The Jewish Leader Who Helped to ‘Let His People Go’

by Chaim Chesler

Edgar Bronfman, who died on Shabbat at the age of 84, was a giant among men in general and in contemporary Jewish history in particular. His life’s work, to say nothing of his philanthropic activities, had an impact on hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide.

I had the fortune of knowing him well and working closely with him when I headed the Israeli Public Council for Soviet Jewry from 1985 to 1988 and when he was devoting much of his efforts to the struggle symbolized by our slogan, “Let My People Go!” Bronfman’s efforts on behalf of the Jewish people worldwide as president of the World Jewish Congress – a position he assumed in 1979 and held until he resigned in 2007 – are well-known. They embrace many aspects of modern Jewish life, from social rights, welfare and education, to anti-Semitism, the unmasking of Austrian president Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past, and above all, negotiating for the restitution of property stolen from Jews during the Nazi era, and the release of funds, held for decades in Swiss banks, to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

But I will best remember him for his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. After Mikhail Gorbachev became first secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985 and introduced the policy that became known as glasnost and perestroika, Bronfman concentrated his formidable powers on getting the Kremlin to change those repressive policies that had dominated Soviet attitudes toward its Jewish population during much of the 60-year Communist rule. Early that year, Bronfman obtained an invitation to the Kremlin in his role as President of the WJC, and in September, he was formally received by officials of the Soviet government. He also met with Gorbachev and raised the issue of a possible airlift to bring the Jews out of the USSR. He further called on Gorbachev to resume diplomatic relations with Israel, which had been discontinued first in 1967and again in 1989.

In March 1987, Bronfman once again flew to Moscow for three intensive days of negotiations on the issue of Jewish emigration, as well as on lifting bars within the country on such issues as the free practice of the Jewish religion, Jewish education and teaching the Hebrew language – all of which had been repressed.

But his primary mission was to call for the release of those Jews, known as refuseniks, who had consistently been denied the right to emigrate to Israel, as well as many Prisoners of Zion who had been imprisoned or sent to labor camps. After another visit to Moscow in 1988, when Bronfman met Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnaze (who went on to become president of Georgia), the Soviet position had begun to soften; the Soviets relaxed their attitude toward the teaching of Hebrew and agreed to the opening of a Jewish cultural center in Moscow.

The floodgates of Jewish emigration opened in 1989, and since then, Israel has been blessed with the aliya of some one million Russian-speaking Jews who have changed the face of the country. Bronfman played a large part in it, and for that I will personally cherish his memory.

I’m proud that his talented son Matthew is continuing in his footsteps as chairman of the International Steering Committee of Limmud FSU, which brings Jewish identity to thousands of Russian-speaking Jews in the former Soviet Union and around the globe.

Chaim Cesler is founder and chair of Limmud FSU’s Executive Committee.