The toll of being the face of the Jewish cause

ZFA in the news

The pressure of a family legal dynasty, four children and leading the Zionist Federation was nothing compared to what came for Jeremy Leibler when he became the voice of Australian Jews after October 7.

Jeremy Leibler thought he knew how to cope with pressure.

As one of the top mergers and acquisitions lawyers in the country with four children at home under 18 – including now 11-year-old twins – he was used to juggling the tough demands of work and home life.

He was always as proud of knowing the current school essay topics of his children and their best friend’s names as well as he knew the intimate secrets of his most difficult clients at the firm that bears his father’s name, Arnold Bloch Leibler.

For more than half a century the Leiblers have also headed or held senior roles in various Australian Jewish community organisations, Israeli enterprises, and world Jewish associations.

In 2018 he followed in their footsteps to become president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, making him a third-generation Australian Zionist leader.

But nothing in his 44 years prepared him for the ordeal he faced in the aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel on October 7, 2023.

“People often asked me, ‘did you feel pressure growing up as Mark Leibler’s son?’ The truth is, I didn’t, consciously. Subconsciously, probably. But I don’t think I knew what pressure was until after October 7,” he says.

“Because there’s no transaction, there’s no personal trauma. There’s no pressure that I’ve ever felt like being the voice of people who I knew were genuinely going through trauma.”

He’s shed tears in private many times over the past nine months when the emotional strain of being the face of the Jewish cause has taken its toll. His own great grandparents were murdered at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

He has a brother and three nephews who now live in Israel. The latter were immediately called up to serve in the armed forces after October 7. One nephew was tasked with collecting and identifying the bodies of some of those who were slaughtered by Hamas fighters.

“I’m an emotional person. I always have been. I’ve never been afraid to cry,” he says proudly.

“The notion that being tough requires you to be devoid of emotion is not real at all. I think the opposite.”

Never before had Leibler suffered from depression or mental health issues. His only trial had been living with the lazy eye he was born with, which can make him appear cross-eyed.

He’s always loved his legal work – he is one of the longest-serving members of the Takeovers Panel that adjudicates on disputes in corporate deals – and has long been happily married to wife Andrea.

Yet he now reveals that from the evening of October 7 to Christmas last year he was in a “mental fog”.

Experiences that gave him joy like cuddling his twin boys, eating a nice meal or enjoying a wine or whisky at the end of a hard day suddenly just left him feeling numb.

It only got worse when he realised the conflict that eventuated in Gaza was not going to end quickly.

Last November a social media campaign driven by the Stand For Palestine movement targeted the Spotlight Group, which includes retail brands Spotlight, Anaconda and Harris Scarfe. It singled out Leibler personally as a director of the Spotlight Foundation.

For the first time in his life, he sought the support of a psychologist.

“It made a huge difference. I think it was just the opportunity to be able to express myself in a completely safe, secure environment and work through and process what was going on around me and how I should deal with it,” he says.

“I don’t associate any stigma with that at all. I felt about it in the same way as if I had broken a finger, I would go to a doctor. When you’ve got this mental fog, when it is difficult to see through, it is helpful having someone help you process it.”

At that time, his doctor also diagnosed some heart issues. He still wonders whether they were induced by stress.

But an electrocardiogram (ECG) at Cabrini Hospital less than a week after the terror attacks, from which he drove straight to a pro-Israel rally attended by the Victorian Premier and other politicians, gave him the all clear.

During all the media interviews he did in the first week after the attacks, and despite the stresses, Leibler kept his composure. Except for one: a 10 minute cross-examination on the Nine network’s afternoon news bulletin on October 12.

As the discussion steadily got more testy, at the six minute mark the presenter asked him what was the root cause of Hamas’s action.

He snapped. “I have to be honest with you. I find the question offensive,” Leibler bit back.

“Because nobody asked the question ‘what was the root cause of ISIS’?”

He now acknowledges: “I’m not sure that was the right way to handle it from a media perspective, basically going at the journalist. But it obviously resonated with the community. That’s how they were feeling. They resented the question,” he says.

“But I don’t think I worked it out until a lot later that all of the calls and emails and feedback I got from that actually created more pressure, an enormous sense of performance anxiety. A pressure to continue to deliver; to actually reflect the sentiment on the ground in the community.”

The contrast of beauty with horror

In November Leibler helmed an Australian solidarity delegation to Israel with one of his nephews, Gabe Max, a university student leader who chairs the Australian Zionist Youth Council.

What immediately struck Leibler on the ground was an unexpected feeling of discomfort, because everywhere he went people thanked him for coming.

The delegation presented a statement of solidarity containing 10,000 signatures from the Australian Jewish community to Israeli President Isaac Herzog. It then visited the scenes of the massacres at various kibbutzes in Israel’s south, which were then still closed military zones.

Leibler says he was overwhelmed by a single emotion as he stood in brilliant sunshine surrounded by scenes that hosted the utmost horrors imaginable.

“You look to your right and you see beautiful greenery. I have this searing memory of hearing the birds chirping. Then you turn left, and you literally see burnt out houses and total destruction,” he recalls.

“You could still smell it. We were taken around by people telling us stories of what happened on the day. You saw the trauma on their faces.

