Charles Bronfman turns 90: Birthright, anti-Semitism and Donald Trump

Charles Bronfman
(Photo credit: Eyal Izhar/Globes Magazine)

Charles Bronfman doesn’t expect to be around to see the fruits of his newest project. But the Canadian billionaire philanthropist and co-founder of the free Birthright trips to Israel, cites the famous Ethics of the Fathers maxim about turning 90 doesn’t give him the excuse to desist from tackling his vision: unity of the Jewish People.

“We believe, and we have a lot of research to back it up, that Israelis and North Americans really don’t know each other as people,” Bronfman told The CJN Daily in an interview Tuesday from his home in New York City. His new charitable venture, called Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, is an Israel-based start-up that is sort of a reverse Birthright, and aims to make young Israelis more aware of and connected to their peers in the Diaspora.

“We know each other as ‘Israel the defender of the Jewish people, the defender of Israel’, [and] we know the Diaspora as people who either love Israel or are embarrassed by Israel,” Bronfman said, adding that in reality, young Israelis and Diaspora Jews both like the same music, both like to dance, and are not only the stereotype soldiers who like to shoot people or spoiled, rich North Americans. “I believe solely and totally 100 percent that there is one Jewish people and unless we come to grips with that, we’re going to fade away.”

The new venture launched quietly in January 2021. The first event was “One2One.” a series of online mifgashim or meetups between 500 Israeli high school students and teens in England, Canada, and the United States. It was billed as a chance for the Israeli students to practise their English, talk about their favourite topics including history or sports, and receive credits in school. From those sessions, it was hoped, relationships and awareness will build.

The program is set to be expanded in September through the Israeli school system, and Bronfman says the new Israeli government supports what he is trying to do.

“The incoming president of Israel, Isaac Herzog is very taken with it, we believe that Nachman Shai, the minister of Diaspora Affairs… is very interested, the educational department of Israel is interested,” he said. “So it’s starting. It has a long long way to go, I won’t be alive when it’s really, really popular.”

Watch the full interview with Charles Bronfman here:

Charles Bronfman speaks to The CJN on his 90th birthday.

Four days of celebrations

Bronfman’s relationship with Israel’s president elect became even warmer last Sunday when Herzog sent a surprise recorded birthday message to him as part the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s private concert to mark the milestone occasion. The video of the program, which included pieces by Schubert and Brahms, was pre-recorded in the national orchestras’s home concert hall that bears Charles Bronfman’s name. The Canadian was the main donor when renovations transformed the landmark cultural centre formerly known as the Mann Auditorium in 2013.

Bronfman watched the online performance during a four-day birthday celebration over the weekend. Over 30 members of his extended family gathered at a Sea Island resort in Georgia, including children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and his wife Rita. Bronfman makes his home in New York, and hasn’t been to his native Montreal since the pandemic began, due to quarantine restrictions for travellers. He plans to make a short trip in early July to visit his children’s mother, Barbara Bronfman, to whom he has remained close ever since their divorce in 1981.

Hatred of Israel to continue

While Bronfman maintains a close relationship with some of the key members of the incoming Israeli government, including Yair Lapid, he is less familiar with the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

“Bennett was too far to the right for me but I think he’s moderating his views and, who knows, I hope that he’ll become another [Menachem] Begin, but you never know,” Bronfman said, when asked to give his predications on the future of new coalition government in Israel since it was sworn in. Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for signing a peace treaty with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who also won.

Bronfman foresees Israel’s coalition government focusing on domestic issues for the time being, including delivering the first budget in over two years, and putting less emphasis for the time being on the more hot-button issues such as the Israel-Palestinian peace crisis.

However, in Bronfman’s view, failure to find a meaningful way to solve the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and with other Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, will mean a continuation of the current spike in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism around the world.

“Look, we have a very, very difficult row to hoe over the next few years. The only way that it’s going to stop being intimidating towards us is, if there are moves towards peace,” Bronfman said. “The status quo will be awful, and I think that what happened in the Gaza situation recently, it really let the genie out of the bottle.”

He also partly blames the former American president, Donald Trump, for the deluge of online hatred against Israel and Jews, which includes the vilification of Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state.

“Donald Trump did something that is so heinous, that it’s beyond description,” Bronfman said, explaining that the former president made it acceptable to display prejudices publicly. “All of a sudden he took all those layers of civility and blew them away, so now people are free to hate.”

Rethinking Birthright?

While the pandemic forced the interruption of Birthright trips from Canada to Israel since 2020, Bronfman still sees the organization that he co-founded as an effective tool to help young Diaspora Jews feel less embarrassed by Israeli government policies, and, more broadly, to fell proud of belonging to the Jewish people. He is aware of efforts by groups like Canadian Friends of Peace Now to call for broadening the scope of Birthright tours to include Palestinian perspectives, and topics like Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, and social inequities in Israeli society.

“We are not shills for Israel,” Bronfman acknowledged. “Our business is to, I can’t say convert, but to assure Jews that being Jewish is cool, that being part of the Jewish people is good and that having an emotional attachment to Israel is fine. We’re not going beyond that because it’s worked so well.”

The organization says 750,000 participants have taken in Birthright Israel, from 68 countries, including over 100,000 Israelis, since 1999.

To 120?

When Bronfman turned 70, his children created The Charles Bronfman Prize to mark his birthday. It awards $100,000 to Jewish humanitarians who are changing the world. When he turned 85, Bronfman’s autobiography was released: Distilled was co-written with Toronto business journalist Howard Green. After his 90th, he is busy enough with his current project The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, that he isn’t planning new ventures.

Although when people wish him the traditional Jewish blessing of “Ad Mei VeEsrim, or may you live to 120,” Bronfman has a ready answer.

“Well, I figure that at 119, I renegotiate!”

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