Grapevine October 6, 2021: The American component in Aliyah Bet

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 Arjun Ghimire, Itsik Kamilian, Snjan Shakya, yitzhak Eldan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arjun Ghimire, Itsik Kamilian, Snjan Shakya, yitzhak Eldan
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Just before the president of Israel enters a room or an auditorium, everyone present is asked by the master or mistress of ceremonies to stand up. Indeed, that’s what happened last Friday, when President Isaac Herzog entered the auditorium of ANU – Museum of the Jewish People. But a few moments, later, when the man in whose honor Herzog had joined a crowd of distinguished people came into the auditorium, it was Herzog who stood up for him, as did everyone else.

The man in question was Murray Greenfield, and the occasion was in celebration of his 95th birthday – a factor that in itself, said Herzog, was a milestone, but seeing Greenfield surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was a privilege.

Addressing Greenfield directly, Herzog said: “Murray you were at the beginning of what became the State of Israel. When you made aliyah in 1947, you could not imagine what Israel has become today. You are a trailblazer – a modern-day hero, a great Zionist and a lover of Israel. Your love of Israel is an inspiration to us all.”

Anyone who knows him can testify that Greenfield is a great raconteur. His family members have been hearing his stories all their lives and, according to his son Ilan, did not know whether to believe them, until they encountered some of the people involved in those stories and learned “that they were all true.”

New York-born Murray Greenfield, the fourth of five brothers, never set out to be a Zionist. It was an accident of fate. After graduating high school, he signed up with the US Merchant Marine and, during the Second World War, served on several tankers.

Whenever he was home, he went to synagogue on Saturdays – mainly for the kiddush. On one such occasion, he met someone who told him that they were looking for people like him. He was given a phone number. He made the call and arranged to meet the person at the other end of the line for coffee at Horn & Hardart.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG and Murray Greenfield, flanked by Ilan Greenfield (left) and Tal Brody. (credit: ITZIK BIRAN) PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG and Murray Greenfield, flanked by Ilan Greenfield (left) and Tal Brody. (credit: ITZIK BIRAN)

He was told that his mission would be to sail to different ports to pick up people who were Holocaust survivors and take them to what was then Palestine. He was warned that the ship would not be flying an American flag, that the mission was dangerous, and that he might go to prison. When he asked about pay, he was told that there was no pay. It was a voluntary job.

Young, curious and adventurous, his only worry was how to tell his mother that he was not going to college. When he plucked up the courage to tell her, she was taken aback, but when he explained that it was to help the Jewish people, she raised no objections, even though he did not specify the nature of that help.

The ship, which was really a rust bucket and in no condition to be sailing, was renamed Hatikva. Greenfield was unaware at the time that it was one of 10 ships manned by American volunteers who brought thousands of Holocaust survivors to the Land of Israel.

The Hatikva carried close to 1,500 passengers, one of whom was Auschwitz survivor Michael Goldman-Gilad, who has a riveting story of his own. As Gilad climbed the rope ladder to get on board the ship, Greenfield reached down to help him up and in a strong American accent said: “Shalom haver.” They’ve been friends ever since, and Gilad was present at the tribute last Friday, and also appeared in an excellent documentary made by Yoni Glicksberg, who is married to Orianne, the youngest daughter of Murray’s daughter, Meira.

Also present and in the film was Israel’s Mr. Basketball, Tal Brody, who in an even broader American accent in 1977, following Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory over CSKA Moscow, declared “We are on the map, and we’ll stay on the map.” In the film Greenfield tells him that he was speaking a universal language when he said “We’re on the map.”

 MURRAY GREENFIELD, flanked by his son Ilan Greenfield and his daughter Meira Partem-Greenfield. (credit: ITZIK BIRAN) MURRAY GREENFIELD, flanked by his son Ilan Greenfield and his daughter Meira Partem-Greenfield. (credit: ITZIK BIRAN)

To anyone who may have wondered why the president chose to grace the Greenfield event, it is because the two families have been friends for many years.

When Greenfield decided to research American involvement in Aliyah Bet, he not only discovered that there had been 10 ships with American crews, but that this was a piece of unknown history.

