Edgar Bronfman Helped to 'Let his People Go'

Founder and Chair of the Executive of Limmud FSU for Russian- Speaking Jews Chaim Chesler shares a personal tribute for Edgar Bronfman.

Edgar M. Bronfman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Edgar M. Bronfman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Edgar Bronfman was a giant among men in general and a giant in contemporary Jewish history in particular.
His life work, to say nothing of his philanthropic activities, had an impact on many hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide.
I had the fortune of knowing him well and working closely with him when I headed the Israeli Public Council for Soviet Jewry from 1985 to 1988 and when he was devoting much of his efforts to the struggle symbolized by our slogan, “Let my People Go!” Bronfman’s efforts on behalf of the Jewish people worldwide as president of the World Jewish Congress, a position he assumed in 1981 and held until he resigned in 2007, are well-known and embrace many aspects of modern Jewish life, from social rights, welfare and education, to anti-Semitism, the unmasking of the Nazi past of the Austrian President, Kurt Waldheim, and above all, negotiating for the restitution of property stolen from Jews during the Nazi era and the release of funds held for decades by Swiss banks, to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
But I will best remember him for his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. After Mikhail Gorbachev became First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985 and introduced the policy that became known as glasnost and perestroika, Bronfman concentrated much of his formidable powers in getting the Kremlin to change those repressive policies that had dominated Soviet attitudes to its Jewish population during much of the 60 years of Communist rule.
Early in that year, Bronfman obtained an invitation to the Kremlin in his role as President of the WJC, and in September, he was formally received by officials of the Soviet government. He also met with President Gorbachev, and raised the issue of a possible airlift to bring the Jews out of the USSR. He also called upon Gorbachev to resume diplomatic relations with Israel which had been discontinued in 1967.
In March 1987, Bronfman once again flew to Moscow for three intensive days of negotiations on the whole issue of Jewish emigration and for the lifting of bars within the country on such issues as the free practice of the Jewish religion, Jewish education and teaching the Hebrew language, all of which had been repressed.
But his primary mission was to call for the release of those Jews, known as refuseniks, who had consistently been denied the right to emigrate to Israel, as well as many Prisoners of Zion who had been imprisoned or sent to labor camps.
After another visit to Moscow in 1988, when Bronfman met Eduard Shevardnaze, the Soviet Foreign Minister (who went on to become President of Georgia), the Soviet position had begun to soften and the Soviets relaxed their attitude to the teaching of Hebrew and agreed to the opening of a Jewish cultural center in Moscow.
The flood gates of Jewish emigration opened in 1989 and since then Israel has been blessed with the aliyah of some one million Russian-speaking Jews who have changed the face of the country. Edgar Bronfman played a large part in it and for that I will personally cherish his memory.