Daily Alert

04 June 2008

Agriprocessors - 'Cause Celeb' of the Leftists


Rubashkin: It's all a lie (JTA) Ben Harris - Speaking out for the first time, the owner of Agriprocessors was visibly angered by the flood of charges that have imperiled his business, the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse.


Published: 06/03/2008

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Aaron Rubashkin, the owner of the embattled kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessors, denies he has engaged in unethical labor practices and blames the failure of U.S. immigration policy for his mostly illegal workforce.

In the first substantive comments by an Agriprocessors representative since the government rounded up more than a third of its employees on immigration charges in a May 12 raid of its Iowa plant, Rubashkin flatly denied allegations of worker mistreatment and plant mismanagement.

"Everything is a lie," Rubashkin told JTA.

In a more than hourlong interview May 30 outside his Brooklyn butcher shop in the heavily Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, the 80-year-old Rubashkin was visibly angered by the flood of charges that have imperiled his business, the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse.

The raid has reduced Agriprocessors' output significantly and sparked fears of a national shortage of kosher meat.

A government affidavit cites claims that the drug methamphetamine was being produced at the company's Postville plant, that undocumented workers were paid $5 per hour and that a Jewish kosher supervisor duct-taped a worker's eyes and abused him with a meat hook.

In the weeks since the raid, workers have also charged that female employees were offered improved working conditions in exchange for sexual favors and that underage workers were employed at the plant in defiance of Iowa labor laws.

"We got 21 or 23 inspectors," Rubashkin said in a thick Yiddish accent. "Every minute the plant is open, there is USDA inspector. We got maybe 30 rabbis. How can we do something which is wrong? If I want to, God forbid! We are ethical people. We don't do no injustice to nobody, not to a cat."

Dressed in a blue cotton shirt and black fedora, Rubashkin acknowledged that he was concerned the company may be brought up on criminal charges, but said he was "a hundred percent confident" that he would prevail in court.

"I believe in the American system, and I did nothing wrong," said Rubashkin, who opened his shop in 1953, the same year he emigrated from Russia.

Asked why he was replacing his son Sholom as vice president if the charges are phony, Rubashkin threw back his shoulders and arched his eyebrows.

"For the business," he said. "In order to enforce, after such a shock, we want to beef up management -- change management, change rules, to do different ways."

Rubashkin emphasized that the management change was for the sake of the company, "not for the people."

"We treat people -- I wish everybody should be treated like we treat people," he said.

Agriprocessors sells meat products under various labels that include Aaron's Best, Rubashkin's, Shor Habor, Iowa's Best Beef and Supreme Kosher.

Federal authorities have not brought criminal charges against the company or its executives. The bulk of the accusations, particularly those concerning worker mistreatment, remain unsubstantiated.

But nearly 300 former employees have pleaded guilty to various forms of fraud involving fake work documents and are facing deportation. The affidavit cites claims that Agriprocessors had assisted workers in securing false documentation.

Rubashkin denied underpaying his workers, saying that all new hires start at $8.60 per hour -- above the federal minimum wage of $5.85, that workers are paid time-and-a-half for overtime and that they are provided with paid vacation and health care. He further said he had no idea that his workers were illegal and that they had produced what appeared to be legitimate work documents.

The affidavit states that Agriprocessors received five separate notices from the Social Security Administration of 500 Social Security number discrepancies.

"People coming there looking for jobs -- they bring ID with a photo, with a number," Rubashkin said. "With the same card the person go to the bank. With the same card he got his credit card. With the same card he bought a car."

"19 million illegals here? I don't bring 'em here. I pay taxes and the government supposed to control the stuff."

Rubashkin also had harsh words for the media, which he mockingly referred to as the "free press" and twice compared to the Soviet, state-run media.

"A lynching press," he called it.

He accused the media of harping on the negative and ignoring the good he has done for the Postville community. Rubashkin said he offered full medical coverage to workers and their families, paid for cancer treatments for sick workers at the renowned Mayo Clinic 100 miles to the north and helped set up a day-care center for the children of employees.

Katie Hageman, who runs Postville Child Care Services, told JTA the Rubashkins donated $20,000 to the construction of the center, which caters primarily to the children Agriprocessors' employees.

