Analyze This: How Jimmy Hoffa helped forge an unlikely union with the Jewish state

He used his Teamsters influence to help smuggle arms in 1940s.

hoffa 88 (photo credit: )
hoffa 88
(photo credit: )
Other than the fact that they were both tough-minded men who met violent ends - and at some point in their careers probably ordered the breaking of bones for the sake of their cause - there would seem not to be much in common between the late Yitzhak Rabin and the presumably deceased US union leader James R. "Jimmy" Hoffa. Yet on Wednesday night in Washington, DC, the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center (at Tel Aviv University) will pay tribute to Hoffa at a gala dinner that features as speakers Dalia and Yuval Rabin, as well as former US president Bill Clinton. Hoffa is best known today for building the International Brotherhood of Teamsters into a national labor power; his fierce conflicts with Robert F. Kennedy; his 1964 conviction on charges of trying to bribe a juror in a grand jury investigation; the controversial 1971 commutation of his sentence by president Richard Nixon; and his sudden disappearance outside a Detroit eatery in 1975, his fate - and the whereabouts of his body - still a mystery. Apparently, though, there is another side of Hoffa that is less known. In the late 1940s, inspired by and sympathetic to the labor-led Zionist cause, he used his Teamsters influence to help smuggle arms and supplies to the Jewish community in Palestine, and subsequently forged links between the Teamsters and the newborn State of Israel. In 1955, he sponsored a charity dinner that raised $300,000 for an orphanage in Jerusalem and visited here the next year to personally dedicate it. All this, plus the fact that his son James P. Hoffa followed in his father's footsteps to become the current president of the 1,400,000-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters and will also be honored at the Washington event, makes the Rabin Center's Washington dinner more understandable. Still, without suggesting that this particular honor is not deserved, the linking of the elder Hoffa's name with that of Rabin certainly should raise eyebrows among those who have more than a passing familiarity with the career of the former. Hoffa may well be rightly respected and remembered as a champion of labor by the Teamsters, and as a friend of the Zionist cause by the Rabin Center. But there is a much darker side to his story, one in which organized crime plays a central, and fatal, role. It has been alleged that throughout his career, Hoffa allied himself with mob elements to further the interests of his union, and himself. And it is widely believed that when the two finally clashed - after Hoffa sought to regain control of the Teamsters upon his release from prison, over the objections of powerful New Jersey Teamster official and top Genovese family capo Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano - the Cosa Nostra had him eliminated. "Of course, when we decided to honor the memory of Jimmy Hoffa, we discussed all the involved aspects of this complex man who led the labor movement at a very difficult and complicated time in its history," says Stuart Davidson, president of the American Friends of the Rabin Center. "But we are very proud of our relationship with the Teamsters Union, whose support for Israel began with Jimmy Hoffa and has continued today under his son's leadership. Remember, Hoffa was not Jewish, and he had no profit or personal motivation to help the Jews fighting for Palestine - it's not as if there were many Jewish Teamsters. Yet he did so, at some degree of personal risk, because he sincerely believed in the Zionist cause, and that the Israeli labor movement should also be supported." All true enough, as is the fact that in those crucial months leading up to and during the War of Independence, a desperate Zionist movement sought and accepted aid from all types of quarters - including from such noted and notorious gangsters as Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen. Should those men also be honored today for their assistance? "I'm offended anyone would even make that comparison," Davidson responds. "Jimmy Hoffa fought his battles on behalf of his union and its members, against formidable forces arrayed against the labor movement that included the government and organized crime. While we have to acknowledge all the good, bad and ugly that sometimes entailed, Hoffa was not out to make a profit for himself, and he was certainly no Meyer Lansky." Maybe - although some might take issue with that assertion. Five years ago, a former Teamsters official and occasional mob hitman named Frank "the Irishman" Sherran made a deathbed confession in which he admitted shooting his old friend Hoffa in a Detroit home on the day he disappeared. The body was then taken to a local funeral parlor where it was cremated - and not to New Jersey to be sunk in the freshly poured cement foundations of Giants Stadium, as has been fancifully rumored. What's more, Sherran also said he earlier had occasionally killed directly on orders from the Teamsters leader, a claim The New York Times said "seems likely to spur a reappraisal of Hoffa's career." Yet it's still true that none of that takes away from Hoffa's willingness to help the Jewish community in Palestine's hour of need or to forge links with the State of Israel, which remain as part of the positive legacy he left the union he helped build and that his son now leads. It should perhaps also be noted that Hoffa is hardly the only benefactor of Israel, living or dead, who has been honored here despite a somewhat checkered past. One has only to look at the various institutions around the country endowed by and bearing the name of Marc Rich, who remains a highly wanted fugitive in the US for alleged financial misdeeds after the aborted pardon Clinton attempted to grant him. One final point worth noting: When Meyer Lansky tried to make aliya in the early 1970s, then-prime minister Golda Meir denied his request for citizenship despite his past work on behalf of the Zionist cause. But, as Davidson points out, when Jimmy Hoffa visited Israel in the 1950s, "he was very warmly greeted by Golda, and there are several photos of them together." Now that makes sense. Two tough labor leaders who believed in giving their all on behalf of working men and women - at least Jimmy and Golda had that much in common. JTA contributed to this report. [email protected]