Edgar Bronfman, the legend

"Without a doubt, Edgar Bronfman should be included in the pantheon of Jewish leaders of the modern age."

December 22, 2013 22:29
4 minute read.
Edgar Bronfman in 1996

Edgar Bronfman 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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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, Seagram.

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 refuseniks.

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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 these efforts.

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.

The Soviets 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.

At 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.


With 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 Israel.

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 collaborators.

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.

As 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 property.

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 to Israel.

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 (WJRO).

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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