Q&A

‘So many questions’

Charles Bronfman talks about Israel, terrorism and the world after Sept. 11

November 26 2001
Q&A

‘So many questions’

Charles Bronfman talks about Israel, terrorism and the world after Sept. 11

November 26 2001

‘So many questions’

Charles Bronfman talks about Israel, terrorism and the world after Sept. 11

Q&A

Few Canadians have a greater interest in the Middle East than Charles Bronfman. The Montreal-born businessman and philanthropist, now 70, has invested millions in business and charitable ventures in Israel, and travels there often. He spoke to Macleans Editor Anthony WilsonSmith. Excerpts:

Maclean’s: How has the situation evolved in Israel since Sept. 11?

Bronfman: Attitudes have really changed twice. At first, many Israelis thought, ‘Now the Americans will realize firsthand the kind of conditions we live with all the time.’ I think people thought that Israel would get free rein from the alliance to do whatever it thought needed to be done.

Then, within about 48 hours, it became clear that, suddenly, the conflict between Israel and Palestine was seen as only a sideshow alongside a much greater conflict, and that neither side should act in a way to further mess things up. I don’t think either side accepted that.

Maclean’s: How do you judge theperformance of the Israeli government ?

Bronfman: I’m a Labour supporter, and that is well known. [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharons initiative in building a national-unity coalition government has been extremely important. The people in government have handled themselves very well. But there is a larger ongoing debate about what happens in future, and about the definitions of what constitutes terrorism, that Israelis are being forced to confront. For example, is a terrorist who kills 21 or 22 teenagers in a disco, as he blows himself up, considered a terrorist in the same way as someone who flies an aircraft into a building, thus killing some number of thousands? Is it intent, or scale, that matters in our definition?

Maclean’s: Are you concerned that Washington, with the importance it attaches to Arab support of the alliance, willpush Israel in directions it might not otherwise wish to move? Bronfman: There’s no doubt that the building of an alliance carries with it some kind

of price tag. But having said that, my sense of Americans is they have this wonderful love of democracy in any form. They also love the Judeo-Christian ethic.

They admire Israelis for the way they’ve built a functioning, thriving democracy out of the desert. So even if the administration were to look at this in coldblooded terms—and I don’t believe that’s what they would do—I think the American people would let those powerful sentiments of theirs be known.

Maclean’s: Have you followed Canadas actions on the Middle East closely and if so, how do you feel about them ?

Bronfman: The visits by [Canadian Foreign Minister] John Manley and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair were so close that they almost overlapped. They both had a very hard time in Syria. It’s a great thing that they both went: it’s important to deliver the right messages from our governments to countries in that region. Maclean’s: You have significant investments in Israel. In the wake of Sept. 11, is the temptation to pull back for business reasons, or to remain there to make a sort of statement? Bronfman: Since I first became heavily involved in business in Israel in 1988, we have had a number of great successes. We’ve also had some hard times. I have a number of investments there in the telecom business, and they’ve taken a hit. What’s hurt Israel more than the lack of tourism lately is the fall of the Nasdaq. Israel is a great high-tech place, so the whole fall in that sector has had a tremendous impact. Now, there’s a lot of talk about the development of biotech. That’s not quite the same thing, and we’ll have to see what the implications are for Israel.

Maclean’s: You support a wide number of charitable ventures. Have you shiftedfocus at all as a result of Sept. 11?

Bronfman: Not really. One of my big causes these days is Birthright Israel, a project by which we sent about 22,000 young adults to visit Israel last year. Young Canadians formed the second-largest group of that. I’ve also been active with the chairmanship of the United Jewish Communities. My term of office just ended. My wife is active in a venture in New York, opening up cultural and sports facilities to the families of the victims of Sept. 11. Maclean’s: Where were you that day? Bronfman: We were in Montreal, en route to Toronto. It’s funny, Montreal is my traditional home, but we couldn’t wait to get to New York. We felt this tremendous pull. Maclean’s: How do you see events developing over the next while globally?

Bronfman: This ongoing war on terrorism will be a very tough go. There are so many questions. How long will the alliance hold together? How do you shore up the economies of those countries that need our help so badly? How do you get to the root of why these people hate us so much? Politically, what is the level of resolve for a war that is so indeterminate, for the level of ongoing protection at home against terror that is required. Can countries keep working together in this way?

Maclean’s: Some Muslims are vehemently anti-Israel. But Jews who have experienced anti-Semitism may feel sympathy for Muslims experiencingprejudice. Where do you sit? Bronfman: Perhaps Jewish groups in North America missed the boat by not taking out ads very early to say this is not a JewishMuslim war, but rather a war on extremist, terrorist elements that all good people oppose. There are people in the Jewish community who worry about anti-Semitism in our society, and whether that can have negative implications in the way things unfold. I don’t worry about that. EH1