Impure Meat, Foul Ethics, Rotten Arguments

By Stephen Steinlight on September 9, 2008

Oceans of ink will spill before AgriProcessors ceases to be red meat for news and commentary. Before the recent ICE raid at the Howard Industries transformer plant in Laurel, MS, that led to the arrest of some 600 illegal aliens – making it the largest workplace immigration enforcement action in US history – the ICE raid at the slaughterhouse in Postville, IA, had the dubious distinction of holding first place. Some 389 illegal aliens were arrested there, half the workforce. Investigative journalism, an undercover operation and subsequent media coverage have revealed shocking, sordid conditions, with allegations of corporate inhumanity, illegality, and chicanery surfacing continually. There are numerous reports of barbarous working conditions, gruesome cruelty to animals, multiple infractions of workplace safety regulations, charges of sexual harassment of female workers, a spotlight on the lowest wages in the industry, accounts of cheating workers out of overtime pay (with shifts averaging 12-16 hours six days a week), and hundreds of violations of USDA health codes (250 in 2006 alone), with citations for inadequate protection against mad cow disease and multiple instances when fecal material was present in food-processing areas.

Most appalling, the State Commissioner of Labor has called upon the State Attorney General to seek maximum penalties under law for what he characterizes the “most egregious violations of every aspect of Iowa’s child labor laws.” Following intensive investigation, on September 9 Iowa’s Attorney General, Tom Miller, filed criminal charges against AgriProcessors; the plant’s owner, Aaron Rubashkin; his son, Sholom Rubashkin, the slaughterhouse manager; and three human resources employees for 9,311 counts of violating Iowa’s child labor laws. The indictment states the accused “possessed and shared knowledge” of violations of child labor laws and similarly “possessed and shared knowledge” of hiring illegal aliens, encouraging their use of forged and false documents.

AgriProcessors’ Pious Owners

What gives the story added frisson is that AgriProcessors is the largest kosher meat processing plant in America. It’s owned by the Rubashkin clan, who could easily impersonate the Shpilman-Rudashevsky gang in Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Press coverage, including interviews with some who’ve interacted with them, suggests they are intimidating, connected, occasionally thuggish, ethically-challenged “fervently religious Jews” (politically-correct speech for the ultra-Orthodox) who, like the unforgettable Bulstrode in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, confuse their profit margin and immediate self-interest with God’s will. Their PR hacks have impersonated a leading critic, Rabbi Morris Allen, on a blog; and their son-in-law (one of whom entered into a plea bargain in a case where he reportedly embezzled funds from an Orthodox Jewish Girl’s Day School) verbally threatened members of a socially conscious Ultra-Orthodox group during a meeting regarding conditions at the slaughterhouse.

The raid has now culminated in indictments of the plant’s owner, manager and officers for some of the most serious offenses in addition to wholesale, conscious violation of immigration law. Guilt regarding immigration law is transparent: AgriProcessors used specially colored checks to pay illegal workers and the Des Moines Register reported the company distributed fake green cards. That indictments have gone to the top in the case of AgriProcessors is an all-too-rare example of justice. The guilt and moral agency of the owners of such vast sweatshops in generating and enabling illegal immigration, not to mention brutalizing workers, far exceeds the crimes of their wretched helots, who all-too-often are the only ones prosecuted. Up to now the Rubashkins have solaced themselves by repeating the mantra that they’re innocent until proven guilty, as though that were tantamount to being found innocent. But now it’s not only the prima facie evidence against them that is overwhelming: they have their first court date on September 17.

Adding insult to injury, in the wake of the indictments the Orthodox Union (OU), the body that certifies whether or not a slaughterhouse is kosher, has announced that AgriProcessors will lose its kosher certification unless new management takes over within two weeks. In light of the well-reported inhumanity and open violation of US law that had been countenanced at AgriProcessors for years, the OU’s action might have carried some moral weight had they taken this action long before events forced it upon them.

As they say in the news business, “Jews are news,” and the story has large implications for America’s Jewish community because AgriProcessors serves a central religious purpose for millions: the fraction of Reform Jews who observe dietary laws as well as most Conservative and all Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In theory, AgriProcessors’ practices are anchored in religious law and answerable to rabbinic authority as well as State regulation, but it appears the only law to which the company holds itself accountable is that of the jungle.