Never backward in coming forward, Greenfield explained to the people sitting in the auditorium that he had been angry that this important aspect of history had been ignored, and had taken his beef to Chaim Herzog, who was subsequently the recipient of the first copy of The Jews’ Secret Fleet: The Untold Story of North American Volunteers who Smashed the British Blockade. Isaac Herzog, who has read the book, said that it was a story that needs to be told.

Greenfield and his passengers were intercepted by the British and exiled to Cyprus. For his 90th birthday, Greenfield’s family en masse took him to Cyprus to relive the period that he spent there.

It was only after the State of Israel was proclaimed that Greenfield was able to complete his mission. He was soon offered a job in Haifa with the Palestine Economic Corporation, which later became the Israel Economic Corporation. It had been founded by a group of American Jewish activists who wanted to encourage investment in the Jewish homeland. He used to take potential investors around the country, and to make sure that he was giving them the right information about the different sites they saw, he took a tour guides course.

 SUZY EBAN with Chaim Herzog. (credit: Courtesy) SUZY EBAN with Chaim Herzog. (credit: Courtesy)

Over the years, he worked in different jobs and was engaged in a series of business enterprises. Whatever his father did by way of earning a living, said Ilan, it was a combination of business and ideology, reflecting his desire to help the Jewish people.

He was one of the founders of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI). He dreamed up Israeli gift packages to be purchased by people abroad; exported Israeli wines so that people welcoming the Sabbath could make the blessing over Israeli wine; set up an Israeli art gallery in New York so that people could wake up to a piece of Israel on their wall; ran an import business in which he made life easier for North American immigrants by importing familiar household appliances tax-free; and, together with his late wife, Hana, a Holocaust survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, established Gefen Publishing House in 1981, with the aim of bringing Jewish works of fact and fiction in the English language to as wide a readership as possible. That enterprise is still going strong, with Ilan as the CEO.

In 1982, Murray joined the Israel Friends of Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, which was the precursor of the ANU Museum. When Ilan called the museum earlier this year to ask if it had some archive footage of a particular event attended by his father, he was asked why he wanted it. When he explained about his father’s 95th birthday, Adi Akunis, CEO of the Israel Friends and director of external relations at ANU, insisted that the event be hosted by the museum. He comes to every meeting, she said, and though not everyone likes everything he says, everyone loves him.

Museum CEO Dan Tadmor said that while the museum tells the unique and ongoing story of the Jewish people, those attending the tribute event were there for the unique and ongoing story of Murray Greenfield.

Aside from his business interests, Greenfield was heavily involved in activities for the liberation of Soviet Jewry and in advocating for the Israel authorities to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

He was never afraid or embarrassed to approach anyone about any subject he held dear. He screamed at Shlomo Hillel about Israel’s tardiness in facilitating the immigration of Ethiopian Jews, and he told David Ben-Gurion about the Americans in Aliyah Bet, which was apparently news to Israel’s founding prime minister. On the other hand, it was because he hadn’t known about it before Greenfield told him that Greenfield was able to persuade him to speak to AACI.

Murray and Hana had three children, Ilan, Dror and Meira. Dror died in 2003, and Hana in 2014. Greenfield has 10 grandchildren, and, as his daughter revealed, he was recently the godfather to a 17th great-grandchild at Midreshet Sde Boker. An 18th great-grandchild is due in the near future.

Among the guests at the event were some of the offspring of Holocaust survivors who had arrived in Israel on the Hatikva.

Greenfield, who is still capable of selling ice blocks to an Eskimo, and has not in any way lost his gift of the gab, or his memory for that matter, decided to depart from his characteristic chain of stories and kept his remarks brief.

As events of this kind are usually filled with nostalgia, his son decided to republish a booklet, How to be an oleh – Things the Jewish Agency Never told you, which was written by Murray in 1972. It’s a straight-from-the-shoulder, warts-and-all publication, with which many people who came to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s will identify.

It was given to all the invitees as a memento of the occasion, as well as of an Israel that is no more – with the possible exception of the bureaucracy.

■ DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS between Israel and Nepal were established in June 1960. Israel opened an embassy in Kathmandu in March 1961, and a Nepalese Consulate-General was opened in Israel in November 1993. Before that, there was an honorary consul-general, and Nepalese diplomats accredited to Israel were stationed in Cairo. It was not until March 2008 that there was a resident ambassador of Nepal in Israel.

Anjan Shakya, her country’s fourth resident ambassador in Israel, and the first woman to hold the post, is completing her mission on October 22 and returning home. A political appointee, she quickly learned to be an effective diplomat, showing up to almost every event to which she was invited and constantly exploring ways to enhance bilateral ties.

Always attired in one of her many colorful saris, she drew attention to herself through pride in her heritage. While some African and Asian diplomats wear their national costume on special occasions but otherwise dress in Western clothes, Shakya was always in a sari, and when group photographs were taken at diplomatic gatherings, she was always in front.

Over the past couple of weeks, she has been making her farewells, including at BDO Israel, where she delivered a gift for Anat Bernstein-Reich, chairwoman of the Israel-India & Nepal Chamber of Commerce, who is CEO of BDO’s Israel-investment division.

Due to her close connections with the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel, Shakya hosted a small ceremony at the Embassy of Nepal whereby a memorandum of understanding was signed by her and by Ambassador to Nepal Hanan Goder, who participated via Zoom from Kathmandu. The MoU, between the Association of Former Nepalese Ambassadors to Israel and the ACI, covers business, tourism and culture. Participating in the ceremony in Tel Aviv were ACI’s president and CEO, Yitzhak Eldan and Itsik Kamilian, respectively, and Nepalese chargé d’affaires Arjun Ghimire.

■ AS SHE did last year, German Ambassador Susanne Wasum-Rainer once again celebrated German Unity Day with an online reception, rather than risk spreading the pandemic by having a grand party with hundreds of guests. She is hopeful that the traditional in-person celebration can be resumed next year, but she will not be here for it, because in the coming months she will be concluding her posting.

“Sometimes, the impossible can become possible,” she said, in relation to the unification of her country, as she described what Germans on both sides of the Berlin Wall had perceived as a miracle.

This year’s online reception, which included a message from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, was part travelogue, part musical, and part bilateral relations via a brief conversation that Wasum-Rainer had with Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff.

The two ambassadors, whose facial expressions indicated a mutual fondness, discussed the benefits of bringing a country and its people back together, the recent German elections, the strengthening of bilateral relations in all fields and Germany’s special role in Israeli and Jewish history. The two also said that they were looking forward to meeting each other in person, which suggests that Issacharoff will be accompanying outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel when she arrives in Israel next week on her farewell visit.

It was on October 3, 1990, that the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were unified, and for the first time in 45 years, there was one Germany. Maas said that he remember the excitement at the Brandenburg Gate when that happened, but is worried about rising nationalism and antisemitism in Germany today. Wasum-Rainer is also concerned about the antisemitism.

■ IT’S CUSTOMARY for the president of Israel to launch the annual door knock campaign of the Israel Cancer Association, so it came as no surprise this week when the task fell upon Isaac Herzog, who at traditional events is often reminded of his father, Chaim Herzog, who was Israel’s sixth president, doing something along the same lines. What he did not expect was to receive a photograph of his father with Suzy Eban, the founder and longtime president of the Israel Cancer Association. Suzy Eban was the sister of Aura Herzog, who is the president’s mother, so the photograph was an item of family nostalgia in more ways than one.

■ THE COMPLETION of the writing and dedication ceremony of the Ilan Ramon Global Torah Scroll will take place this coming Friday, October 8, at the Ramon school in Modi’in. The dedication ceremony, under the auspices of the Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut Municipality, will be attended inter alia by Mayor Haim Bibas; Ramon Foundation director Ran Livne; former chief rabbi of Israel and of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau; and members of the Ramon family.

The scroll is a replica of the miniature Torah scroll that Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, took with him to space on the ill-fated Columbia mission. The dedication was originally scheduled for May of this year, but due to restrictions on social gatherings, it was postponed.

There will be an outdoor procession with the scroll from the Ramon school at 11 a.m. which is open to the public.

The original scroll, which was taken into space by Ramon, was destroyed with the disintegration of the spaceship as it reentered Earth.

