Last Wednesday, March 19, I had the honor of receiving the 2014 Yitzhak Rabin Leadership and Public Service Award from The American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center (AFYRC). The event, which took place at the Museum of Moving Image in Astoria, was an unforgettable night.
My connection to the Yitzhak Rabin Center started in 2011 when I toured Israel as the guest of the Jewish Community Relations Council and got to witness first-hand how Israel is a land of many contrasts. It's the birthplace of three religions, a land of visual beauty and a safe haven for the Jewish people, who endured a mad man's attempt to annihilate them. Specifically, when I visited the Yitzhak Rabin Center -- the Israeli national institute dedicated to the late Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Yitzhak Rabin -- I felt the contrasts more intensely, the Center is dedicated to promoting tolerance and goodwill. It is named after a national hero, assassinated at a peace rally!
The feeling of "contrast" that I had originally experienced in Israel suddenly returned to me in Astoria last week as more than 200 people -- labor, business and government representatives, blacks, whites, Jews and gentiles -- gathered in Queens for the event, 5,703 miles away from Israel but, just 5 miles from where the vote to recognize the state of Israel took place in May of 1948.
As I returned this week to the work of Teamsters Local 237, I realized that the goals of the Labor Movement in America are remarkably similar to those of the late Prime Minister -- and that both believe that positive social reforms, economic quality and education are the only way to benefit society. Not only was Rabin a leader of a nation, he was also heavily involved with promoting and fighting for the social and economic well-being of Israeli workers.
I think all of us could learn some lessons from him and so I asked his daughter, Dalia Rabin, who is the current chair of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, to share some knowledge on her father's legacy as it relates to labor:
Me: When I visited Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv a few years ago, I was blown away by just how much of a positive impact Rabin had on Israeli workers. Can you tell us a little more about what your father did to help improve the social and economic well-being of workers in Israel during his two terms in office as Prime Minister?
Dalia Rabin (DR): My father believed that we could create a thriving Democratic Jewish state in the land of Israel only if we supported the regular citizens of the country, attracted new citizens worldwide, provided solid education and tried to get along with our neighbors. Similarly, he also strongly believed economic improvement and stability were necessities in order to fund education improvements. Simply put, gainful employment and education equates to a solid peaceful democracy.
Under his administration, the education budget was doubled, unprecedented resources were poured into Arab communities and plans for new airports and trans-highways that today make Israel economically viable and a better place to live, were designed.
Additionally, both my grandparents (Yitzhak Rabin's parents) were active in the Histadrut, the workers union -- or Labor movement as it is more commonly referred to here. My grandfather, Nechemia Rabin, was a member of the Jewish Tailors Union when he immigrated to the United States from Russia where he was born. He then joined the Jewish Brigade and moved to Palestine where he became a member of the Metal Workers Union as an employee of the local electrical company.
My grandmother, Rosa Cohen, who also moved from Russia, was the first woman commander in the Haganah, the Zionist underground movement. Just think about that for a minute, a woman in the early 20th century, having a leading role when in most parts of the world at that time women were fighting for basic rights like voting. She was a strong woman who passionately advocated for working-class causes.
The importance of workers' rights was ingrained in my father from a very young age.
Me: When it comes to the Labor movement, what can we, in the United States, learn from your father?
DR: My father understood that better futures don't just happen; they are achieved through hard work and dedication to improving employment conditions and employee rights, balanced with improving economic growth and international trade. Equal opportunity for all working people -- Arab and Jew, rich and poor -- is what he believed prevents conflict.
Me: What else can we do to strengthen ourselves in the fight for a better social and economic position for workers?
DR: I served as the legal advisor of the professional associations of the General Federation of Labor (the "Histadrut"). Based on my experience working with unions, I would advise those who are involved in the fight for fair wages and pensions to deal with every dispute and all of the differences with an open mind.
It's important to point out that Israel went from a once barren land to one flowing with milk and honey because of cooperation and the recognition that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Remember, like the United States, Israel is comprised of people from many different backgrounds -- it takes dialogue and comprise to achieve solutions. I believe the Rabin story also shows that elected leadership is ineffective if it tilts too far away from the interests of the average citizen, or if the leadership benefits only the wealthy and fortunate.
Me: Is there anything else you would like to share with us about your father?
DR: At the end of the day, I think my father wanted all workers across Israel to feel like they were being appreciated and respected and most importantly heard. He wanted both men and women -- from factory workers to farmers to electricians -- to feel as if their voices were not falling upon deaf ears but instead rising up above to those in power who could lead them in their fight for fair wages and treatment. My father never took for granted the fact that each man and woman contributes to the country's progress and wellbeing. He was unwaveringly dedicated to improving the social and economic welfare of workers across Israel. As you can imagine, given its difficult birth, Israel only became truly successful when its citizens benefitted from each other's labor.
I believe that it is these common principals of equality, justice, education, civic responsibility and dialogue are the link between the American Labor Movement and Yitzhak Rabin's legacy. I am proud to be able to work every day to keep these ideals alive with The Yitzhak Rabin Center's programs.