Monday, June 30, 2008

Raid Unsettles Kosher Beliefs

July 1, 2008

An immigration raid on the country's largest kosher meatpacking plant has fueled a nationwide debate in the Jewish community about what it really means to be kosher.

The debate flared after May 12 when federal immigration agents raided the country's largest kosher meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors Inc., and ultimately arrested 389 illegal immigrants.

The Postville, Iowa, plant specializes in kosher slaughter, a process that is overseen by rabbis and involves a quick, deep stroke across the throat designed to kill an animal within seconds. The closely monitored process, deemed humane by Jewish law, is designed to spare suffering. But the people doing the work were allegedly treated inhumanely. The raid, an example of the Bush administration's crackdown on industries employing illegal immigrants, exposed allegations that workers were being underpaid, physically abused, sexually harassed and extorted.

A federal investigation of the plant is under way and immigration officials declined to comment. No officials at Agriprocessors have been charged with wrongdoing, and management declined to be interviewed for this article.

The incident involving alleged mistreatment of immigrants has dismayed some Jewish leaders who say that Jews should be particularly sensitive to human suffering.

"The Jewish narrative for 2,000 years has predominantly been about our powerlessness as unprotected immigrants," says Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder of Uri L'Tzedek, a progressive Orthodox group. The allegations are "particularly embarrassing because of how deeply connected our religious and historical identity and universal moral mandate are to the plight of these workers."

One such worker, Joel Rucal, is a Guatemalan immigrant who worked on the chicken line before the raid. He says his mother, who also worked at the plant, was arrested and wears a monitoring device around her ankle. Mr. Rucal also listed alleged abuses in the plant including extra shifts without pay and sexual advances by supervisors.

"Sometimes we needed to use the bathroom and they didn't allow us," says Mr. Rucal. "We were afraid to say anything because it was the only job we could get."

Agriprocessors, started by Aaron Rubashkin, a Hassidic Jew from Brooklyn, is best known for its kosher brands such as Aaron's Best and bills itself the world's largest processor of what's called glatt kosher beef, which adheres to the strictest kosher standard. A statement issued by vice president Chaim Abrahams said the company had hired immigration and safety-compliance experts after the raid. An employee hotline was activated last Friday.

• The Rabbinical Assembly6
The association of Conservative rabbis called on consumers to shun Agriprocessors products in late May. "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer," the statement said, quoting the Deuteronomy.

Rabbi Weiss Mandl, top supervisory rabbi for kosher certification at the plant, says: "We were not aware of any mistreatment of workers." However, he added, "we are not involved with cutting and packing...That's not the kosher part."

But for Rabbi Morris Allen, kosher is about more than a process. The revelations at Agriprocessors have prompted the conservative rabbi from Mendota Heights, Minn., to call on consumers to avoid the company's products. The 53-year-old is founder of a movement that advocates for animal and worker welfare in kashrut, food prepared in accordance with Jewish law.

"We shouldn't accept a standard of kashrut that is more concerned about the lung of a cow than the hand of a worker," he says. "Isn't it important for us as Jews to care that our food isn't just ritually kosher but ethically kosher, too?"

Rabbi Allen's critics say that until wrongdoing is proven, no Jewish organization should condemn Agriprocessors or seek punishment for the company. Some Orthodox rabbis, who control the supervision of kosher plants, have charged the Conservative movement with hatching a plot to take over kosher certification. Some detractors also say that most Conservative Jews, who constitute the largest Jewish denomination, don't even keep kosher.
An immigration raid at a meat plant sparked debate over kosher standards.

Rabbi Allen first became concerned in March 2006 when he read an article in the Jewish press about poor conditions for Latino laborers at the Agriprocessors plant. With the blessing of the Conservative movement's leadership, he formed a commission of inquiry and won Agriprocessors' permission to visit the plant.

Rabbi Allen led a five-man team that included a Spanish-speaking rabbi, labor and immigration activists and an official from the United Conservative Synagogue, representing Conservative congregations.

"We discovered things that were unbelievably painful," Rabbi Allen says. Among other allegations, he says pregnant women working on their feet all day were denied bathroom breaks; injured workers lacked proper medical care; and accounting machinations deprived workers of payment for all clocked hours.

To avoid creating controversy within the Jewish community, he says the team decided to quietly make recommendations to the Rubashkin family. While the company didn't respond, he says the situation "gives us an opportunity to link social responsibility with religious ritual" by introducing ethical standards into kosher certification.

