Reading a biography about a friend is a mixed experience. On the one hand, the protagonist is familiar. On the other, he’s a complete stranger, whose story unfolds like that of a fictional character being introduced in a novel.
This is the sense of duality that I had while curled up with Lone Voice: The Wars of Isi Leibler, a tome by renowned Australian-Jewish historian Suzanne D. Rutland.
Before meeting Leibler in person 20 years ago, I knew about the human-rights activist from Australia and his long-standing fight on behalf of Soviet Jewry, his tireless battle against global anti-Semitism and his connection to the World Jewish Congress—an organization from which he subsequently resigned as vice president and whose financial corruption he would launch a campaign to expose.
I was also aware that he possessed one of the world’s largest private libraries of Jewish books, certainly the most extensive in Israel. Visions of a dimly lit room covered floor-to-ceiling in volumes of bibles bound in leather and gold, alongside works of the sages and interpretations of the Talmud, came to mind.
Judging by his aptly named “Candidly Speaking” columns in The Jerusalem Post—all brutally honest and hard-hitting—I imagined the man himself to be a daunting, scholarly figure around whom I would do well to watch my intellectual step.
As subsequently became apparent, however, Leibler would be the first to smile, if not emit his infectious laugh, at the above descriptions. Indeed, neither his library nor his demeanor in any way resembles the picture or conclusions that I had drawn prior to visiting his Jerusalem home and being given a tour of the famous athenaeum.
Though it does contain the ancient manuscripts that I’d conjured, they—and the many thousands of other works by Jewish authors as diverse as Natan Sharansky and Philip Roth—are housed in anything but a dim, antique setting. Instead, they’re lined up in rows of modern, moveable stacks.
As striking as this was at first sight, it was nothing compared to the discovery that not only had Leibler read all of the 40,000 books in his home, but could locate any one of them, within seconds, on demand.
To this day—two decades and many additional titles later—he knows exactly where to find a certain hardcover or paperback, no matter how obscure, among the collection. Of all Leibler’s points of laser focus, this is the one that still makes my jaw drop.
But his biblio-savantism is not what makes him stand out in the public arena. No, it’s the courage to speak his piece—orally and in print, even when doing so ruffles illustrious feathers—for which he is best known.
A religious Zionist, he’s never shied away from criticizing rabbis in that community whom he considers having moved too far in the direction of ultra-Orthodoxy and radicalism.
Nor has he hesitated to express his displeasure with Israeli politicians, including after praising them, when he feels that they have betrayed their mandate or put petty politics ahead of the interests of the state.
Both issues are especially relevant today, in the lead-up to the March 23 Knesset elections, with Israel’s societal divisions heightened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. These schisms can be seen most vividly in attitudes among and towards the country’s haredi communities, as well as in the split between members of the public supporting the continued leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those, on the left and the right, in the “anybody but Bibi” camp.
The 86-year-old Leibler, who moved to Israel from Australia in 1999, has always had strong opinions on each of these topics.
As Rutland writes: “Beyond any overarching battle in which he is engaged at any particular moment, Isi [Leibler] has never stopped thinking or writing about theological and political developments in the Orthodox world into which he was born. The trends worry him particularly. The first is that inward-looking rabbis (mostly non-Zionist, sometimes anti-Zionist) in the haredi camp, for whom insularity and ultra-Orthodox stringency are integral to their lifestyle, have achieved political control of Israel’s official Rabbinate, the institution that oversees conversion to Judaism, kosher certification, ritual baths, marriage, divorce, and burial. Isi views the display of haredi power as antithetical to the Zionist ethos and fears that these rabbis are negatively redefining the image of Jewish mores in the eyes of Israel’s non-Orthodox but traditional-leaning majority.”
Where his stance on Netanyahu is concerned, Rutland explains that just as “realpolitik—and not unshakeable ideology—has guided the tactical policies he has advocated,” the same pragmatism is behind Leibler’s positions on the Israeli premier, whom he has known personally for many years.
Rutland describes Leibler’s admiration for Netanyahu’s “capacity and talents as a leader, [which] surpass those of his rivals” as the basis for numerous op-eds promoting the prime minister.
“At the same time,” she adds, “he is never obsequious and has no hesitation about criticizing Netanyahu when it is warranted. In fact, in the aftermath of two failed elections, Isi was the first commentator on the right who openly called for Netanyahu to step down for the good of the country.”
Nevertheless, this was before the defeat on Nov. 3 of Donald Trump—whom Leibler has called “the most pro-Israel president since the state was established”—by Democratic Party contender Joe Biden. It was also prior to the U.S. Congress’s turning blue.
It’s not clear whether the advent of such an administration in Washington—aided by liberal and progressive American Jews who, in Leibler’s words, “seem to be acting like lemmings on a suicide march”—is causing him to harbor second thoughts about the alternatives to a Netanyahu-led government in Jerusalem.
But if it is, he’ll be the first to admit it.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”