Selective Indignation, Uninformed Analysis, Inconvenient Facts

Revelations of extreme exploitation and inhumane and therefore unkosher slaughter of animals (confirmed by an undercover operation, including video-taping, by Orthodox Jewish members of PETA) have caused anger, shame, and ferment within the Jewish community, which manifests itself politically in various ways. The majority has expressed outrage over conditions at the plant and raised questions about AgriProcessors’ adherence to the letter and spirit of Jewish law. For most, the precipitating factor facilitating the exploitation–violation of immigration laws –is sadly a non-issue. The more activist sorts, the majority adherents of political-correctness, unsurprisingly attack ICE for staging the raid, forgetting ICE raids alone have provided the essential corroborating evidence for exploitation and violation of labor law and health regulations in Postville; New Bedford, Mass; and other scenes of mass sweated labor. Attacking ICE agents in the vilest terms for enforcing the law – some scurrilous members of Congress have likened them to Gestapo agents – has become the latest weapon of choice in the arsenal of the open-borders camp.

Those inside the Jewish community attacking ICE express “solidarity” with the exploited illegal aliens by calling for their legalization. The demand reveals indifference to the wholesale violation of the rule of law and American sovereignty. It also manifests political, economic, and moral naiveté. The foundational counter-argument is illegal immigration and mass immigration by the uneducated and unskilled poor to a knowledge-based, post-industrial America is joined at the hip to exploitation. A double bind, unscrupulous employers seek out illegal workers because they’re exploitable. Legalize them and they’ll receive the lowest “prevailing wage,” making them far less desirable hires however low the pay. There will always be illegal aliens and down-and-outers to employ, as the Rubashkins know. AgriProcessors’ reaction to their new labor shortage is to hire among the homeless in Texas, and given the not insignificant proportion of homeless people who suffer from mental illness one can guarantee even more in the way of atrocious injuries in a plant that places little premium on worker safety in one of the most dangerous of work environments.

Equally critical is recognizing that “bringing them out of the shadows,” the mantra repeated ad nauseam by the open-borders, pro-amnesty camp is no solution. These cynical panderers to the Hispanic vote (read McCain and Obama and every also-ran in the Democratic primary) know it perfectly well. It should be pointed out that Hispanics show far more nuance in their attitudes. In a recent Zogby poll, some 77% of those surveyed oppose the immigration of any additional unskilled labor because it threatens their tenuous grasp on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. The critical point is that the poverty of illegal aliens doesn’t result from legal status but lack of education. 62% of Mexicans and Central Americans in the US don’t have a high school diploma in a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy. That’s true of only 8% of Americans.

The “Post-American” Social Conscience

Also conspicuously absent in the righteous indignation of some Post-American practitioners of “social justice” over the ICE raid in Postville is recognizing the disastrous impact of massive immigration by the un-educated and unskilled poor – legal or illegal – on America’s most vulnerable. It is ruinous to the unemployed, partially employed, working poor, recent legal immigrants, African Americans, elderly still working, young people entering the job market, and all of the working class with only a high school education. A wealth of data from prestigious research bodies – the Current Population Survey of the Census Bureau also termed the Annual Social and Economic Supplement; National Research Council of the American Academy of Science (see New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigrants); the National Bureau of Economic Research (see Immigration and African-American Employment); the Russell Sage Foundation’s and Ford Foundation’s Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, etc. – have removed these consequences from the realm of debate. With 73 million Americans, including 10 million legal immigrants, having no more than a high school education we don’t need to import a single additional unskilled worker again, ever. Of that 73 million, approximately a third is unemployed due to economic restructuring or unfair job competition from cheap immigrant/transnational labor, and many have despaired of finding work. But the justice-seeking “citizens of the world” are so deracinated and diffusive in their “sympathies” they evidently couldn’t care less. Fellow American or illegal alien who stole across the border yesterday: it is all the same to them.

One also can’t help but wonder what happened to historic Jewish concern for the fate of African Americans? There’s no question the cultural and socio-political curiosity termed “black-Jewish relations” was a profoundly difficult and often vexatious thing: the Russian front in intergroup relations after the romance of the early to mid-60s. Before it was finally relegated to harmful neglect, “black-Jewish relations” had evolved into a set of distasteful media spectacles centered on a series of symbolic encounters between small, often publicity-seeking leadership cadres in the two communities, as anyone who worked in it can testify. But was that sufficient reason to abandon it entirely? I remember when the Establishment intergroup focus cynically shifted to Hispanics; it was thought it would prove “easier.” Now, a discreditable “civil rights” agenda focused on legalizing illegal aliens and winking at the wholesale violation of the rule of law has replaced the categorical imperative to finish the uncompleted authentic “Civil Rights” movement for African Americans, addressing the surmounting of the enormously difficult structural social problems within and outside the black community to make African Americans full stakeholders in the polity. This is still the greatest challenge in American society. No one is suggesting the American-Jewish community can accomplish this mission. But it should return its shoulder to the wheel.

