WASHINGTON (JTA) – Jimmy Hoffa: the mysterious disappearance, the giant of the U.S. labor movement, the battles with the Kennedys over alleged improprieties – the hero of Israel?
A little-known chapter in the life of the legendary Teamsters leader is about to come to light in a tribute planned for Feb. 13, when the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center will have a commemorative dinner. Former President Bill Clinton will address the gathering.
Later in the month, a memorial to Hoffa will be dedicated at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.
Among those attending the dinner and the events in Israel will be Hoffa’s children: James. P. Hoffa, the current Teamsters leader, and Barbara Crancer, a judge in Missouri.
James Hoffa said his father’s attachment to Israel was a natural affinity for the outsider struggling for empowerment.
The elder Hoffa learned of Israel’s struggles from his Jewish friends in the labor movement during Israel’s struggle for independence in the late 1940s, when Hoffa was a union official in Detroit.
“They were not only fighting for working people but fighting for independence,” James Hoffa told JTA, adding that his father was influenced by Israel’s struggle against the British and the Arabs. “He became involved in that and in facilitating arms for the struggle.”
“Facilitating” in this case is a euphemism for “smuggling” – not just arms but food and medical supplies.
The relationship continued after the establishment of the state. In 1955, Hoffa held a dinner that raised $300,000 – a phenomenal sum at the time – for an orphanage in Ein Kerem, a Jerusalem suburb.
He visited Israel in 1956 to dedicate the orphanage; a year later he became Teamsters president. It was the role for which most Americans remember him, building up a union that united virtually every truck driver in North America.
His success unsettled President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, the attorney general, who feared centralized control over the nation’s transport system.
Jimmy Hoffa is also known for his 1964 bribery conviction and his efforts, after his 1971 commutation by President Richard Nixon, to reassume control of the union. He disappeared in 1975, allegedly after meeting mobsters.
Among Israeli union leaders he is remembered for his unstinting support for the Jewish state – a tradition that remains strong in the American labor movement, although unions overseas in recent years have tended to favor the Palestinians.
James Hoffa suggests a simple reason for the support of Israel: the central role Jews have played in building up American labor.
“The leaders have been Jewish,” he said.
Retelling his father’s story – and the story of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated by a Jewish extremist who opposed his peacemaking – will help sustain that relationship, James Hoffa said.
“When we first brought this up, a lot of people on my board did not know the story of my father’s involvement in Israel, didn’t know the story of Rabin’s death,” he said.
Hoffa screened a film by Rabin’s daughter, Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, for the Teamsters board about her father’s death.
Rabin-Pelosoff has advocated in recent years for the Hoffa memorial, seeing it not only as a tribute to the labor leader but the principles of the unionism her father championed – principles she fears are losing ground in Israel.
“People were visibly moved by the story and the connection of the Teamsters” to the Zionist movement, James Hoffa said, and by the Rabin story.