Matthew Bronfman thinks a strong economy could save the Middle East

US philanthropist supports cooperation with Palestinians; advocates integrating the ultra-Orthodox sector into mainstream society.

Matthew Bronfman (photo credit: Nathan Roie)
Matthew Bronfman
(photo credit: Nathan Roie)
NEW YORK – How would Matthew Bronfman convince more people to invest in Israel? “I think that’s really the second question you need to ask,” Bronfman says, sitting in his Manhattan office, replete with pictures of his family and the various world leaders he has met.
“The first question is, how do you get more American Jews to just visit Israel?” he states. “You’re not going to make an investment in a place where you don’t feel comfortable and don’t have some sort of passion.”
He points out that the number of American Jews who have ever visited Israel is shockingly low, at 41 percent, according to a 2012 survey by the American Jewish Committee, and only 35% according to the Jewish Federations of North America.
“So the first thing I would do is let them come to Israel and fall in love,” he says.
Bronfman, 54, one of the most generous American Jewish investors in Israel, grew up in a family that was not only passionate about the Jewish people, but always politically, socially and economically engaged with the Jewish state and the Jewish community in America. His father, Edgar Bronfman, Sr., was a philanthropist and, as president of the World Jewish Congress, had heavily advocated on behalf of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Charles Bronfman, Matthew’s uncle, was one of the founders of Taglit-Birthright.
Matthew, on his part, feels so connected to Israel that, when discussing it, he speaks of “where we live,” and “our neighbors in the region,” although he does not hold Israeli citizenship.
But he is a major shareholder in the Israel Discount Bank, the Shufersal retail chain and Ikea Israel, all of which, he says, are expanding.
In fact, Ikea Israel will open its third store in the country in Kiryat Ata, a Haifa suburb, in March 2014, alongside a large new shopping center scheduled to open the following summer.
“We’re very excited about this,” Bronfman says. “We’re really looking forward to bringing our brand, Ikea, to the North.”
In the meantime, he continues, Israel’s first two Ikea stores have been doing very well, and “we’re very pleased with the results.”
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in 2012, Bronfman said that his motivation for his multiple philanthropic efforts was “grounded in Jewish ethics and Jewish morals.”
Similarly, his investment in Israel began as a “macrobet” on the country’s future.
When he’s not busy running some of Israel’s largest businesses, Bronfman devotes much of his time to the American Jewish Committee, the 92nd Street Y and Limmud FSU, which focuses on helping Russianspeaking Jews and their descendants to reconnect with their Jewish roots. The secondary purpose is “Jewish social networking,” he jokes.
On intermarriage, Bronfman takes a moderate stance, saying there needs to be a way to encourage intermarried couples to raise a more Jewish-minded family.
Concerning Israel, Bronfman advocates integrating the ultra-Orthodox sector into mainstream society through mandatory national – although not necessarily military – service. “I think there is so much talent in that community – so much talent, discipline and the ability to sift through issues and problems, that to not have them part of the overall economy is ultimately going to be a very, very devastating thing for Israel,” he explains.
“If you look throughout [Jewish] history, people learned, but people also worked,” Bronfman adds.
“There was no subsidy from some greater state. Families needed to support themselves.
It shouldn’t be the requirement that all of your sons are living off the state.
That, I think, is not healthy” for society.
Bronfman is “100 percent” supportive of the new deal signed by International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz and Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara during the UN General Assembly on September 26, in which Steinitz committed Israel to helping develop the Palestinian economy.
“At the end of the day, people with jobs are less likely to be aggressive,” Bronfman suggests. “The internal turmoil going on in Egypt – it’s about jobs, it’s about economic security.
People who are hungry or unemployed tend to want to lash out. So the fact that Israel can help the Palestinians from an economic standpoint is tremendous.”
Bronfman hopes that eventually, Israel and her neighbors will enjoy economic security. “When you look at all our neighbors, it shows that economic stability is really the bedrock of political stability,” he says. “So ultimately, my dream would be that we have peace in the region, and I’m hoping – I’m not hopeful, but I’m hoping – that we could have the type of economic cooperation which would be good for us and good for our neighbors.”