After a chat over coffee on a Friday morning, Murray Greenfield, 88, walks me to a photograph in the lounge of his comfortable Ramat Aviv home. It is a picture of prime minister David Ben-Gurion addressing the inaugural dinner of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel on March 7, 1961, with a young Murray Greenfield by his side.
Then, the American-born Greenfield does what he arguably does best – he tells a story.
“When I first became the executive director of AACI, we were unknown as an organization,” he said. “So I said, ‘We’re going to have a big dinner, and I’m going to get Ben-Gurion to come.’ Everyone said: ‘But we don’t have any money.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry.’ So I went to the Prime Minister’s Office to see Yitzhak Navon, and I said to him, ‘We’re going to have an annual dinner at the Sheraton Hotel,’ which was a new hotel in Tel Aviv. And he said, ‘I can’t guarantee it. We’ve got a lot going on.’ He said, ‘What do you want from me?’ And I said, ‘All I want from you is a letter noting that the date has been put on the prime minister’s calendar. That’s all I need.’
“So I told everybody: ‘Ben-Gurion is coming,’ knowing full well that he may not show up. And we sold tickets and made money; it was the first time AACI made some money, you know,” Greenfield recalls. “And there it was, at the new Sheraton Hotel, and guess what, he shows up! And me, I’m happy. Well, he gets up and he started to talk, calling on American Jews to make aliya, and his wife, she says, ‘Oy, again he’s talking about aliya!’"
“That was the picture. Nobody believed he would show up. And I had to be straight-faced and say, ‘What are you talking about? He’s gonna come. I got a letter.’ But he came, and it was a wonderful evening. On top of everything, the Sheraton Hotel had a bar, and they figured people would drink liquor so they gave me a very cheap price for the evening. But [laughing] of course nobody bought any liquor. After the dinner, the guy from the hotel says to me: ‘You guys don’t drink!’ And I said, ‘No, we only drink kiddush wine.’ And he says, ‘Boy, did I lose on that dinner!’ And I say, ‘You didn’t lose. What are you talking about? You made a lot. The prime minister came!’”
David Ben-Gurion addresses the AACI dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in 1961 next to Murray Greenfield.
The story is classic Greenfield. Murray is a marvelous story-teller and superb salesman. But his modesty and humor hide a life-long devotion to the State of Israel in a myriad of ways, including the rescue by sea of Jews who survived the Holocaust, helping immigrants from North America as a founding member of AACI, and playing a leading role in the aliya of Ethiopian Jewry.
As head of AACI, he is credited with establishing the first loan funds, a mortgage fund, and a variety of housing projects in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and on kibbutzim.
“One of the biggest problems for aliya is the lack of housing, which I fought for during my term as executive director of AACI,” he says. “This is a problem that we’re still facing today.”
He also accomplished a range of countless other achievements on the way, from running gift shops to serving as an investment counselor with the Palestinian Economic Corporation, exporting Israeli art to New York from his Tel Aviv-based Israel Art Gallery and – in 1981 – establishing the Jerusalem-based Gefen Publishing House, Israel’s top English-language book publisher, together with his wife Hana Lustig, a Czechborn Holocaust survivor.
Greenfield was born and grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in New York City, speaking English and Yiddish. During World War II, he served in the Merchant Marines, and by late 1946, someone told him about “Aliyah Bet” – or “illegal immigration,” as the British termed the Jews who trying to enter Israel after surviving the Holocaust.
Greenfield became one of 250 American volunteers who sailed on so-called “rust buckets” – vessels that were not made for long journeys – between 1946 and 1948, rescuing more than a third of Holocaust survivors from ports in Europe to Cyprus, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Greenfield recounted his role, together with Joseph M. Hochstein, in his 1987 book, The Jews’ Secret Fleet, the untold story of North American participation in smashing the British blockade which led to the founding of the Jewish state. It later inspired a 2008 documentary film titled Waves of Freedom.
Greenfield says he was motivated by Ben-Gurion to write the book. The prime minister confessed to him that he knew nothing about the Jewish Americans who had rescued European Jews on ships after the Holocaust, and it should be documented for posterity.
