Matthew Bronfman: Government’s policies have pushed Diaspora away

Many in the American Jewish community have said they felt torn between Israel and the United States during the past year.

April 28, 2016 01:43
4 minute read.
Matthew Bronfman

Matthew Bronfman. (photo credit: YAROSLAVNA SVETLOVA)

NEW YORK – “The relationship between the Diaspora and the State of Israel is being challenged by the policies of the government of Israel,” American businessman and prominent Jewish philanthropist Matthew Bronfman told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview conducted in his Manhattan office.

“Israel needs the Diaspora and the Diaspora needs Israel,” he said. “[The policies of the government] are not in sync with the views and the mentality of Diaspora Jews and I would hope that over the next couple of years, those two versions of Israel would come into sync a little bit more.”

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Bronfman, 53, who will be speaking at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York on May 22, said he believes the divide has intensified over the last five years and comes from issues such as increased settlement activity, statements by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the rabbinate’s control over personal affairs including marriage and divorce.

Many in the American Jewish community have said they felt torn between Israel and the United States during the past year after Netanyahu spoke against the nuclear deal with Iran to Congress and after the deal was signed last summer, causing much tension between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations.

According to a fall 2015 survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, the main correlative factor for the gap in attitudes toward the agreement is political party affiliation. Jewish Democrats were far more likely to support it, and Jewish Republicans were far more likely to oppose it.

“I think today if you ask most people, they have to honestly say that the promise of Obama that Iran’s behavior would change because we are going to welcome them back into the league of nations has not happened,” Bronfman said. “If you look at what’s happened in the last nine months, Iran’s actions have confirmed the fears that the prime minister expressed at Congress.”

With the US is in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, Bronfman believes it is “impossible to predict” which one of the five candidates will be the best president for Israel but said he “would not worry” about the two front runners’ support for the Jewish State.

“Both [Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump] will be fair supporters of the State of Israel,” he said. “Clinton has showed her unwavering support. Of course we have no record for Trump, no history to base it on, but when it comes to security, and to the bond between the nations, both candidates will be good for Israel.”

Israel and Jewish philanthropy have been at the heart of the Bronfman family for three generations. Matthew Bronfman is a major investor in Israeli and the main shareholder in IKEA Israel, Israel Discount Bank and the Shufersal supermarket chain. His uncle Charles Bronfman started the Birthright program with businessman Michael Steinhardt; and his father, Edgar Bronfman Sr., served as the president of the World Jewish Congress from 1981 to 2007. Edgar Bronfman, who died in 2013, played a key role in freeing more than one million Jews from the Soviet Union. Matthew Bronfman’s grandfather, whiskey baron Sam Bronfman, was the long-standing president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress.

Matthew Bronfman, one of seven children, said that being the scion of such an illustrious family means he has big shoes to fill. He said he intends to live up to his father’s legacy in his own way.

As part of his philanthropic work, he serves today as the international chairman of Limmud FSU, an organization aiming to engage young Russian Jews.

“I have decided to be very involved in world Jewish life, but to do it in a way that is comfortable for me, in the same way my father didn’t do what his father did,” he said. “The challenges are different, the opportunities are different and obviously the world is different. So it’s not like I can replicate either what my father did, or what my grandfather did, or what my uncle Charles does today.”

Limmud FSU held a tribute event for Edgar Bronfman Sr. at its conference in New Jersey in March. The event was organized on the occasion of the launch of Bronfman’s sixth book, Why Be Jewish? which was recently published posthumously, and raises the issue of continuity for the next generation of Jewish community leaders.

This next generation has been at the center of much debate in the Jewish community in past years. Young American Jews have shown a decreased involvement with the religion and with Israel, as demonstrated in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study on American Jewry. But Bronfman believes this phenomenon is nothing new.

“There will always be struggles of connection in the Diaspora,” he said.

“I think my generation as well is less connected in a way than the generation before,” he said. “There is no question that there are still many young people who are connected emotionally to Israel.”

Bronfman said his father didn’t believe in God, but in “godliness.”

“The message [in Edgar Bronfman’s posthumous book Why Be Jewish?] is that the next generation should go and learn Torah. They should study, and it’s only through study that they are going to be able to make an educated decision as to how they want to express their Judaism, whether they believe in God or not.”

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