Edgar Bronfman Used Jet-Setter Power To Defend Jewish Interests

Wasn't Afraid to Push Around Presidents and Billionaires

Global Cachet: Edgar Bronfman , left, greets Alfred Defago, right, Swiss consul general in New York, in 1997 before beginning a meeting of the World Jewish Restitution organization
getty images
Global Cachet: Edgar Bronfman , left, greets Alfred Defago, right, Swiss consul general in New York, in 1997 before beginning a meeting of the World Jewish Restitution organization

By Cnaan Liphshiz and Julie Wiener

Published December 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(JTA) — In 1992, Edgar Bronfman was preparing to leave North America for Paris for his first meeting with then-French President Francois Mitterand at the Elysee Palace when at the last minute Bronfman decided he wanted to take an unexpected meeting in Geneva instead.

So he asked Serge Cwajgenbaum, Bronfman’s right-hand man in Europe, to phone the palace and ask to reschedule. The Elysee secretary, Hubert Vendrine, exploded.

“He asked me who Edgar Bronfman thinks he is to move around a meeting with the president,” Cwajgenbaum recalled. His answer? “The owner of half the wineries and vineyards in Bordeaux.”

In the end, Mitterand met earlier with Bronfman and then gave him a police escort to the airport so Bronfman could catch his plane to Geneva.

“It’s a good demonstration of the ease with which Bronfman conducted himself with world leaders,” Cwajgenbaum says.

As the longtime head of the Seagram Company – at one point the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world – Bronfman, who died last week at 84, was among the world’s most powerful industrialists, credited with expanding the company’s reach into the oil and chemical sectors and enhancing its reputation as a purveyor of high-quality spirits.

But Bronfman will be remembered in the Jewish world for bringing that same flair and jet-setter assertiveness to his defense of communal interests, most notably in his role as head of the World Jewish Congress, a position he assumed in 1981.

“Whether people liked him or disliked him, agreed or disagreed with him, there was a stature he had that no one has today,” said Rabbi Richard Marker, who served as executive vice president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation in the 1990s.

In 1988, Bronfman flew in his private plane to Romania in the midst of an anti-Semitic campaign in state-run media targeting the country’s late chief rabbi, Moses Rosen. Shortly after landing in Bucharest, Bronfman was negotiating with the country’s Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, promising him better ties with the West in exchange for letting the WJC help Romanian Jews. He also warned that targeting Jews would increase Romania’s isolation and tighten the Soviet grip on Ceausescu.

There was another threat looming as well: The Romanian government’s plans to demolish ancient Jewish sites in Bucharest as part of a real-estate reform. Ceausescu was tried and executed the following year, but not before he managed to destroy several Jewish sites in the capital.

“If not for Bronfman’s intervention, he may have also destroyed the Choral Temple, Romania’s Grand Synagogue, during that critical period,” said Liviu Rotman, a Romanian historian who has studied Bronfman’s negotiations with Ceausescu.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.