Conflicting Religious Responses in the Jewish Community

The raid has also sparked a heated inter-denominational battle. Opposing camps aren’t completely unitary, but a few prominent exceptions aside the principal antagonists are Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis on the one side and Conservative rabbis on the other. The dispute concerns what defines kosher: whether the term should be narrowly construed as technically correct fulfillment of Scriptural requirements for slaughter (the Ultra Orthodox and Orthodox view) or whether it should be interpreted to encompass ethical requirements (the view of leading Conservative rabbis and some Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox ones). The broader view holds no food should be designated as kosher if the workers who produce it are exploited. Several leading Orthodox rabbis advocate the broader interpretation, including Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. In his New York Times op-ed "Dark Meat," he cited a long line of illustrious Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis who have historically upheld this interpretation. Herzfeld was also a welcome if solitary voice questioning the morality of the plant owners for hiring illegal labor. The Conservatives and their Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox allies argue the technical certification is insufficient: to be kosher it must receive a hechsher tzedek, a “certification of justice,” meaning it is produced under just conditions. According to the Jewish press, most ordinary Conservative Jews strongly agree.

Meanwhile, the canny Rubashkins paid some 20 Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis – kosher slaughter experts from the US and Canada critical to their bottom-line – to take a Cook’s tour of the plant where they spent their time meeting with Rubashkin’s PR people, the upbeat new head of operations and marveling over the shiny slaughtering equipment. “We saw an A-1 place, a Cadillac,” raved their spokesman, a Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox group. With indecent haste for men of the cloth, they laid the entire controversy to rest. They declared the recently scrubbed, now squeaky-clean plant a veritable model for the industry before departing within three hours. None met with any of the workers and only four bothered to spend a few minutes with a representative. According to a New York Times article the group stated they weren’t interested in “conditions before the raid or the plight of immigrant workers.” All of that was a non-issue. Showing signs of moral dementia, Rabbi Lerner stated, “If you take away pre-raid, you’ve got to say it’s a wonderful situation.” If rabbis can be defrocked, he’s an excellent candidate. One wonders if he applies this ethically vacant idiocy to Jewish history. Why all the bother over the Holocaust? Why can’t we just concentrate on the future and move on? Get over it! One wonders what these disgraceful shills are thinking in light of the indictments?

Sad to say, even those whose reaction has been far more ethically appropriate didn’t exhibit enough in the way of burning outrage prior to the raid, and those who did – Rabbi Morris Allen among them – kept running into brick walls. Shame on us, Postville isn’t really news. The raid is only the latest, most dramatic chapter in a long narrative. The Forward newspaper ran an article on cruelty to animals during slaughter – making the meat unkosher – more than five years ago. It’s hard not to derive a certain amount of Schadenfreude knowing pious hypocrites have been eating unkosher meat all this time. In 2006, an investigative piece by Nathaniel Popper in the Forward on barbarous working conditions won a journalism award. That sparked formation of a Commission by the United Synagogue Council of Conservative Judaism to investigate the charges. Under the leadership of Rabbi Morris Allen, the Commission visited the plant, called for fundamental change and advocated hechsher tzedek>. AgriProcessors reacted defensively and took out ads attacking them in the Jewish press, and a group of Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis challenged its authority to judge “time honored halachic kashrus standards,” while others in the Orthodox community opposed it’s “meddling” in labor relations. The changes they advocated were derailed, and it took the feds to put the story on page one in most of the secular and Jewish press.

Smarmy and Clueless: The Jewish Establishment’s “Point Person” on Immigration

With so many issues at stake – illegal immigration dead center – and so many American Jews in a state of agitation, embarrassment, cognitive dissonance, or high dudgeon, and with all but the purblind now alive to their own intimate connection to the issue of illegal immigration, I’ve been mesmerized by the Postville story, inhaling virtually every piece on the subject. With few exceptions – coverage in the scandal-breaking Forward has been consistently excellent – the Postville story has engendered mostly bad writing and ideologically blinkered analysis. Though it’s elicited many awful pieces, first prize for the most evasive, self-contradictory, card-stacking, turbid, manipulative, and bromide-ridden op-ed must go to Gideon Aronoff, Director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an advocate of open borders and amnesty. The piece merits close attention because it’s a classic instance of the tortured hypocrisy that passes for American-Jewish Establishment thinking on immigration.

