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BOOK REVIEW: Frank portrait of a leader who made his mark

Dan Goldberg
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Published: 1 August 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

DAN GOLDBERG: Michael Gawenda’s biography of Mark Leibler reveals a man of immense conviction and influence, full of powerful contradictions. It tells a compelling story, regardless of which side of ‘the Leibler line’ you stand

AMONG THE MULTITUDE of revelations in The Powerbroker, three words leapt off the page. Not because they are controversial but because they distil Mark Leibler’s modus operandi, demarcate his allies and enemies, and offer a prism through which to view the way he has conducted his public life over the last 40-plus years: “The Leibler line.”

Michael Gawenda, a three-time Walkley Award-winning journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Age, recounts in this unauthorised biography how Mark and his elder brother, Isi, viewed themselves as “policemen of the extent to which the Jewish community could be critical of Israel”.

“If anyone crossed the Leibler line,” Gawenda writes, “the brothers reacted with the sort of trenchant, even personal, criticism that made enemies of Jews and non-Jews who found themselves on the receiving end of their often vitriolic attacks.”

As editor of the Australian Jewish News (AJN) almost two decades ago, I crossed this line on more than one occasion. Yes, I was on the receiving end of his outrage; but no, I never regarded him as an enemy, rather a pugnacious powerbroker.

It is only fair, however, to acknowledge that I also witnessed Leibler in his role as the benevolent powerbroker. On one occasion, he intervened in a delicate matter with another community heavyweight and read him the riot act. Leibler prevailed, and on this occasion I saluted his mettle.
If anyone crossed the Leibler line, the brothers reacted with the sort of trenchant, even personal, criticism that made enemies of Jews and non-Jews.

Leibler, now 76, is described in the opening chapter as “a man of contradictions”: he’s politically conservative yet his closest relationships have been with Labor PMs – there’s a bromance detectable in the letters exchanged with  Paul Keating, and he helped nurture Julia Gillard from Labor’s Left flank to become a strident supporter of Israel, though he famously fell out with Kevin Rudd over the so-called passports affair in 2010.

He’s a modern Orthodox Jew, yet publicly supported the 2017 marriage equality vote; and he’s Australia’s most voluble Zionist who has spent a lifetime promoting the ultimate ideal, yet he never made aliyah, “perhaps the greatest contradiction”, according to the author.

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But there are other contradictions that are not adequately interrogated. How Leibler has been so passionate in his support of Indigenous rights – including advocating for a treaty and a truth-telling process about Australia’s dark past – yet fails to apply similar logic to Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians. And how a man so steeped in the law can be so out of step with international law, especially regarding Israel’s settlements.

“Leibler’s life is a story about Jews and power,” the author writes, noting it is “fraught with risks, for [the connection] is one that has been made throughout history by anti-Semites…”

He is right. And at times The Powerbroker is an uneasy read because the interplay of Jews, money and power is a recurring motif underscoring the main act – the life story of Israel’s most ardent advocate in Australia.

Gawenda relates an anecdote from a 2013 function with Tony Abbott at Leibler’s law firm, Arnold Bloch Leibler (ABL), at which the prime minister was asked his position on an aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘My position is whatever Mark and Colin’s position is’, Tony Abbott reportedly quipped, referring to Leibler and Colin Rubenstein.

“Oh, my position is whatever Mark and Colin’s position is,” Abbott reportedly quipped, referring to Leibler and Colin Rubenstein, the longstanding executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). Even in jest, it is an uncomfortable illustration of Leibler’s powerbroking.

Indeed, AIJAC has been the main platform from which Leibler has operated his fiefdom, in terms of the Australian Jewish community at least, for the past 25 or so years.

After decades of presiding over democratically elected organisations, Leibler’s chairmanship of AIJAC – an unelected, right-wing, pro-Israel lobby group – has offered him freedom from the petty politics of the Jewish community.

Muzzling dissenting Jewish voices and silencing critics soon became its stock in trade. The Ashrawi affair – when Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi was named winner of the Sydney Peace Prize in 2003 and then-NSW Premier Bob Carr agreed to present it – is examined in the book.

It ignited a storm of protest from Rubenstein and his AIJAC associates as they pressured Carr, a co-founder of Labor Friends of Israel, to boycott the award. Carr refused to back down, and AIJAC’s blistering response, splashed across the media, was “over the top” and “counter-productive”, writes Gawenda.

Leibler stops just short of admitting the strategy backfired. “Sometimes we have to know when silence is best,” he says. “I think I have learned to say things in a more measured way.”

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It suggests Leibler has both mellowed somewhat and realised the cost of poisoning former friends into foes.

Gawenda shares his first-hand experience of AIJAC’s aggressive tactics when he was editor of The Age, describing its spokespeople as “blunt, sometimes to the point of rudeness, in their criticism of the paper and some of its journalists and commentators”.

