1929-2013

Edgar Bronfman: The Last of the Jewish Patrician Benefactors

Edgar Bronfman led a long, industrious life, but ultimately saw his influence dim.

Edgar Miles Bronfman, who died on Sunday aged 84, achieved many transitions during his lifetime. He transformed his family’s image from that of Russian-Jewish immigrants on the Canadian frontier to cultured Manhattan nobility, bequeathing New York one of its iconic skyscrapers. Under his management the family business Seagram went from being a liquor company with murky Prohibition-era bootlegger connections to an international multi-billion corporation. After cleaning himself and his family from every trace of shtetl mud and arriviste stigma, he underwent another transformation in his 50s; from hard-headed businessman to mega-philanthropist and Jewish statesman.

Had he been born half a century earlier he might have one day been mentioned in the same breath as the great gvirim (patrician benefactors) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who supplied the economic foundations for Jewish settlement in pre-independence Israel and used their financial and political clout to advocate on behalf and improve the lives of Jews around the world.

If he had been 30 years younger, he would have been forced to jostle for space with the Jewish oligarchs emerging from the financial ruin of the Soviet Union. His passing away was mentioned in passing in the Hebrew media; not many Israelis recognized his name.

In 2005, when a small but determined band of lay leaders in the World Jewish Congress began agitating for an investigation into the movement’s financial affairs and specifically the conduct of the WJC’s all-powerful secretary general Israel Singer, few believed they would get anywhere. No executive in any Jewish organization had connections or influence to rival Singer’s and above all, he was “Bronfman’s right-hand man.”

Few accountants, lawyers or journalists who could barely remember a time before Edgar Bronfman led the WJC were capable of imagining a probe that would touch him or his trusted lieutenant. But less reverent investigators and reporters began taking the allegations seriously. The investigations eventually culminated in a critical report by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and a decision by Bronfman, who had initially backed Singer, the man who had brought him into Jewish public life, to fire him.

The accusation that Singer had embezzled WJC funds was never proven in court and no one at any point accused Bronfman of knowing or abetting any crime. But the scandal tainted the end of Bronfman’s 28-year tenure at the head of what was once the most respected of global Jewish organizations.

Bronfman, with Singer as his guide, had served as a figurehead for some of the greatest Jewish campaigns of the last generation: freedom for Soviet Jews, revealing the war record of Austrian President and former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, forcing Swiss banks to reach a settlement on the hidden deposits of Holocaust victims and rescinding the UN General Assembly’s 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.

There was never unanimous Jewish support for these crusades, but Bronfman was adept at building a wide consensus and using his platform as WJC president to open doors to heads of state who, despite the fact that Bronfman was hardly known outside America, accepted him as a proxy president for all Jews. 

With or without the help of WJC, the Iron Curtain came down and the end of the Cold War diplomatic divisions allowed for the revocation of the “Zionism is racism” resolution at the UN in 1991. Waldheim was found to have lied about his war experiences, but was not proven to have been a rabid Nazi and completed his term as Austria’s president. The Swiss banks returned some of the Holocaust money, but hardly all of it, and Bronfman came in for criticism for accepting the settlement in 2000 on behalf of the Jewish people.

By that time he had recast the WJC in his image, effectively bankrolling the organization (as he had many other major Jewish movements such as the student’s Hillel organization), which had once been funded by membership dues. For some, that made Bronfman almost inviolate. Others felt he had subsumed the Congress for his personal glory.

As the major center of influence in global Jewish affairs irretrievably moved from the United States to Israel, where right-wing governments out of tune with Bronfman’s pro-peace beliefs held sway, his stature diminished and with it the real influence of the WJC. International leaders still welcomed him and he was assured of a sympathetic audience with any Israeli prime minister, no matter of what party, but he was far from untouchable and had long ago ceased to be a “king of the Jews,” if such a title had ever had any real meaning.

The Jewish benefactors and philanthropists of a century or so ago were unique figures, elevated by their wealth and privilege above their disenfranchised brethren. The access they enjoyed in royal courts and chanceries could be critical for ensuring the livelihood of Jewish communities, and their generosity and interest provided necessary resources for independent Jewish settlement.

But by the time Bronfman came on the stage, most of the Jews in the world lived in democratic societies, philanthropists were standing in line to donate to Zionist causes and Israel no longer needed him or any other gvir to beg its case before the high and mighty. It had its own diplomats and elected representatives for that.

In the new scheme of things, American Jewish leaders and billionaires could act as lobbyists, fund-raisers and supporters, but forget about lecturing the Jewish State on its policies or trying to intervene in the Washington-Jerusalem dialogue, as Bronfman tried to do in his letter to President Bush in 2003, effectively calling on him to pressure Ariel Sharon on the peace process and the West Bank Separation Fence.

Bronfman was to discover that he had lost whatever real influence he had, and that the post of WJC president no longer guaranteed him a place at the high table − certainly not if he defied the Israeli leadership. His attempt to influence both Israelis and Americans only served to motivate his critics, who saw him as an interfering leftist who should not be representing the Jewish people.

Ultimately Bronfman stayed too long, setting himself up to be brought down by an iconoclastic press and jealous rivals; his hopes of having his son Matthew succeed him as president and creating a dynasty was dashed. He had a long and industrious life − he lived to see the end of the age of the great Jewish patrician benefactor. 

AP