A Personal Tribute

Matthew Bronfman shares a personal tribute for his father Edgar, the Jewish leader.

Edgar M. Bronfman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Edgar M. Bronfman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Each of us here today, and so many others around the world, had their own personal relationship with my father. But I am going to spend a few minutes talking about Edgar the Jewish leader.
As many of you know, Dad had issues with the notion of God. He simply didn’t believe in Him. You see, Dad’s orientation to Judaism and to life was his belief in our collective obligation to act in a godly fashion. That is, to take the attributes that we see in God and to act on them in the treatment of others.
He carried himself with a sense of dignity that earned him a position of unparalleled strength. When he conducted his inter-religious work, he was once graciously told by a Vatican official, that the Church advanced a doctrine of “tolerance” towards the Jewish people. My father retorted, “I don’t want your tolerance.
You can keep it. I want your respect.” Dad accorded respect to others and expected others to grant the Jewish people the same.
My father was blessed with charm, good looks, piercing blue eyes, a fabulous sense of humor, a voracious appetite to learn and the dual platforms of Seagram and the World Jewish Congress. But what made him a legendary Jewish leader was that he used all of those resources and his fundamental core values of moral justice, to work for a better and safer, and more just world for Jews and non-Jews alike. I had the great privilege of traveling with him on some of his WJC business.
No matter whom we met, whatever the country or the issue, there was always one theme front and center: moral justice.
In 1985, my father found himself sitting in his offices at the Seagram building confronted with startling information.
The former United Nations Secretary General and the then candidate for the presidency of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, was a former Nazi officer. My father was advised that disclosing this information in the midst of the Austrian presidential campaign would be met with widespread public disapproval. It could be seen as foreign interference in the domestic politics of a sovereign nation.
HE HEARD all the advice and he listened to his conscience. “This is not a political issue,” he declared, “It is a moral one.”
For Dad, Kurt Waldheim was a war criminal responsible for the deaths of thousands.
The question for Dad was not whether he should do something; it was how dare he not! Thanks to Dad’s efforts, Waldheim was declared persona non grata in capitals around the world. And the United States Justice Department put him on its Watch List, effectively indicting him, and keeping him from entering the USA.
I only saw my father nervous once in my life. It was 1990 and we were in Moscow together. For the previous five years, my father had been meeting with senior government officials from all over Europe and the USSR – building his credibility with the Soviet government, his expertise with the intricacies of the issues at hand, and advancing his diplomatic skills. His unique ability to charm with his smile and lighten a room with his humor, to impress with his intellect, and his passionate articulation of the moral issues facing the Soviets earned him meetings at the very top, culminating that day.
After breakfast on that grey, cold morning 24 years ago he could not find the tie he wanted to wear. So, there I stood in our hotel suite as the four letter words ricocheted off the walls. I imagine that our KGB handlers were well enough versed in the finer aspects of the English language to have been quite amused. It was not long before I located the tie and suggested that he take a few deep breaths and gather his thoughts before he headed over to the Kremlin to meet President Gorbachev.
After formal introductions and pleasantries, President Gorbachev began talking and talking and talking. In the middle of the monologue, my father raised his hand slightly and interrupted.
A stunned Gorbachev became red in the face and stopped speaking. Ambassador Dobrynin’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. My father said coolly, “Mr. President, I know you are incredibly busy and have very limited time. If it is OK withyou, can we discuss the issues you invited me here to discuss?” It is hard to imagine the guts it took for him to interrupt the one man who held in his handsthe fate of millions of Soviet Jews. But in that moment - with the raising of his hand, with his tone of voice, and with his favorite tie, he won Gorbachev’s’ respect and admiration.
THE REST, as they say, is history. But dad did not just make history; he sought to correct it as well. In the mid-1990s, he became convinced that the Swiss banks had profited from Jewish assets deposited before and during the Holocaust. In September 1995, he led a delegation of Jews to meet with the Swiss Banking Association in Bern. In a meeting made famous by my dad’s recounting of the incredulous events, the head of the Swiss Banking Authority explained that previous audits had found 739 dormant bank accounts with a total value of $5.6 million.
My father took that as a stinging symbol of the Swiss bankers’ arrogance and characteristic of their effort to dismiss the Jewish calls for moral justice as a petty nuisance. Worse, he believed that the Swiss thought that the Holocaust survivors could just be bought off.
But for my father, it was never about the money. It was about providing a small measure of justice for Holocaust victims.
It was about correcting the record of history.
Several weeks later, in his Manhattan apartment, my father approached one of his dinner guests and asked if she could help his effort to expose the Swiss banks and bring about justice. The guest asked if they stood a chance of gaining such justice. He replied, “With your husband’s help, yes.” And the very next day, my father stood in the Oval Office and made his case to President William Jefferson Clinton. The campaign against the Swiss banks was not easy. It was a long and bitter struggle, but ultimately, the power of moral justice prevailed.
And over $1.2 billion was granted to the victims.
One of our great sages, Ben Zoma, was famously asked, “Who is wealthy?” He answered, “He who is happy with what he has.” Yes, Dad was born into privilege and his business acumen made him even wealthier. However, he saw giving back to the world as the most important activity of his life. And it resulted in decades of full-time incredible leadership in diverse areas, advancing the interests of the Jewish people and the world at large.
And for this, as you know, President Clinton awarded my father the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 saying: “For his steadfast devotion to others, Edgar Bronfman has earned our nation’s deep gratitude.”
Dad’s greatest strength and perhaps his most important legacy to his children, his grandchildren and all who celebrate him here today was expressed to me by one of our generation’s great Jewish scholars, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He told me that my father was a shining example for Jews, not because he gave away money or because he toiled for the betterment of our people; there are many others who do that as well.
What made Edgar Bronfman unique is that at the age of 50, when he became head of the World Jewish Congress, he knew very little Jewishly. But he took the time to study and through his learning he was able to develop his moral core and the sense of Jewish values which guided him.
At the age when most people rest on their laurels, he began his career as a Jewish statesman and never stopped studying.
As a result, he became the leader that he could never have become otherwise.
Dad often said that it is our job to leave this world a better place than we found it. And it is now left for us to do ours. His was a life exceptionally well-lived.
May his memory be a blessing and inspiration to us all.