Published early in the unfolding scandal – presumably to be an authoritative and reassuring expression of Jewish ethics – was Gideon Aronoff’s “Postville: a clarion call.” The op-ed is so far from “clarion” that it would charitable to title it “Uncertain Trumpet.” It more closely approximates a cacophony of unrelated and frequently contradictory points: characterizing them as comprising anything resembling argumentation would be an act of generosity, and the equivocating Aronoff doesn’t deserve any. He piles up clichés and tosses in snippets of potted “history,” hoping against hope they add up to something. No such luck. He derived no benefit from getting his licks in first – au contraire. As revelations have unfolded, his piece appears even more disconnected from reality, if not simply ludicrous. With the indictments of September 9, he looks like an imbecile.

To be fair, not all his sins are merely personal. He’s an apparatchik in the American-Jewish Establishment whose wall-to-wall position on immigration policy is thoroughly dishonest. Jewish agencies pretend to believe immigration should be legal (such language remains in their official policy statements) but in fact they support open borders, amnesty and, “comprehensive immigration reform.” This shift occurred within the last decade. Establishment agencies once distinguished between support for “generous legal immigration” as opposed to “illegal immigration.” They made this case to deaf ears in the National Immigration Forum, the leading national lobby for higher immigration. When the National Immigration Forum, a bastion of Balkanizing identity politics and Post-Americanism, erased that line, Jewish member organizations abjectly surrendered. They should have shown principle and quit the coalition, but they practiced casuistry upon themselves and remained. But even by the ethically challenged standards of this monolithic, transparently self-deluded position, Aronoff’s piece is shocking.

Defaming America, Dishonoring Memory

Most insidious is his reprehensible attempt to induce Jewish paranoia by defaming America. It’s hard to imagine that Aronoff himself is so far gone as to believe the arguments he employs as he seeks to stoke these emotions. In his opening, he states Jews experience a “collective shudder…. whenever a business enterprise so closely connected with the community is raided by government agents. Because of the terrifying associations of other raids against Jews by uniformed personnel in Europe and elsewhere, we must take it seriously when the unprotected among us are subjected to single-minded enforcement policies.” Is he seriously comparing a U.S. law enforcement raid on a highly profitable, thoroughly exploitative and corrupt business enterprise to Kristallnacht? Are the enormously wealthy, politically-connected owners the equivalent of the “unprotected among us?”

And what does he mean by “single-minded enforcement?” One suspects he regrets this turn of phrase now that criminal indictments have been filed for heinous offenses. This slippery language anticipates the disgraceful claim of AgriProcessors’ spokesperson, Menachem Lubinsky, that the real cause of the raid was anti-Semitism. In the circumstances this red herring is frivolous at best, but debasing its moral currency is not: it shames and, worse, imperils Jews who are authentic targets of anti-Semitism. One thing is for certain: crying anti-Semitism can also be the last refuge of scoundrels. The same spokesman must be considered innocent by reason of temporary insanity – if loathsome notwithstanding— when he compared AgriProcessors’ predicament to the Dreyfus Case! The normal reaction to the revelations about AgriProcessors by the vast majority of American Jews belies Aronoff’s unctuous, manipulative strategy and shows at least they know what country and century they live in, even if Gideon Aronoff or Menachem Lubinsky pretend not to. Both owe America an apology.

From there Aronoff hops, skips, and jumps all over the map, indulging in half-truths, total inaccuracies and outright whoppers. He bemoans the long dead bigoted immigration restrictionist movement – does he know 40 years have passed since the repeal of national origin quotas? Then he claims countries rightly protect their sovereignty by enforcing border controls – before leaping to the Palmer Raids whose secret purpose, we’re informed, was to rid America of Italians. Next he criticizes illegal immigration (“we cannot condone the hiring of undocumented workers”) but catches himself in a nanosecond and says we have no choice because “American workers are unwilling to meet business’ labor needs at prevailing wages.” Not only is the argument untrue, but he also uses it to justify AgriProcessors’ wage scale, the lowest in the business according to the Des Moines Register, industry experts, union officials, and the Iowa Department of Labor. AgriProcessors’ starting wage is $6.15 for 12-16 hour shifts six days a week. Is this the kind of “prevailing wage” Mr. Aronoff, the thundering voice of prophetic Jewish justice, wishes to affirm and see universalized?

He talks about other large-scale raids by ICE, and mentions New Bedford, MA, but in that case, as with Postville, this supporter of open borders is so intent on advocating wholesale violation of immigration law he fails to devote so much as a sentence to the nightmarish working conditions they lead to, revealed only because of the raids he deplores.

His “clarion call,” is a confused, historically inaccurate, offensively manipulative, and profoundly dishonest advertisement for “comprehensive immigration reform.” Would that all were this inept. We’d never have to construct a compelling counter-argument: its defenders would do our work for us.