Edgar Bronfman: Businessman who as head of the World Jewish Congress devoted his private life to championing Jewish causes


Edgar Bronfman was a restless, imaginative business leader who presided over what was once the largest liquor group on earth. The Seagram Company, however, is no more, sold to the French group Vivendi in 2000 amid an unhappy foray into the entertainment industry by his son and successor, Edgar Jr. The elder Edgar's real legacy is his quarter-century tenure as president of the World Jewish Congress, which he turned into the pre-eminent institution representing the Jewish diaspora, and a champion of Jewish causes, from the right of emigration from the Soviet Union to the restitution of assets lost during the Holocaust.

Edgar Bronfman Sr was born into one of Montreal's wealthiest Jewish families. His father Samuel, who had emigrated to Canada to flee the pogroms of czarist Russia, had created the Seagram-Distillers empire, and thrived mightily as much of output was bootlegged into the US during prohibition. The son's childhood was often an unsettling tug-of-war between two worlds: the elite Protestant schools to which he was sent by his father, and the Hebrew studies and synagogue upon which Samuel also insisted. "The fact of our Jewishness was never in doubt," he later wrote, "but the contradictory ways in which it found expression created a deep ambivalence in me that took many years to resolve."

The young Edgar started his career at the family business in 1951, first in accounts, then at the distilling plant to learn the whisky-maker's craft. By 1955, aged 26, he had transferred to the US to head Seagram's American operations, its main source of revenue. Four years later he became a US citizen. From his new base in New York Bronfman led Seagram's international expansion and diversification.

In 1971 his father died and Edgar became chairman. He held the job for 23 years, cutting an elegant figure in Manhattan society as he moved Seagram into the oil and movie industries, acquired the soft drinks manufacturer Tropicana and secured a 25 per cent stake in the Du Pont chemicals company.

In 1994 he handed the reins to Edgar Jr, but Jewish affairs had already become his consuming interest, kindled by a 1970 trip to lobby the Kremlin to allow Jews greater rights in the Soviet Union, the successor state to the imperial Russia which his grandparents and father had fled. "My curiosity was piqued," he explained later. "What is it about Judaism, I asked myself, that has kept it alive through so much adversity while so many other traditions have disappeared? Curiosity soon turned into something more, and that 'something more' has since turned into a lifelong passion."

In 1981 he was elected president of the World Jewish Congress, founded in 1936 in Geneva as an umbrella organisation for Jewish communities around the world. For some while it had stagnated, but Bronfman revived it with a vengeance, appointing his long-time associate Israel Singer as deputy and plunging into a variety of high-profile and Holocaust-related issues. In 1982 he became the first representative of any Jewish organisation to address the United Nations. Three years later he was the first official spokesman of world Jewry to travel to Moscow, where he met the new reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev and pressed for the release of the 'Prisoners of Zion' – Soviet Jews jailed merely for having expressed the wish to emigrate to Israel.

Several such trips followed, in which Bronfman fought for further concessions, including the right of Jews to practice their religion and for Hebrew to be taught in schools. His approach was unrelenting but essentially that of a businessman constructing a deal beneficial to both sides. "By their actions," he said at the time, "they [the Soviets] are indicating that they are eager to get the question of Jewish rights and emigration off the bargaining table."

Simultaneously, the WJC was becoming a scourge of individuals and countries compromised by the Holocaust. In 1986 it helped uncover the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian president and former Secretary General of the UN, accusing him of concealing his knowledge of crimes against Jews. Then Bronfman led the battle to obtain restitution by the Swiss banks of assets deposited with them by Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The campaign produced a $1.25bn settlement for surviving relatives, as well as vast embarrassment for Switzerland, exposing that country's less-than-heroic attitude to the Nazis.

Despite the unravelling of the Seagram empire, Bronfman's 2011 net worth was estimated by at $2.6bn. A notable philanthropist, he gave large sums to Jewish causes, including Hillel, the global Jewish campus organisation. He also ran the Samuel Bronfman foundation, named after his father and dedicated to bringing about a "Jewish Renaissance". He also found time to produce four autobiographical books.

But his reign at WJC closed in controversy, when he fired his old lieutenant Singer after allegations of financial mismanagement and resigned himself soon after, in 2007. His family life could be turbulent as well. Bronfman married four different women (one of them twice), and upset Samuel, his eldest son, by appointing his younger brother Edgar to take over in the family business.

Two decades earlier, in 1975, Samuel himself made headlines when he was abducted in New York and held for ransom, and his father personally delivered the $2.4m payment to the two kidnappers. But the affair was murky, with allegations that young Sam had been complicit in his abduction. Ultimately, the defendants were convicted on a lesser charge of extortion.

To the end Bronfman was a staunch supporter of moderate politicians in Israel, and of a peace deal with the Palestinians. His focus, however, began to shift from correcting past wrongs against Jews to preserving a special identity for his people. "We are not in crisis because of anti-Semitism," he told The New York Times in 2008. "We are in crisis because we are disappearing through assimilation."

Edgar Miles Bronfman, businessman and philanthropist: born Montreal 20 June 1929; Chairman and Chief Executive, Distillers-Seagram 1971-1994; President, World Jewish Congress 1981-2007; US Presidential Medal of Freedom 1999; married 1953 Ann Loeb (divorced 1973; four sons, one daughter), 1973 Carolyn Townshend (divorced 1974), thirdly and fourthly Rita Webb (marriages dissolved; two daughters), 1994 Jan Aronson; died New York 21 December 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'