After Edgar Bronfman Sr. took over the reins of Seagram in the early 1970s, he expanded the liquor company founded by his father Samuel into a sprawling global comglomerate, taking over juice-maker Tropicana and expanding into the oil and chemical businesses as well.
But while Bronfman, who died on Dec. 21 at age 84 in Manhattan, was successful enough in those ventures to become a billionaire, he had a vastly more profound and far-reaching impact with his work as a Jewish activist, organizer and philanthropist. As president of the World Jewish Congress from 1979 to 2007, Bronfman’s knack for building consensus among disparate activists transformed the organization into a laser-focused, aggressive international lobby that fought hard against injustices and to rectify past wrongs.
Under Bronfman, the WJC pressured the Soviet Union to improve conditions for Jews, a long-oppressed minority in that country, and to allow them to emigrate. He also led the successful effort to force Swiss banks to give back more than $1 billion to the heirs of European Jews who had perished in the Holocaust. Diplomat and lawyer Stuart Eizenstat has credited Bronfman’s political savvy and influence with President Clinton, whom he persuaded to take a personal interest in the restitution issue, and with then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), whom he urged to launch congressional hearings on the activities of Swiss banks during and after the war.
In the 1980s, Bronfman and the WJC also helped to lead efforts to confront former U.N. Secretary General and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim about his wartime service with German military units that rounded up Greek Jews and sent them to the death camps, which the international leader long had concealed. The activism led to Waldheim being barred from entering the United States, an embarrassing indignity for a head of state. After Bronfman denounced Waldheim as “part and parcel of the Nazi killing machine,” Waldheim retaliated by having his government file a criminal slander suit against Bronfman. But Bronfman was undeterred, and the charges eventually were dropped.
As Bronfman wrote in his 1998 memoir: “We may not earn the friendship of others, but we will demand their respect, not because of our newfound strength, which is transitory, but because of our enormous contributions to civilization, which are permanent.”
Here are some facts about Bronfman:
- Bronfman, a native of Montreal, moved to the United States in the mid-1950s to head Seagram’s U.S. subsidiary, and he eventually became a U.S. citizen.
- His first job at Seagram, at age 21, was as an apprentice taster and accounting clerk.
- Though Seagram was a distiller, he said in a 2008 New York Times interview that he only drank liquor once a week, on Friday before dinner. His favored brand: Chivas Regal Scotch whisky.
- In the early 1980s, Bronfman lost out to DuPont in a bid to take over oil and gas company Conoco — but ended up acquiring 20 percent of DuPont as a result. Within a few years, that stake accounted for three-quarters of Seagram’s profits.
- In 1999 President Clinton honored Bronfman with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian citation.
- In the Times interview, he said it was crucial for Jews to stand up against injustice of all sorts: “There are things we have to do. For instance, Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda. There have been holocausts since our Holocaust. We should be the first people to stand up and say this is unacceptable, but we don’t. We say, ‘Never again,’ just for us. We have to say, No, it’s for everyone, this ‘Never again.’”
Bronfman spoke at an event to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, an exchange program for U.S. and Israeli high school students.
Photo of Bronfman in 1994 with President Bill Clinton: LadyLorna860 via Wikipedia
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