Rabbi Allen went public with his gripe against Agriprocessors after agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, raided the 60-acre plant during the morning shift in May. A 56-page affidavit filed by an ICE agent to obtain a search warrant cites informants who allege that plant supervisors hired minors, forced workers to buy cars from them "or they would be fired or given poor work shifts" and abused them physically and mentally.

The document refers to one rabbi "calling employees derogatory names and throwing meat at employees," and a supervisor blindfolding a Guatemalan worker and hitting him with a "meat hook."

After the raid, Rabbi Allen returned to Postville to meet community leaders, clergy and workers awaiting deportation. On May 22, the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, issued a statement calling on consumers to avoid Agriprocessors' products. It quoted Deuteronomy: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer."

Reaction has been swift. Synagogues and blogs are rallying in support of the ban. Uri L'Tzedek, the Orthodox group, joined in with a boycott petition so far signed by 2,000 Jewish religious and political leaders. And this week, the Conservative movement is set to release guidelines for an initiative called Hekhsher Tzedek, Hebrew for "justice certification." Meant to supplement traditional kosher certification, it will attest that kosher food was produced at a facility that meets ethical standards in areas like wages and benefits, health and safety and animal welfare.

Rabbi Allen's BlackBerry is stuffed with angry emails accusing him of sowing discord among Jews. "It's not a matter of hurting Jews or non-Jews," says the rabbi. "It's a matter of finding the truth and what is acceptable according to whom we are as a people."

1 comment:

Black Wolf said...

Just and Kosher
An Uneeded Redundancy, a Financial Burden, and an Opportunistic Venture

By: Wolf Blachore

Change for change’s sake is a flawed argument doomed to failure. The motivation behind any successful cause campaign stems largely from events fresh in the minds of the targeted public. Without an urgency looming, the cause is likely doomed to failure in a wastefully prolonged struggle that eventually vexes the public. Activism needs a cause, but even more, it needs the motivation; without the latter, there is no reason for change.

The case of Agriprocessors in Postville, IA, a large national kosher meat producer, is a prime example of politics being played and activism being employed for the sake of a cause that may indeed have little to do with the situation in Postville itself. The call for a new breed of kosher certification, one that steps beyond the pages of Biblical scripture and into the realm of the ever evolving, is the cause; the situation that Agriprocessors finds itself in now, following the largest illegal immigrant raid in U.S. history that took place at the company’s Postville, Iowa plant, is the motivation.

Is the cause just? Is the call for a kosher certification that employs the term Tzedek (righteousness) - a cause that has already started rumors and gossip, has harmed reputations, can potentially destroy the economy of a small town, has spurned a fight between streams of Jews, and even within the streams itself, and that is backed by a bizarre cross-section of supporters who may have never come together before – one that needs to be heard?

There has been a rush to judgment against this large producer of kosher meat. For its part, Agriprocessors has broadened the availability of kosher meat across the country in every direction. To get there, during its 20-year history, the company employed thousands of people, some of whom were illegal immigrants in the U.S. In addition there is the argument that the company has had numerous worker safety issues, employee harassment complaints, health code violations and other concerns. Some of these are genuine matters that need fixing, while others are part and parcel of the type of work, the nature of the staff and the size of the workforce – hence, issues that are unfortunate, but not necessarily programmatic policies of the company or its management team.

It should be known, that to date, there are no charges of any kind, just innuendo, hearsay and saber rattling for a cause.

The players in this game have primarily been People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); a labor union that is attempting to unionize the plant; a Conservative Jewish rabbi attempting to create a new kosher certification called Heksher Tzedek (Justice based kosher certification); and group of students from the liberal Orthodox rabbinical New York school Chochvei Torah who wish to form an Orthodox kosher certification call Uri L’Tzedek (Awaken to Justice).

Each group seems to have its own agenda, but when agendas converge, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” PETA wants to ban kosher slaughter; heck, it wants to ban animal slaughter altogether and have us all embrace vegetarianism.

The union wants the plant to organize.

Rabbi Morris Allen, the Conservative Rabbi, sees a golden opportunity to get in on the business of kashrut and begin what he views as a universally accepted kosher certification that can rival those of the existing Orthodox ones.

Finally, the Yeshiva Chochvei Torah, is trying to use this as the wedge to open the door to acceptance and no longer be in the shadow of Yeshiva University.

