For all his legend as a global power broker; Edgar Bronfman in conversation is simple, direct and often humorous. At his New York City office recently, the chairman of Seagram and head of the World Jewish Congress spoke for 90 minutes with Maclean’s Senior Writer Nomi Morris. Highlights:
On the hunt for Jewish wartime assets: I don’t know why nobody had looked at this question for 50 years. I mean, that intrigues me. Europeans, I think, have a sense, ‘leave well enough alone.’ It’s like the story of the two guys who are standing there about to be shot and one guy says to the guard, ‘Can I have a last cigarette?’ And the other guy says, ‘Don’t make trouble.’
On the Germans: I was honored to be at the 70th birthday party of [German Jewish leader] Ignatz Bubis last December at the presidential palace in Berlin. Everybody was there—the president, the foreign minister and a lot of other people. I said, ‘Here we are, being actually gloried and partied and champagned and everything else. Fifty years ago, they wanted to kill us. It’s a strange world we’re living in.’ And you don’t forget 50 years ago. I’m not, obviously, angry at the Germans of today, but they’re going to have to wrestle with this forever, as far as I’m concerned. This is something that their people did.
On his call for a Jewish ‘renaissance’: What we need is a rebirth of the spirit, a kind of excitement about what our religion is. To do that, it obviously takes education. As my friend Richard Jones, the head of Phillips, says, ‘It’s pretty hard to dance around the table if you don’t know the tune.’
The fact is that it is so easy in the world today to be Jewish. You don’t have trouble getting a job any more or whatever; overt anti-Semitism is at a very low ebb. So it has gotten very easy for Jews to opt out.
On power: When you have an awful lot of authority, like at Seagram, it’s normal for people to be scared or anxious because unfor-
tunately it’s an empire, and you only have to snap your fingers and suddenly that’s that. It’s not good. It’s the only way to run a company, but it’s a kind of benign autocracy. Now, that’s not true in Jewish life. God knows it’s not true. In fact, I think that made me a better executive, getting involved with the World Jewish Congress-
finding out that these are volunteer people that are spending their time, and they are just as smart and just as good as you are. On his politics: I’m a registered Republican, not that that means very much. I vote for who I think is going to be the next president. I didn’t think that Bush really understood what the problems were and I thought that Clinton was going to be the next president. I want to have a way to get to the president when I need to for Israel and Jewish purposes. Nothing personal.
On his home: I don’t have very fond memories of growing up in Montreal. The fondest memory I have is when I came to New York for the first time in 1939 for the world’s fair. I was 10. I took one look at New York and I said ‘Wow.’ And that never changed. I always loved New York and I always knew I was going to live here one day.
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