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Isi Leibler, leading campaigner for the release of Soviet Jewry, dies at 86

Australian activist credited with being among the first to raise onto the world stage the plight of Jews unable to leave the Soviet Union; he made aliya in 1999

Isi Leibler works at his office in Jerusalem, Israel on June 12, 2012. (Wikimedia Commonms)
Isi Leibler works at his office in Jerusalem, Israel on June 12, 2012. (Wikimedia Commonms)

An Australian activist who is credited with being among the first to prompt global awareness of Jews who were prevented from leaving the former Soviet Union died Tuesday in Jerusalem at 86.

Beginning with an article he wrote in 1959, Leibler launched a press and lobbying campaign that brought Australia to discuss the human rights issues of Soviet Jewry in its own parliament and raise the issue at the United Nations.

“Isi was the gold standard of global Jewish leadership,” said Mark Leibler, Isi’s brother, who lives in Australia, The Age newspaper reported.

When, in 1988, 15 Soviet Jews were allowed to leave the country, then-prime minister of Australia Bob Hawke remarked, “I venture to say, Isi, that nobody has made a greater individual contribution than have you,” according to the report.

Leibler’s nephew Jeremy Leibler, the president of Zionist Federation of Australia, said his uncle had shown how a single person “can indeed change the world,” reported the Jewish News, a partner site of the Times of Israel.

“That is exactly what Isi achieved in the role he played in the fight to free Soviet Jewry,” Leibler said. “He was fearless and uncompromising in his dedication to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

“He enjoyed success in all aspects of his life but his passion was always defending the Jewish people and ensuring the centrality of the State of Israel to Jewish life in the Diaspora,” he said.

Leibler also used his contacts in China and India to improve their relations with Israel and eventually establish diplomatic relations with that country.

Isi Leibler was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1934, and his parents moved to Australia just before the start of World War II. He would go on to serve four terms as president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, from 1978 to 1995, and also chaired the governing board of the World Jewish Congress. He was WJC’s honorary vice president at the time of his death.

Leibler moved with his wife, Naomi, in 1999 to Jerusalem, where he wrote regular columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper and the Israel Hayom daily. He also ran a blog site, “Candidly Speaking from Jerusalem.”

A multimillionaire who founded and then sold the JetSet Tours tourism firm, Leibler had a key role in exposing a scandal within the World Jewish Congress involving the conduct of its former secretary-general, Israel Singer, who quit in 2007 amid criticism of his alleged misuse of the organization’s funds for personal gain.

In 2004, Leibler publicly accused Singer of misusing funds, leading to a drop in donations. The World Jewish Congress sued Leibler for libel, but dropped the suit in 2007.

“The Jewish world has lost a great leader,” former Israeli ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem wrote on Twitter.

Leibler, who is survived by his wife and four children, was buried in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon.

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