James (“Jimmy”) Hoffa, the famous American labor-union leader whose disappearance in 1975 has been the subject of conspiracy theories and late-night documentaries, grew up in Detroit in the 1920s. At a young age, he became involved with organizing workers, and inspiring strikes and walkouts to fight substandard pay and poor working conditions.
In the 1930s, Hoffa rose to prominence in Detroit’s local Teamsters union chapter, which focused on organizing truck drivers and warehouse workers. Hoffa greatly increased the size of the Teamsters and won numerous contracts that led his union to become one of the most powerful in the nation. Eventually becoming president of the Teamsters in 1957, Hoffa wielded his influence and power to great impact, winning friends while also making fierce enemies.
Hoffa’s record as a controversial union leader is well-known, including his having served time in prison. But what is not widely recognized is that he was a staunch supporter of Zionism and the struggle to establish a Jewish state in British Mandate Palestine. Strongly moved by the Zionist establishment’s dedication to the labor movement and its ideals, Hoffa used the Teamster’s resources to help organize gun-running and smuggling efforts to the yishuv throughout the 1940s.
One version of the story has it that weapons and ammo were hidden in the interior of commercial dishwashers. Hoffa’s Teamsters (he was the union’s vice president at the time) used their trucks to ship the machines to the docks, where they were met by union longshoremen. These workers were told which dishwashers were to go on the regular shipments and which were to be included on the “special” cargo ships, intended for the Jewish community in Palestine. Upon receipt of the shipment in Palestine, these supplies were diverted into the hands of the Jewish underground and disassembled.
In 1955, Hoffa sponsored a charity dinner, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Jerusalem orphanage. Upon visiting Israel to dedicate the orphanage, he was received with a warm welcome by many Israeli leaders, including Golda Meir.
On the question of why Hoffa supported Israel, his son James P. Hoffa, also a supporter of Israel, answers simply that his father’s support was inspired by the Jewish role in building up the American labor movement.
Major labor leaders, such as George Meany and Lane Kirkland, were also significant supporters of Israel. But Jimmy Hoffa’s positive relationship with Israel and Zionism stood out, even among Israel’s numerous friends in the labor movement.