“We created the Jewish state, with the help of these ships,” Greenfield says. “Of the 70,000-odd Jews who were brought to Palestine after World War II and before the state, over 50 percent came on American ships sailed by some 250 young men who were volunteers like myself.”
Greenfield believes that without the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (which became UN General Assembly Resolution 181), the operation could never have been completed.
“We had to win the War of Independence, otherwise where would we be? But that was the next stage, because if the British had been told by the United Nations to keep Palestine, we couldn’t have won any war,” he says. “I’m sure when I look back at it all, the British did not believe the United Nations would vote in favor of two states. But once the British lost, because they’re law-abiding people, they gave up. And so I tell people that although I didn’t realize it at the time, we helped establish the Jewish state.”
I ask Greenfield when it actually hit him that he might have played a key role in the establishment of Israel. Not one to toot his own horn, he pauses for a minute and tells me it was probably during one of his early speaking tours to the US, where he was dispatched “to sell Israel, encourage investment in the new state, and encourage people to make aliya.” Herbert Friedman, a Reform rabbi in Cleveland who later became head of the United Jewish Appeal, turned to Greenfield while introducing him in Denver and said: “I, as a chaplain in the American Army, salute you for what you did. You were a part of the founding of the State of Israel.”
“Before he said that, I think I was first trying to be a hero by saving Holocaust survivors and later selling a product – Israel – that I didn’t really understand at the time,” Greenfield said. “But afterwards, I thought to myself, ‘Gee, I better look into that.’ Maybe I had mazel. But that was really the root of my Zionism.”
He made aliya at age 20, fell in love with Hana and settled down, first in Haifa and later in Tel Aviv. Together he and Hana created the Czech Torah Scrolls project (www.czechtorah.org), as well as educational programs in the Czech Republic and at the Terezin Ghetto Museum to inform young and old about the horrors of the Holocaust.
They had three children, Meira, Dror and Ilan, and 10 grandchildren, all of whom live in Israel. Dror sadly passed away in 2003 and his book company, Gefen, is now run by Ilan, and still produces dozens of titles annually.
In 1973, Murray and Hana published a book titled, How to be an Oleh, or Things the Jewish Agency Never Told You. Hana also wrote Fragments of Memory, which has been published in six languages.
Greenfield, who will be 89 on September 11, is still very active, regularly talking to groups of students, soldiers, business people and tourists, traveling abroad and volunteering for Friends of the Diaspora Museum, ZOA House, the Dick Siegel Marketing Fund at Tel Aviv University, and Bahalachin, The Ethiopian Jews Cultural Center.
Asked what message he conveys when he speaks to Israeli and Jewish groups from around the world, Greenfield says: “I say we’re winners, and it’s because of you. But we’ve got to stand up. You must be ready to stand up. When I meet with groups of college students from America, I tell them to wear leather gloves, so that when they throw tear gas at you, you are ready to fight."
“When I speak to kids, I say, ‘You know, when I came here, I had a public telephone that cost three dollars a minute to call America; today’s it’s practically free. I had a typewriter; you don’t know what a typewriter is. You got these fancy computers in your hands. We worked with primitive things to fight for Israel. You have to get up and use these sophisticated things to fight for Israel. Everyone should know, for example, what Israeli goods to buy to counter this boycott movement against us. That’s your job.”
Again Greenfield tells a story to illustrate his point. “When I was in America, I was invited to Havdala at someone’s home, so I go and there are about 50 families there, and I look on the table, and I say, ‘Where’s the Israeli wine?’” The host responded that he had Israeli wine, but he had decided not to offer it to his guests.
Greenfield replied: “But that’s your job. You come and visit us, but you have got to buy and show off Israeli goods, because you’re part and parcel of our war.
“I’m not so good at it,” Greenfield added, “but I’m working on it. I feel I can still do something about improving Israeli exports and fighting this BDS business.
For me, it’s B-I-G, Buy Israel Goods. That’s it, that’s what we can do. This is tachlis. Think BIG!”