Australian Books

Telling it on the mountain

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Let My People Go: The untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89 Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland

Hybrid Publishers, pp.273, $29.95, ISBN: 9781925000856

As we stood on the threshold of the dacha outside Vladivostok, the Australian delegation paused. We had been monitoring Boris Yeltsin’s election of 1993, which followed hard upon his proroguing of the Russian Parliament by deploying tanks. The dacha was splendid; characterized by marble interiors; crystal chandeliers and skylights.Turning to our interpreter, from the Australian Embassy in Moscow, I said: ‘Tolya, in the days of the Soviets, this must’ve been a Party guesthouse’.

Wisely, our interpreter slowly shook his head: ‘No, Senator. This was a Government guesthouse’. This struck me as unlikely so I responded ‘Come on, Tolya. I remember the Soviets. This was a Party guesthouse’. Suppressing a grin, he replied deadpan: ‘Senator, in those days, everyone in the Soviet Union was a guest of the Party’.

Perhaps, but guest status never extended to Soviet Jewry, especially refuseniks who challenged Moscow directly by asserting their rights to emigrate freely to Israel, or to the US, Canada, or Australia, among other Western countries.

It is the plight of the refuseniks and Australians’ efforts to free them that is the core subject of this enlightening and purposeful new book. Lipski has been an outstanding journalist, editor, and producer for much of his professional life. Currently, he is CEO of The Pratt Foundation, and active in philanthropy. His co-writer Rutland is an accomplished writer on Australian Jewish history, and Professor of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. Together, they have sketched a tale of Australians’ honourable efforts, as part of an international campaign, to free Soviet Jewry during the Cold War from 1959 to 1989.

Historically, a deep stain of anti-Semitism ran through Imperial Russian history, reflected in recurring pogroms. Then, in 1948, when new Israeli Ambassador to Moscow, Golda Meir was welcomed at the Great Synagogue for Jewish New Year by a crowd of 50,000 Jewish Muscovites, Josef Stalin’s paranoia was triggered. Among those welcoming the Ambassador was Polina Molotova, wife of the Soviet Foreign Minister and herself Jewish. The authors record the consequences of this welcome:

Things did not go well, however, for Molotova. Just weeks after she met Meir, Stalin ordered her arrest for treason and she spent five years in the Gulag. Nor did things go well for Soviet Jews. Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore dates Stalin’s persecution of the Jews from the encounters with Meir:

The synagogue ‘demonstration’ and Polina’s Yiddish shtick outraged (Stalin)… confirming that Soviet Jews were becoming an American Fifth Column…

Repression ultimately became the norm. The KGB and the Gulag Archipelago were always grim realities for Jewish dissidents, as they were for all Soviet human rights campaigners. The central Australian figure in the international campaign was Isi Liebler, whose commitment never faltered and whose political contacts on both sides of the Australian aisle, and sometimes well beyond in to the ranks of the Communist Party of Australia through John Halfpenny, proved invaluable.

There are heroes, ranging from Sir Garfield Barwick who took the issue of Soviet repression of its Jewish citizens to the UN through to Malcolm Fraser and John Howard. On the Labor side, Bob Hawke stands out, especially during his period as President of the ACTU. His close personal relationship with Liebler was central to Hawke’s continuing focus on the plight of Soviet Jews. Other leading Labor MP’s, from Kim Beazley Sr. to John Wheeldon, also emerge with real credit.

But there are also villains, especially Senator Sam Cohen (ALP Vic), who should have demonstrated greater courage in the face of pressure from his colleagues on the Victorian Socialist Left of the Labor Party. Interestingly, it was none other than Gough Whitlam who once dismissed Cohen as being ‘torn between a conflict of disloyalties’. Regrettably, E.G. Whitlam does not cover himself in glory on this fundamental human rights question. The account of the infamous Chevron Hotel breakfast of 1974 charts the beginning of the strains in relations between Australian Jewry and the ALP. Traditionally, the ALP had been viewed through the prism of Arthur Calwell’s post-war immigration programme, which had welcomed many thousands of new Jewish citizens from war ravaged Europe. Relations were repaired in large measure during the Hawke years but even Bob Hawke and sections of the Jewish community fell out over the situation of the Palestinians. But few would be surprised to learn that the great villains in the Western campaign to free Soviet Jewry were to be found in the White House of Richard Nixon.

Under pressure in Congress, from legislators such as Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (Dem, Washington), Nixon and Kissinger showed their true colours on Soviet Jewry in the era of détente. White House tapes, released in 2010, are conclusive:

On one of the recordings, dated 1st March 1973, Nixon and Kissinger talked about Soviet Jews. Kissinger said: ‘The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.’ Nixon responded: ‘I know. We can’t blow up the whole world because of it’.

Actually, diplomacy was always to be preferred, whether it be Bob Hawke speaking quietly with Soviet leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, through to astute insistence on the application of the Helsinki Accords. The Accords had been signed for the USSR by Brezhnev, as the agreements appeared to acknowledge Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe. But it was the human rights clauses which proved to be the most significant. Pressure on the Soviets reached even in to the Gulag, and constituted an important element in Western soft power at the end of the Cold War.

Let My People Go carries its readers along on a sweep of Cold War diplomacy from great steps like the Jackson amendment to parliamentary reports and Freedom Rides in Canberra which sought to advance the cause. The authors offer an original Australian perspective on a human rights campaign of truly global significance. This book is carefully researched and its issues of substance are treated with the respect that those who suffered mightily in Soviet prisons and labour camps for their religion and for their beliefs, are surely entitled to receive.

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