He adds: “I wonder whether AIJAC’s approach sometimes made enemies of people who had not been enemies before.” Leibler’s response is emphatic: “Making us responsible for our enemies is to blame Jews for anti-Semitism. I utterly reject that.”

In his research, the author mined Leibler’s extensive personal archive, as well as the minds of allies and adversaries. Yet only one from the Jewish community –­ Melbourne-based writer and academic Mark Baker – is on record criticising Leibler’s largely successful attempts to silence critics of Israel. This is telling in itself.

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“For too long, AIJAC in particular has taken onto itself to define Zionism, so that anyone who criticised Israel or the Netanyahu government or supported the Palestinians in any way could not be a Zionist,” Baker says. “I am a Zionist and I am ‘guilty’ of all those things.”

Gawenda’s interview with businessman Solomon Lew, a key AIJAC donor who enticed Leibler and Rubenstein to run the private lobby group, is one of the most revealing. For decades Leibler has denied AIJAC speaks on behalf of the Jewish community but Lew doesn’t seem to blink.
We are recognised by more politicians in Australia from all sides. They never make a speech without checking with us – SOLOMON LEW

“It represents Australian Jewry and it represents Israel,” he says, confirming the worst-kept secret in the Bagel Belt. “We are recognised by more politicians in Australia from all sides,” he boasts. And then this admission: “They never make a speech without checking with us.”

Setting aside the hubris and whether he is accurate, it is another uneasy moment.

Mercifully, the Jewish community today is more diverse than it was when Leibler and Isi  were gatekeepers in the 1980s and ’90s, Mark as president of the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) and Isi as president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ).

Australia was too small for two titans and their acrimonious power struggle – effectively over who speaks for the Jewish community – is absorbingly recounted as “intense, pubic, personal, long-lasting and very bitter”.

Gawenda interviews the key players in the mud-slinging drama, including Sam Lipski, then editor of the AJN. “The clash between the ECAJ and ZFA is the most significant clash within Australian Jewry for more than four decades,” he wrote in an editorial at the time. Today, Lipski maintains the ECAJ, not the ZFA, should speak on behalf of the Jewish community.

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Leibler admits the rivalry with his brother (who is now 86) was “not one of the proudest moments of my life” but says it “did not change the way I worked as a Jewish leader”.

“The ZFA continued to work the way it worked when I was president. Nothing changed.”

What did change was that Isi made aliyah in 1998, just as Mark, having taken the reins of AIJAC, was inspired by the late human rights barrister Ron Castan QC and Aboriginal lawyer and activist Noel Pearson to engage in the fight for justice for Indigenous Australians.
His fight for justice for indigenous Australians transformed him from a parochial Jewish politician into a more complex public figure, with influence that no other Australian Jewish leader has ever matched. 

“It changed him,” writes Gawenda. “It changed the way he saw Australia and its history. It changed the way he saw himself as a Jew and as an Australian.” And it would “transform him from a parochial Jewish politician into a more complex public figure, with reach and influence in Australian life that no other Australian Jewish leader, even his brother Isi, has ever matched.”

The Powerbroker will no doubt offer ammunition to Leibler’s and Israel’s critics. But Gawenda has done a great service to those in our community – this writer included – who do not subscribe to AIJAC’s hardline stance, or Leibler’s dogma that Zionists in the Diaspora cannot criticise Israel on security issues.

Hopefully, current and future leaders will refer to the book as a guide on how – and how not – to lead. Leibler’s son Jeremy is one of them and has thus far followed his father’s career path: winner of the Supreme Court Prize, a partner at ABL and president of the ZFA.

There are several differences: Leibler drew his “line” in the pre-internet age, when public discourse on Israel was narrower, giving him greater ability to influence Australian policy. His behind-the-scenes role in the 1991 repeal of the UN resolution equating Zionism as racism is one of many examples covered in the book.

In addition, Israel was still the ultimate ideal for Jewish youth. And progressive Zionists were still a marginal movement; the New Israel Fund, for example, did not exist in Australia until 2011, let alone publications such as this.

This is  an astute work of long-form journalism and thus there will be readers – no doubt including Leibler himself – who will not like parts of it. And it is far more than a biography because it is also about the Australian Jewish community, and how Israel was and remains such a pivotal lodestone that unites most of us, yet still divides some of us.

At its heart, however, The Powerbroker is a character study of one remarkable man whose power, influence and voice has echoed through the corridors of power in Canberra and Jerusalem for the past four decades – from Fraser to Morrison,  Begin to Bibi.

While it is at times an uncomfortable read, it is a compelling book – regardless of which side of “the Leibler line” you stand.

The Powerbroker: Mark Leibler, An Australian Jewish Life by Michael Gawenda is published by Monash University Publishing, $39.95.

About the author

Dan Goldberg

Now a documentary filmmaker, Dan Goldberg was editor of the Australian Jewish News from 2002-07. He was also a correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Jewish Chronicle and Haaretz.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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