I first heard the name Edgar Bronfman at some point back in the 1980s. Up until
then I had only heard about the family’s giant beverage company,
These were the days in which the gates of the Soviet Union were
still being held shut by Leonid Brezhnev. Tens – or maybe even hundreds – of
Jews had been incarcerated for expressing their desire to make aliya to Israel,
and tens of thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union had been fired from their jobs
after applying for exit visas. These people would subsequently be referred to as
In my capacity as spokesman of the Jewish Agency and the
World Zionist Organization, I was approached to assist the World Jewish Congress
(WJC) and its president, Edgar Bronfman, in bringing about the release of
Prisoners of Zion. We helped the refuseniks attain exit visas and guided Jews in
the former Soviet Union to maintain a Jewish lifestyle.
Many people were
involved in this joint endeavor. At the time, Aryeh Dolchin stood at the
head of the Jewish Agency, Chaim Chesler was the executive director of the
Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry and the WJC stood at the forefront of
Edgar had a unique status in American public
life. He was close to US presidents, and worked closely with Israel
Singer who was secretary-general of the WJC. Edgar used his leadership abilities
skillfully to prevail in his struggle to free Soviet Jewry.
were desperate for monetary investments from the “cursed capitalists,” and
therefore agreed to meet with Edgar. Occasionally, they even loosened the reins
on Soviet Jews and allowed in small amounts of humanitarian aid. The
ruling Soviet elite refused to engage in any contact whatsoever with Israeli
officials, but were willing to meet with the American businessman to discuss
business matters. In reality, though, they spoke about Jewish affairs.
one point during the Brezhnev years, Edgar came close to breaking open the Iron
Curtain for Soviet Jews, however news of the possibility of such a meeting,
which he had initiated with the help of the former Jewish Agency treasurer, was
publicized ahead of the meeting and as a result, the meeting never took place
and the Soviets never agreed to discuss the matter again.
Gorbachev’s rise to power in the Soviet Union, Edgar and the WJC expanded their
efforts to break open the Iron Curtain. With the active involvement of the
Hungarian prime minister at the time, Miklos Nemeth, Edgar secured a meeting
with Gorbachev and reached an agreement with him according to which Soviet Jews
would be allowed to travel to Budapest, from where they could make aliya to
More recently, as the spokesman for the World Restitution
Organization (WJRO), I had the opportunity to work closely with Edgar. Our main
struggle was to uncover billions of dollars worth of “dormant” Swiss bank
accounts belonging to Jews who had been killed by the Nazis and their
Just after finding out about Edgar’s death, I spoke with
Zvi Barak, who had been the WJRO chairman. He told me, “For 50 years the
Swiss banking system has been stonewalling the Jewish community and thwarting
every one of our attempts to uncover just how much money there is in these
accounts. It refuses to disclose the names on the accounts or compensate the
Jewish people for robbing them blind.
“Without Edgar’s connections,
determination and stamina, we never would have succeeded. Edgar couldn’t
be bought at any price and as a result, we succeeded in making a breakthrough
and reaching a $1.5 billion compensation settlement,” Barak told me.
someone who was heavily involved in the restitution of funds to the families of
Jews who were murdered in the Shoah, I can testify to the fact that Edgar’s
strong character and courage were the main reason we were able to achieve
historical justice and expose the truth about stolen Jewish
Over the years, I have been witness to Edgar’s outstanding
contribution to Jewish education worldwide and his family’s financial support of
Israeli institutions. Edgar inherited his devotion to Jewish education and to
keeping Israel strong from his father, Sam, who financed the purchase of the
first IDF canons.
Edgar’s son, Mathew, has also inherited his father’s
zeal for investing in worldwide Jewish education. He is currently
chairman of the international steering committee of Limmud FSU, a program
focused on strengthening Russian-speaking Jews’ Jewish identity and connection
Without a doubt, Edgar Bronfman should be included in the
pantheon of Jewish leaders of the modern age.
The author is the former
spokesman of the Jewish Agency and of the World Restitution Organization
Translated by Hannah Hochner.