We’ve done it, Isi. We’ve achieved the unbelievable.’ But he had been conned. Nothing changed. Hawke in despair said he contemplated suicide. Fortunately soon afterwards he gave up alcohol and began his amazing parliamentary career.

He did not abandon his involvement with Soviet Jewry, Israel or the Middle East. He remained convinced that he was one of the few world leaders who could settle the Israel-Palestine issue. He also retained the cautious goodwill of Australian Jews. (He had once declared: ‘I am an Israeli. If I were to have my life again, I would want to be born a Jew.’) He only began to lose it with his fateful speech in the Concert Hall in 1988, noted above, when he compared the Soviet Jews to the Palestinians. ‘We may be witnessing again,’ he said, ‘after thousands of years, a giant, eyeless in Gaza…’ According to Lipski, the audience came close to booing. As Leibler put it later: ‘Hawke has illusions of grandeur and is obsessed with a belief that he is destined to achieve a peace settlement in the Middle East.’Whatever the setbacks in this story over a million Jews were finally able to emigrate from the old Soviet Union and settle in Israel (and Australia.) It’s a great international story in which Australia played a significant part over 30 years.

The April issue of Quadrant carries a fine article on Gallipoli by Laurie Hergenhan. He counsels Australians against organized tours. He and his daughter, travelling alone, booked seats on an ordinary bus, stayed overnight at an ordinary hotel, and hired their own guide. Gazing out at the Aegean Sea, he concluded: ‘At Gallipoli I felt a sense of peace more palpable than invoked in many Gallipoli memorials and commemorations in Australia. The peacefulness was heightened by the atmosphere of the scrubby, undeveloped landscape … looking much the same as it had done for hundreds of years.’

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