A unique insight into a communal legend
Mark Leibler biography

A unique insight into a communal legend

'Mark Leibler’s life is located in the story of how Jews became a force in Australian life, of how the community became influential way beyond its numbers'.

Mark Leibler and Julia Gillard. Photo: Peter Haskin
Mark Leibler and Julia Gillard. Photo: Peter Haskin

SIGMUND Freud was an active member of B’nai B’rith’s Vienna Lodge, founded in 1895. Which may partly explain how he developed his intriguing idea about the “narcissism of the small difference”. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful that along with the many other rich rewards which Michael Gawenda offers us in The Powerbroker, his new and compellingly readable book about Mark Leibler, he’s included Freud’s revealing gem.

Reflecting on the “hard and often ruthless …” style of our communal politics, Gawenda notes that the conflicts are “rarely about ideology”. More often it’s mostly personal. As Freud puts it, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of hostility between them.”

Of course that does not mean that even the most personal disputes are devoid of real issues. The brief internecine conflict in the early 1990s between Mark Leibler, then the Zionist Federation’s president, and his older brother, Isi Leibler, then the Executive Council of Australian Jewry president, was a case in point. But it was also, as Gawenda explains, about who should speak for Australian Jewry, especially to Australian governments. 

So what? Who cares nowadays? After all, the Leibler brothers reconciled 30 years ago. And apart from a few tragics, this columnist included, who enjoy gossiping about long-forgotten communal war stories, their dispute is history.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mark Leibler.

Precisely. History. The past. About which William Faulkner was right. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Gawenda’s recognition of that truth, that without historical memory we are adrift, whether as individuals or communities, is one of The Powerbroker‘s great strengths. The book’s success in making sense of that history establishes it as a landmark contribution to the post-war Jewish and Australian experience. 

It also happens to be a fascinating biography about “a man of contradictions”, to quote the author about his subject. 

Most readers will know the basic facts: Mark Leibler is an Australian and world Jewry leader, a pre-eminent tax lawyer, and a powerful voice for Aboriginal Australians. But the person is in the details: as son, brother, husband, father, grandfather. As law partner, colleague, and mentor. As viewed subjectively by Leibler himself in sometimes uncomfortable interviews; as seen by others in close-up, and from afar. 

At which point, I have to pause and declare my own interests. Michael Gawenda and I are good friends and journalistic colleagues going back some 40 years. He interviewed me in his research for The Powerbroker, and has quoted me, too generously I fear, in the book. And I’ve known Mark Leibler for even longer. As The AJN’s former editor, as an Arnold Bloch Leibler client, and as someone grateful for his wise counsel. Biased? Sure. Fair nevertheless? Let’s hope. 

Mark Leibler. Photo: Peter Haskin

Just to be clear then. Gawenda’s account is much more than the sum of Australian Jewry’s communal and political conflicts since World War II. Or even those conflicts and major events in which Mark Leibler played a leading role. Understandably, the chattering classes, inside the Jewish community and beyond it, will look for the disclosures. They won’t be disappointed. 

As the prize-winning reporter who knows a good story and how to dig for it, Gawenda reveals much that has hitherto remained untold about the Jewish community’s relationships with successive governments. From Hawke’s to Morrison’s. 

So for those who want to understand the realities about “the Israel lobby”, as distinct from the myths and distortions, The Powerbroker is now the compulsory handbook. And if “behind the scenes” scenes are your thing, it delivers. Chapter and verse. Many times over. Whether it’s about the Jewish community’s endless shtetl issues, its controversial dealings with governments that made headlines, or on who’s who on the Rich List. All there. 

As are some of the dramatis personae outside the shtetl: Bob Hawke, Bill Hayden, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Noel Pearson. Just for starters.

While Gawenda comes to these characters with a fresh eye, and casts new light on the turbulences and storms which Mark Leibler had to navigate, he maintains his focus. On the personal, and on the main actor. The dramas, and they are often grand dramas, are there as a backdrop. 

The last word should come from Michael Gawenda in the book’s first chapter. “Mark Leibler’s life is located in the story of how Jews became a force in Australian life, of how the community became influential way beyond its numbers … of how this community was able to maintain its identity and culture while it maintained deep involvement in Australian life. This is a biography of one man. It is also the story of one community in a multicultural nation. It is a story about Australia”.

Sam Lipski is a former editor of The AJN

The Powerbroker – Mark Leibler: An Australian Jewish Life, by Michael Gawenda (Monash University Publishing, 2020) is being launched online on Monday, July 20, at 6pm with keynote speeches by Julia Gillard and Noel Pearson. Visit www.monash.edu/news/events/launch-of-michael-gawendas-latest-book.

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