This is not a battle against one kosher meat producer. It’s an attack by converging agendas; socialist, liberal vegetarianism, and opportunist (The start a new financially driven kosher-standard), all the while interfering with a capitalistic system. Let it also be clear that the two people leading the efforts behind the different “T’Zedek” movements, Shmuly Yanklowitz of Chochvei and Rabbi Morris Allen are themselves vegetarians, and together with PETA, they’re in similar company; hardly the ones to objectively pursue a cause that will effectively raise the prices of meat and potentially reduce the current widespread availability of kosher meat within this country.

Certainly Agriprocessors needs some fixing, but that is not the issue. PETA can wage its own war against a meat processor, and we can all be sure that it will. Agriprocessors is but one in the sea of many that it must contend with. The labor union can and will fight to unionize, PETA/Rabbi coalition or not. That leaves us with the pressing fight taking hold - arena of kosher supervision and holy wars between and among the different streams in Judaism.

Rabbi Allen organized a group of Bnai Brith teens who then issued a press release calling for rallies and an “avoidance” (not a boycott) of Agriprocessors’ meat from their camps without doing the just thing and asking for more information. In the news release, the teen leaders quoted newspaper stories as their source of valid information. That is like suggesting that The New York Times’ accounts of news on Israel is reality. Is this the right thing to do, rather than searching for the truth or the solution the problem? Is their “avoidance” for the purpose of getting Agriprocessors to shape up or is it to put them out of business?

Uri L’Tzedek claims to have 1,500 signatures garnered from the Internet and email polling. Seeing that there are hundreds of thousands of kosher eating Jews in the United States, 1,500 is hardly a sampling.

So what is Tzedek and how is it to be meted out in terms of kosher laws? Will justice mean merely that a company must treat its workers nicely? Will it mean to keep employee and financial dealings in accordance with federal, state and local laws? It will be nearly impossible to accomplish. Almost every business or entrepreneur has some area where he is playing financial games with taxes, cash, charitable donations and employee issues. Will there be a limit as to how much of a law “bender” one can be to be considered a Tzedek Tdzadik (Righteous person)? Will Agriprocessors be expected to maintain perfection, but small grocery stores and restaurants in which the dishwashers, stockroom clerks, cooks and janitors may be illegal can get a “Tzedek” free pass? Will other slaughterhouses be called to task, or dairy producers and candy makers? Whose morality will they be expected to uphold? Mine? Yours? Rabbi Allen’s? Mr. Yanklowitz’?

It would seem to be a highly subjective feat getting everyone together on one ideal; and a great challenge to see the rule book remain unchanged as business owners complain that it is too onerous, or as consumers ease their ideal requirements to fill their true needs, and as the need to fund the oversight increases.

As it remains, we’re not at this point yet, because the excitement of knocking the Iowa plant to pave the way for this Tzedek undertaking is just too great. Ask yourself this question: When the dust settles, Agriprocessors and its compliance professionals bring the company up to speed, and everyone can get their meat again as they did before, how robust will the call and drive for Tzedek be then?

The truth is that many meat processors have similar issues like those affecting Agriprocessors, yet Agriprocessors became the sacrificial lamb (pun fully intended) because of its size, growth and market dominance in both the kosher and non kosher industries. Frankly, it was an easy target that perhaps also painted the target on itself. For PETA, there is no kind way to kill an animal, and for the faint of heart, there are not many people in the United States who want those kinds of jobs.

Agriprocessors hired people who needed jobs, and now they are looking to the homeless; offering them jobs, residences and a chance to get back up. That is Tzedek that you do not see too often, and it matters not that it may be rooted in necessity rather than philanthropy. Jobs are jobs, and a second chance is priceless.

Before you join efforts to judge and execute, take a look at the issue, the source and the whole picture. A Heksher Tzedek is unrealistic. The marketplace, we the consumers, are smart enough to know what we want, and our own desire to buy a product, patronize an establishment or find an alternative, can guide a company’s fate. The success of the Toyota Prius is a prime example. Few automakers had the gumption to move toward hybrids quickly, so it was the consumers who helped push the giants to move faster.

We must not allow some organization or group to legislate Tzedek for us. It will never conform to anything any individual could ever live up to or even believes he must. Legislating religion is bad politics, and bad policy. Kosher certification needs to be transparent, but the principles of kosher do not need to be changed.


Wolf Blachore is a sociologist who has a specialty in Jewish history and activism. He has published several articles on the evolution of Jewish laws and lores.