“I felt guilty because for the past 15 years, the people who had been living there had been under bombardment. I was feeling guilty that frankly on all my trips to Israel – which was almost on an annual basis and often multiple times a year – I never once thought about these people or the kids living this permanent, abnormal normal life; where they used to run from playgrounds into bomb shelters as a matter of course.”

Back home Leibler has received death threats on social media, over email and sometimes in letters through the mail. Some of the greatest critics of Israel’s military response in Gaza have compared Zionism to Nazism.

I ask him why, as president of the ZFA, he has consciously put himself and his family at risk.

“I haven’t let myself go down that rabbit hole,” he replies resolutely.

“What has stopped something like that impacting me is context. I saw this sort of stuff growing up and when you have close family and friends in Israel that live with the threat of terrorism every day, everything is relative … I refuse to allow myself to be intimidated by those sorts of things. My kids feel that way too.”

More than anything in life, Leibler feels this cause matters.

Over the past nine months the dividing line between Israeli politics and the Jewish religion has become increasingly blurred. In many contexts Jewish people have collectively been held responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.

“After October 7 it felt like there was a cost. There was a threat to the sense of safety and security that the Jewish community here felt. One of the reasons why Jewish life has flourished in Australia is because Jews have always felt safe and it felt that there was now a cost to being openly Jewish,” he says.

“I’m grateful that I had an outlet after October 7. I think many in the Jewish community were frustrated, but either they didn’t have the words or they didn’t have the platform to speak. I did. I felt that was a privilege.”

What he has admired most over the past nine months is those without wealth or influence who have been prepared to take a stand against anti-Semitism, at risk to themselves and their families.

“What has been especially inspiring is the ordinary, everyday Jewish people who have been harassed and critiqued,” he says.

“Yet they have been prepared to stand up for what they believe in.”

Standing strong for causes

Whether you admire or despise the firm, Arnold Bloch Leibler has never left anyone in any doubt on where it stands on public policy issues. This is not only in its support of the Jewish people, but in standing up for Indigenous rights, calling out racism and other causes.

It took a clear position in support of the Indigenous Voice to parliament referendum, despite opposition from some of its clients.

So unsurprisingly, Leibler says his public role at the ZFA has had no impact on his work at ABL over the past nine months.

What concerns him more about the actions of many of his clients is the future of philanthropy in this country.

Australian Jews are major patrons of the arts, education, sports, and medical facilities.

“I can tell you with absolute confidence that as a general proposition, the overwhelming majority of Jewish foundations have paused or entirely stopped a huge amount of their philanthropy in those spaces,” he says.

“They are rethinking where it should be redirected, to people and organisations that don’t have particular political views on Israel, or just basically do not cross that line of holding anti-Semitic views.”

Over the past nine months Leibler has spoken to his father several times a day. In early June they were both invited to The Lodge for a private dinner with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

His father has constantly reminded him of the importance of self awareness in stressful situations, to ensure emotion does not cloud judgment; to stop, think and take time.

Whatever Mark Leibler’s critics may say – he’s been previously accused of being vicious towards his opponents at Jewish community meetings and intolerant of dissent – he has always been a man of principle. The apple has not fallen far from the tree.

“What I do feel is a sense of gratitude that something of meaning and purpose is a central part of my family life. I don’t see that through the prism of the suffering in the horrors of October 7. I see that through the positive of being able to model for my children – as I think my father, my uncle, and my grandmother – modelled for me,” Jeremy Leibler says.

“Which is that life is actually about standing up for the things that you believe in.”

More than 35,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in Gaza over more than six months of conflict. Most of the enclave’s 2.3 million people are homeless and many are at risk of famine.

Leibler will forever assert the right of Israel to defend itself against terrorism. But he still has deep sympathy for the families and friends of those caught up in the conflict. Even if his words won’t silence his critics.

“I can understand and I can put myself in the shoes of people in Australia who are Muslim or Palestinian who are deeply traumatised by seeing images of their people and families in Gaza,” he says.

He politely sidesteps the question about what the consequences should be for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially given the intelligence and security failings that allowed the October 7 attacks to occur.

Netanyahu is now also the subject of a controversial arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court and faces the ballot box in 2026.

“Voting in that election is a right that Israelis who live in Israel have; those who have their children serving in the army and who are putting their lives at risk every day,” Leibler says.

“I think that’s the sort of privilege that should be reserved for them. It is not for me to comment.”

He and Andrea have a daughter in Year 12 who is about to turn 18, a 14-year-old son and the 11-year-old twins.

They have all followed the challenges of his crusade closely on social media, where their father has been called a supporter of genocide.

“I remember coming home, often late at night. I’d sent on our family WhatsApp group the interviews I’d done that day. My children would see them and send me messages,” he recalls.

“With the oldest two, if they were awake, I’d go into their room to talk to them.”

But his greatest hero above all has been Andrea.

“The hardest part in the early months was for my wife, because I was never home,” he says.

When I ask what was her most important piece of advice in his darkest moments, his answer – after a long pause – is telling.

“I think it is the things she didn’t say, the things that didn’t need to be said,” he eventually replies.

“Because after the 7th I had everyone saying something to me. Everyone wanted a piece and I felt I had to give them a piece.

“The community was crying out to be heard and they needed someone to channel that. So I think it was her giving me that space and support that I will always be thankful for.”


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