Refusenik campaign recalled

17-5-15. From left: Greg Barton, Suzaane Rutland, Sam Lipski. Book launch of "Let My People Go" at Beth Weizmann. Photo: Peter Haskin
17-5-15. From left: Greg Barton, Suzaane Rutland, Sam Lipski. Book launch of "Let My People Go" at Beth Weizmann. Photo: Peter Haskin

A NEW book relating Australia’s campaign to free Soviet Jewish refuseniks has shown what “a very significant middle power” could achieve, according to commentator, author and journalist Greg Sheridan.

Launching Let My People Go: The untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89 at Beth Weizmann on Sunday, May 17, Sheridan said the book tells a remarkable story of Australian political clout, as the first country to raise the issue of Soviet Jewry at the UN in 1962.

Sheridan said the book, co-authored by former AJN editor Sam Lipski and University of Sydney historian Professor Suzanne D Rutland, tells how the postwar Jewish community found its voice in the corridors of Canberra.

In turn, it tells how Australia for three decades wielded its influence strategically, as prime ministers, including Bob Hawke, resisted advice from the Foreign Affairs department not to become involved in the Soviet Jewry campaign.

Sheridan reflected, “There’s a certain small stream of Australian braggadocio which thinks we’re a great power and can solve the world’s problems … Hawke himself, who was a brilliant, sophisticated, cosmopolitan prime minister, nonetheless occasionally suffered from this, and thought he could solve the Middle East’s problems.

“But the other extreme is … that we’re really a backwater, we count for nothing, our opinions don’t matter … the truth is Australia is a very significant middle power.”

He said Australia’s campaign changed the mood in Israel, where advocates for high-profile intervention with Moscow on behalf of Soviet Jews took heart from Canberra against Israelis favouring a back-channel approach.

Lipski, now CEO of the Pratt Foundation, noted the launch coincided not only with Yom Yerushalayim but with May 17, 1988, when ex-refuseniks were feted at the Melbourne Concert Hall.

Rutland said the launch “marks the end of a very long journey” and recalled her elation at gaining access to a “treasure trove” of material at the National Archives in Canberra. She was intrigued to learn the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) held a file on communal leader Isi Leibler, the driving force behind the refusenik campaign, who later opened his comprehensive Israeli archive to her.

In a nostalgic finish, reprising a song she had played to refuseniks in Moscow in 1987, vocalist Aura Levin Lipski led the audience in a rousing rendition of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.


Greg Sheridan (left), Professor Suzanne Rutland and Sam Lipski at the Melbourne launch of Let My People Go.

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