Workers’ Rights Examined in Jewish-Muslim Text Study

Reflections on Our Text Study on Workers’ Rights


Just before May Day, the traditional celebration of workers’ rights, we came together to explore what Jewish and Muslim traditions contribute to the current discussion on labor.

Sponsored by JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative, this text study featured Rabbi Victor Mirelman and Muslim chaplain Abbas Chinoy who facilitated the event on a rainy Sunday evening in the comfortable Dollop Café in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

The need to contemplate labor issues has gained urgency around the Midwest. In Wisconsin, only a few months ago Gov. Scott Walker made it almost impossible for public employees to organize; and in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also changing the city’s relationship with its employees. It wasn’t even a month ago that Gov. Walker repealed the Equal Pay Enforcement Act that had offered legal avenues to fight wage discrimination based on race, age, disability, religion and sexual orientation.

Muslim chaplain Abbas Chinoy (at top, in photo at left); and Rabbi Victor Mirelman (in center of photo at right).

The evening began with this question: How have worker rights (or lack thereof) influenced peoples’ lives?

While one participant had very positive experiences with her union, another expressed her disappointment with the union of which she had been a member; she said she had been neither well informed or well cared for.

We also discussed how in our society we often seem to face dilemmas of upholding workers’ rights versus other social needs.

One example is Tamms, a “supermax” prison facility in Illinois where inmates are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours daily. Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated that he would like to close the prison, but a union is fighting to keep it open and retain the jobs that otherwise would be lost. Human rights seem to be weighed against union interests.

After discussing these current issues, Rabbi Mirelman spoke about workers’ rights in Jewish tradition. He pointed out that Rav Kook, though politically on the right, saw the importance of labor organization and the damage for unorganized workers.

Abbas Chinoy surveyed relevant texts from the Muslim tradition. Prophet Muhammad’s message stood out above all: “None of you has faith unless you love for your brother what you love for yourself.”  We are not only expected to help someone who has been wronged, but also to help the wrongdoer – by preventing the bad decision.

Toward the end of the evening, we addressed other aspects of worker justice.

For example, for ever dollar a woman earns, a man earns $1.33 in the same job with the same qualification. Statistically, for every child a woman has, she earns less on average. Thus, women and children seem to be the biggest losers when it comes to worker justice.

In both the Torah and the Quran, the widow, the child and the stranger are considered the most vulnerable members of society, and this notion seems as relevant today as it ever was.

Our wonderful facilitators were very pleased with the discussion.

“We had an animated discussion based on classic and modern Jewish and Muslim sources on labor issues, with special emphasis on the respect and consideration due to every working individual,” said Rabbi Mirelman.

Abbas Chinoy added that “Jews and Muslims have been in dialogue for centuries. It’s a privilege to continue this old tradition of interfaith dialogue.  When it comes to the rights of workers, our traditions promote justice and dignity, they have a lot of guidance for us especially today.”

What does this all mean for us today?

The texts show that we have a spiritual imperative to get involved; labor rights have been won through struggle and action. We should not underestimate our own power, especially when the Jewish and Muslim communities are united.

Speaking of uniting: Jews and Muslims will also come together for “Iftar in the Synagogue 2012”, a unique interfaith gathering to break the fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It will take place on Aug. 2. Save the date now!

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