It had been seen by Ramon at the home of Prof. Joachim Yosef, a renowned scientist, who was a child Holocaust survivor, whose bar mitzvah was held in a clandestine ceremony in Bergen-Belsen in 1944. At the bar mitzvah, had read his Torah portion from a tiny Torah scroll that was only 10 centimeters tall, and which had been smuggled into the camp by Rabbi Simon Dasberg, who gave it to Yosef as a gift on condition that in the event that he survived, he would share its story.

Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors, was greatly moved by what Yosef told him and asked to take the Torah scroll, which symbolized the continuity of the Jewish people, on his flight into space. He broadcast the story from the spaceship.

When Israeli businessman Neil Rubinstein, who originally hails from South Africa, saw the video clip of the story, he was inspired to honor Ramon’s memory and the story of the scroll by creating a replica that would be funded by Jews from around the world, and used by bar mitzvah boys who wanted to celebrate their passage into manhood using this global scroll.

Members of the Dasberg and Yosef families will also be in attendance at the dedication.

■ CHAMPION JUDOKA Yael Arad is a hot favorite to succeed Igal Carmi as head of Israel Olympic Committee in November. If she succeeds, she will be the first woman to hold the position. She was also Israel’s first Olympic medalist, winning a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Carmi stepped down on October 3, after eight years at the helm.

The National Olympics Committee was formed in 1933, during the period of the British Mandate, and Israel as a state participated in the Olympic Games for the first time in 1952 and has consistently sent teams to the games, with the exception of the 1980 games in Moscow, when Israel joined the American-led boycott.

■ AT THE memorial service for Shimon Peres this week, his daughter, Tsvia Walden and son Chemi Peres each injected a political note into the ceremony.

Walden declared that in this new era of expanded science and technology, new ways must be found to create a true and just peace – be it a cold peace or a warm peace. The Abraham Accords were born and flourished because Peres was a partner to the process, she said. “We must be careful not to use them as a fig leaf,” she warned, but as a crane to a new Middle East. She recalled that her father had always said that it was preferable to cede territory in favor of human life.

Chemi Peres, referring to the corona pandemic and threats of war and terrorism, coupled with the growing rifts in Israeli society declared: “This nation is in need of leadership, a leadership that will serve it,” he stated, echoing the frequent declaration by his father that a true leader serves his people; he does not rule them.

Israel “is in need of innovation, optimism and confidence in our ability to create a much better reality,” he said. “People who live on a small island must learn to live together and to find the best in each other.”

Many people ask, in relation to what is happening in the country, “What would Shimon Peres say?” said his son. “What’s more important is what he would do. He told us to turn away from bloodshed and killing, and to bring about cooperation between nations, and to create all that the brain can envisage, and to transform the world into a place in which people not only have the right to be equal, but the right to be different.”

One of the most moving addresses of the morning was by Tzipi Cohen-Gonen, who was eight years old when her parents took her on a trip to Paris. Their plane was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and diverted to Uganda. In the course of the Entebbe rescue mission, her father was shot and killed. In that moment, she stopped being a child, she said, but after the rescue, in an effort to escape the traumatic effects of Entebbe, she put it out of her mind, till one day Peres, as president, came on a visit to Ben-Gurion University, where she was a student. She told him who she was and what she had experienced, and he embraced her and told her how happy he was that she was studying at university.

Soon afterward, Peres convened a meeting of the Entebbe children. “No one had ever given much thought to the Entebbe children before,” said Cohen-Gonen. “It was like being rescued a second time.” Since then, they’ve become an Entebbe family. She is sorry that Yoni Netanyahu paid with his life in order that she and others should live.

■ SOME 50 heads of state and government have been invited to Sweden to participate in the Malmo Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, which is taking place on October 13-14. Sweden is one of the founders of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and will open a state museum of Holocaust testimonies in Stockholm by July 2022.

On Tuesday, October 12, the day before the Malmo conference, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder will join Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and Jewish communal leaders at the Malmo Synagogue to showcase the history, vibrancy and resilience of the Jewish community during a period of heightened antisemitism. Speakers at the event will address measures to counteract hatred, antisemitism and all forms of racism at local and national levels.

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