Isi Leibler, key advocate for Jewish ‘refuseniks’, dies in Israel

Isi Leibler, a prominent leader of the Australian Jewish community, has died in Israel.

Mr Leibler was a key advocate for Soviet Jews, known as the “refuseniks”, to be allowed to emigrate after they were refused exit visas by the totalitarian regime. He died on Tuesday morning surrounded by family, aged in his 80s.

Isi Leibler in 1993.Credit:

Beginning in the 1960s, Mr Leibler helped lead Australia’s involvement in an international push against the discrimination of Jewish people in the Soviet Union.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke, who took up the campaign, paid tribute to Mr Leibler’s efforts in 1988, when 15 refuseniks were permitted to leave the country by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“I venture to say, Isi, that nobody has made a greater individual contribution than have you,” Mr Hawke told the Melbourne Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall).

From 1978 to 1995, Mr Leibler served four terms as president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He was also chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress. His brother, Mark Leibler, is senior partner of law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler.

Leibler, centre, with brothers Isi, right, and Allan.Credit:

In a statement, Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said the community mourned the passing of a giant.

“Isi had a profound impact on both the Australian Jewish Community and on the Jewish world. He demonstrated that one individual can indeed change the world – and that is exactly what Isi achieved in the role he played in the fight to free Soviet Jewry.

“He was fearless and uncompromising in his dedication to the Jewish people and the state of Israel.

“Isi was also my uncle, and I was privileged to see the private side as well as his public persona.

“The only subject matter that trumped Jewish affairs was Isi’s unyielding dedication to his family. He was the very embodiment of the principle espoused in Jewish tradition that ‘those who exert themselves on behalf of the community … their righteousness endures forever.’

“Isi’s leadership and commitment to his people and his family will continue to be an inspiration to me and many others within the Jewish community. May his memory be a blessing.”

Mr Leibler was born in Belgium in 1934 and moved to Melbourne as a child. He was a successful businessman, founding the Jetset Tours travel agency in 1965, which grew to become one of the country’s largest booking companies.

He had four children and lived in Israel with his wife Naomi since 1999.

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