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Longtime leader of World Jewish Congress has died

Edgar Bronfman, left, president of the World Jewish Congress looks on during a hearing to discuss assets deposited in Swiss Banks by Nazi victims before the House Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in 1996. Keystone

Edgar Bronfman, who spearheaded efforts to return Jewish assets in Swiss bank accounts as head of the World Jewish Congress, has died aged 84. The billionaire philanthropist was also chairman of the Seagram liquor company.

According to his charity, The Edgar Bronfman Foundation, the Montreal-born son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants died at his New York home on Saturday surrounded by family.

Under Bronfman’s leadership, the World Jewish Congress filed a class action lawsuit in 1995 alleging that Holocaust survivors and their heirs were being denied access to dormant Swiss bank accounts. Bronfman, a close supporter of President Bill Clinton, is said to have encouraged and worked with Clinton to bring the issue to the forefront.

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Looking back at the Holocaust assets controversy

This content was published on In 1996, Thomas Borer was a young, up-and-coming Swiss diplomat serving in the ministry for foreign affairs in Bern. Madeleine Kunin was newly appointed by President Bill Clinton as the United States Ambassador to Switzerland. Both were unaware that they were soon to become involved in a political crisis that would test the people and…

Read more: Looking back at the Holocaust assets controversy

Following several years of hearings and negotiations, a list of dormant Swiss bank accounts was published in newspapers around the world in July 1997 that would allow Jewish families to make claims to lost assets.

And on August 12, 1998, the Swiss banks agreed to return $1.25 billion (CHF1.16 billion) to Holocaust victims and their heirs.

Rolf Bloch, head of the Swiss-Israeli Association SIG between 1992 and 2000, remembers Bronfman as someone who came to understand over the course of the Jewish asset negotiations that the Swiss political system worked differently than that of the United States.

“He was used to making fast and autonomous decisions, and less to listening to others,” Bloch said. But, he added, after being convinced at first that Switzerland had “something to hide” in the negotiations, Bronfman ultimately found a certain understanding for the Swiss position that he brought to the negotiating table.

Bronfman served as head of the World Jewish Congress from 1981 until 2007. Under his leadership, it became known as a more focused organisation willing to take on confrontation.

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