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A magnificent obsession with freedom

4 April 2015 239 views One Comment

Review of
‘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 ­Israel 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 gradu­ated 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.

One Comment »

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    Here’s how The Age’s literary editor Jason Steger, who once provided an “endorsement” for Nancy’s (male) co-owner, commenced his ever shrinking “Bookmarks” column on Saturday 6 June 2015.

    There were extraordinary events behind the scenes at the Sydney Writers’ Festival after one panellist took umbrage at supposed insensitive treatment at the hands of another and fired off a blistering email that had publishers, publicists and the festival organisers shaking their heads in utter dismay. It was a strongly worded but entirely wrong-headed email that prompted the recipient’s partner to ring the sender and let rip a blistering response. The upshot – eventually – was a backing down and an apology of some sort, but it’s fair to say the sender of the email is unlikely to be invited back to Sydney, or a couple of other festivals where noses have already apparently been put out of joint.

    Gosh. How about that? Hold the front page and so on. And wouldn’t your man Steger’s scoop have been even more interesting if he had provided, er, names for the actors in this taxpayer subsidised literary contretemps?

    Meanwhile – as of Friday 19 June – The Age has yet to run a review, or even a mention, of the book by Sam Lipski and Suzanne D. Rutland titled Let My People Go: The untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89 (Hybrid Publishers).

    This is an international story featuring such well-known one-time Melbourne personalities as Bob Hawke and Isi Leibler along with the late Malcolm Fraser plus the very extant Melbourne personality Sam Lipski.

    For the record, the Melbourne-born and Sydney-based Ross Fitzgerald reviewed Let My People Goin The Weekend Australian as long ago as 4 April 2015. But the Melbourne Age, despite promptings, has ignored the book so far. Can you bear it?

    Gerard Henderson, Media Watch Dog, June 19, 2015

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