by Peter Kohn
October 18, 2007
VISITING communal titan Isi Leibler has praised what he sees as a growing consensus between the Federal Government and Opposition on funding school security.
Leibler told The AJN he hopes the commitment to funding will usher in a broader role for public funding of schools.
The Coalition has announced tax deductibility for Jewish community security and the ALP has unveiled a $20-million security package for Jewish schools.
“I see a government and Opposition consensus on providing security for kids at school as perhaps the beginning of a general process of recognising that the government should be taking some role in supporting people who go to Jewish day schools, which should not have to carry the whole burden.
“The reason for Australian Jewry’s success is its day school movement,” Leibler said.
If middle-income earners sending children to Jewish schools become “squeezed”, it will be detrimental to Australian Jewry’s proud tradition of day school education, he said.
Leibler told The AJN the only way funding can be made up in the long-term “is if the state becomes more involved in at least backing up the secular studies”.
Leibler was on a private visit to Australia to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Eli, his youngest Australian grandson.
A capacity audience at Beth Weizmann Community Centre heard Leibler’s address to the Australian Jewish community last Wednesday.
INTERVIEW: 10 Questions for Isi Leibler –
Former past president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and past vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, now living in Israel
What’s the focus of your latest visit?
We had a family simcha, the bar mitzvah of my grandson Eli, my youngest Australian grandson. His Hebrew name is Yisrael, after his great-grandfather, the late Rabbi Yisrael Porush. I’ve had an opportunity to catch up with the leadership of the Jewish community and speak to the public [at an event held at Beth Weizmann on October 10].
What are some of the developments in the Australian Jewish community that have struck you on this latest visit?
I see a government and Opposition consensus on providing security for kids at school as perhaps the beginning of a general process of recognizing that the government should be taking some role in supporting people who go to Jewish day schools, which should not have to carry the whole burden themselves. The reason for Australian Jewry’s success is it s day-school movement, and if that becomes squeezed, with more and more sacrifices being demanded of middle-income people to give two or three kids a Jewish day school education, the only way this can be made up in the long term is if the state becomes more involved in at least backing up the secular studies.
You’ve come at a significant time, with an election date being announced. How do you think the two sides shape up in terms of their policies on the Middle East?
You’re asking a very difficult and sensitive question. All I can say is that John Howard has probably been the most outstanding friend that Israel has ever had as a statesman… Hitherto there has never been anyone on the political map as a leader who has been as good to us, in a principled manner, as Howard. Having said that, I must say that I regard the alternative, Kevin Rudd, as a Christian Zionist and as a genuine friend of Israel. Whether he can maintain the same standard of support Israel has received from the Howard-Downer Government remains to be seen … I had the opportunity to meet again with Kevin Rudd, at a function set up by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, and renewed relations with him, as I’d met him already in Israel. We had a lengthy dinner together then and I was most impressed … But if you’re asking me how people should vote, I certainly wouldn’t dare suggest how they should vote.
Turning to the World Jewish Congress (WJC), looking back on that chapter, what remains your strongest impression? (Leiber was ousted as WJC vice-president and was sued during a bitter dispute within the global Jewish roof body after he drew attention to financial irregularities, later affirmed in a New York State inquiry. But the lawsuit was dropped and a new WJC management team is now in place).
There are two lessons to be learned. The first is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The second is that even if you’re in a minority of one, if you know you’re fighting a just cause, don’t be overwhelmed by the odds against you. I would say 99 percent of my colleagues said I’d jumped off the cliff for taking on such a powerful group and the fact remains that the organization is going to go through a very difficult but hopefully a new phase under president Ronald Lauder.
Are you satisfied with Lauder’s leadership so far?
All I know is he is an extremely decent person, he’s going to give it a go, but he’s got to do a tremendous amount of fence mending and build bridges, recruit new people and reform the organization from top to bottom. That’s his objective and I will certainly give him all the backing I can … The new secretary-general Michael Schneider, has all the qualifictions for ensuring transparency and genuine governance.
With the new leadership in the Claims Conference, are you confident about its future?
Not confident but hopeful. There are a lot of changes and transparency is required there. There certainly aren’t the same problems as with the WJC … but there is a problem with transparency and decision-making to ensure it’s done on a broader level.
Will you consider a role again in the WJC at a future point?
I don’t have to make a decision at this moment in time. I’ve been asked by a number of people and I want to see how things move before I make any further judgements.
Looking at the Middle East, what should be done about the looming threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran?
There are two things. To alert and encourage the world not to repeat the appeasement that paved the way for Nazism. But equally as important, Israel must demonstrate … and I believe they’ve started doing that (Israel’s reported raid on a partly completed Syrian nuclear reactor) – that there is a deterrent, and if anyone starts messing around with Israel in a big way … if anyone thinks Israel is going to go like a lamb to the slaughter, they should be disillusioned. Even if there are a few lunatics in Iran, very few will want to take on a power that will give it back double-fold and strongly.
With regard to Israel and the Palestinians, can talks with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA have any effect?
You need to have a peace partner to make peace. Abbas is impotent, corrupt and has no base. Whereas the Americans may want to show theoretical progress, the reality is that we don’t have someone we can make peace with.
How should Israel approach Hamas, now that the organization controls Gaza?
Israel should begin to behave like a normal country. The majority of Israelis feel that if a regime is hurling rockets at you, you don’t continue to provide them with electricity and other facilities.
Interviewed by Peter Kohn.