A magnificent obsession with freedom
‘Let My People Go: The Untold Story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959–89’.
By Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland
Hybrid Publishers, 273pp, $29.95
Meeting Jews who had been persecuted in Russia inspired Melbourne-born Sam Lipski to write about their struggle. In 1987 the distinguished journalist visited Moscow and was confronted with the brutal reality of Soviet totalitarianism through lengthy interviews with Soviet Jews who had applied to immigrate to Ã‚ÂIsrael but were refused permission to do so.
As a proud Australian Jew, Lipski was sympathetic to the cause of these “refuseniks. Later that year prime minister Bob Hawke met Mikhail Gorbachev. Hawke had been a supporter of what Lipski considered to be “the just and righteous cause of all those Soviet Jews who were intent on settling in Israel. In his visits to Moscow Hawke had challenged the Russian leadership on behalf of refuseniks who had been jailed for their struggle.
Ten years ago Lipski teamed up with University of Sydney professor of Jewish studies Suzanne Rutland to work on this book about the struggles of the refuseniks. ‘Let My People Go’ draws on a vast array of primary and secondary sources to tell this story. These include ASIO files and Rutland’s painstaking research on Australia and Soviet Jewry in the massive archive of Lipski’s ex-colleague and friend, formidable Zionist Isi Leibler.
The energetic, Belgium-born Leibler, whose parents migrated to Australia when he was four, was educated at Melbourne High School and the University of Melbourne, where he graduÃ‚Âated with first-class honours in political science.
Without access to Leibler’s extensive materials on the Campaign for Soviet Jewry, this compelling book could not have been written. As Lipski and Rutland make clear, it was Leibler’s “magnificent obsession with the refuseniks that motivated this new account of the sustained movement to relocate the Soviet Jews to Israel.
Although the title ‘Let My People Go’ refers to the wider story, inside the Soviet Union and internationally, and also illuminates the extent of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, this book has an Australian focus and perspective.
For decades, Russian authorities had conducted a concerted campaign of repression, imprisonment, political trials and terror against the nation’s three million Jews. During the critical years from 1959 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Australian Jews and their community leaders were deeply involved in the international Soviet Jewry movement. As the authors put it, “Australian governments, parliamentarians, diplomats, human rights activists and opinion leaders contributed significantly to the emigration of over a million Jews to Israel. Australia played a role above and beyond what might be expected from a middle-ranking nation with limited international influence.
The arrival in Israel of a multitude of Soviet Jews, many with advanced academic qualifications, represented one of the largest knowledge transfers in world history. It even eclipsed the migration of Jewish scientists and intellectuals in the 1930s from Nazi Germany to the US.
As Lipski and Rutland point out, the intensely human stories of the Russian refuseniks and the Prisoners of Zion — as those Jews imprisoned in Russia were known — “gave the larger campaign for free emigration a personalised narrative, and an additional edge.
As a result, in Australia as elsewhere, the cause of Soviet Jewry captured a much wider cross-section of advocates than those who simply supported the state of Israel. Here the activists included left and right, Zionist and non-Zionist, religious and secular, young and old.
What is crystal clear in this book is the crucial role of Leibler’s personal crusade, ably assisted by his wife Naomi and the timely interventions of Hawke. After Hawke defeated Malcolm Fraser in the 1983 federal election, the balance of power in the ALP shifted towards its more pro-American and especially pro-Israel elements. Indeed, in one of his first acts as prime minister, Hawke sent an unambiguous message of support to the World Conference on Soviet Jewry in Jerusalem.
Lipski and Rutland’s heartfelt narrative of the Australian contribution to facilitating the aspirations of Soviet Jews to settle in Israel shines light on one of the 20th century’s most powerful examples of a successful struggle for freedom. Thoroughly researched and superbly written, Let My People Go is a revealing and important account of human achievement against the odds.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, April 4-5, 2015, review, Books p 22.