Rubashkin sees himself as a victim of an immigration system that Washington has steadfastly refused to fix. He has bitter words for the Jewish social justice activists who have spoken out most vigorously since the raid.

The Conservative movement has urged kosher consumers to "consider" whether they should purchase Agriprocessors' products, while Uri L'tzedek, a social justice initiative launched by liberal Orthodox rabbinical students, circulated a petition threatening a boycott of the company.

"I'm against tzedek?" Rubashkin asked, using the Hebrew word for justice. "It's a very nice word, but what kind of tzedek? Tzedek is when you give a person what to live. Tzedek is when you give 'em a salary he should be able to pay rent. Tzedek is when you sick, you should have a doctor. This is tzedek."

Long prominent in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rubashkin was interrupted several times during the interview by well-wishers, including a bearded man who used a Hebrew expression to wish Rubashkin success in his business. And while the butcher himself was loath to speculate on why he was being singled out, his customers were not so reticent.

"It's only anti-Semitism," said a woman who identified herself only as Esther, as she wheeled a half-dozen Rubashkin's bags to her vehicle.

Esther compared Rubashkin's plight to that of Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was slapped with a harsher sentence -- life imprisonment -- for spying for Israel than others who had spied for enemy states.

"Everything is the same," Esther said.

Other customers offered different theories to explain the controversy swirling around their longtime neighborhood butcher.

"I think they took him as a scapegoat because he's a big company," said a Borough Park resident who identified himself as Motti. "All the big guys suffer at the end. What's his name, Mike Tyson, was put into jail because he had too much money. O.J. Simpson was nailed in some ways because he has a lot of money. And on and on."

Though their explanations differed, all agreed that they would continue to patronize Rubashkin, even if the charges against him were proved to be true.

The Orthodox Union, by contrast, one of two kosher certification agencies supervising Agriprocessors, has said it would withdraw supervision if charges are brought against the company.

"I would have a problem, but I again realize that the world has come to that," said customer Shaya Mayer. "Nobody cares about somebody else. The meat's nice, the meat's good, I'm going to continue to buy it."

Unlike his customers, Rubashkin refused to endorse the anti-Semitism thesis as the explanation for his troubles -- but he didn't seem entirely unconvinced, either. Several times he invoked classical anti-Semitic canards, like the infamous libel that Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake matzah, to underscore what he sees as the baselessness of the claims against him.

"We got a big mess, no question about it," he said. "Why? Because somebody say I was 15 years when I came to work there."



RCA Statement Regarding Recent Developments at Agriprocessors

June 3, 2008 - (The Yeshiva World)
The Rabbinical Council of America has been following recent developments taking place at the AgriProcessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. Like many others, both within and beyond the Jewish community, we have been concerned to determine the facts and the realities surrounding the many reports that have appeared in the print and online media, so as to respond appropriately, and responsibly.

Given the gravity of the allegations, and the potential impact on the Jewish community and kosher consumers, it would be inappropriate to rush to judgment before all relevant facts are clarified. It is important to keep in mind that to date conflicting reports have been issued, denials of improper behavior have been heard, and the recent events have occurred against a background of long-standing conflicts involving competing interest groups. Nonetheless it is important even at this time to clarify what in our view should be guiding principles in addressing this issue, once the facts will be known.

Relevant Principles of Jewish Law

The Torah, Halacha, and our sacred tradition require that we show ethical sensitivity on many levels:

1)We are required to respect our fellow human beings, who must be treated with fairness and dignity at all times. This applies whether they be Jew or non-Jew, rich or poor, and for that legal or illegal immigrants.
2)Inseparable from the requirement of ethical treatment of our fellows is the requirement to not judge them prematurely, without knowledge of the facts, and without providing an opportunity to rebut allegations in appropriate fashion.
3)We are required to obey all of the laws and regulations of the land if promulgated lawfully, and enforced without discrimination, to adhere to them in letter as well as in spirit, whether or not we approve or make sense of them.
4)We must show sensitivity to needless animal suffering, preventing it where possible, and minimizing it when unavoidable. This is particularly true when it comes to practicing humane methods of animal slaughter, a matter of great concern to rabbis in every generation.
5)We must above all take every reasonable step to prevent the disgrace, even in appearance, of the Jewish people and the Torah. Thus even if an act is technically permitted, if it nonetheless brings discredit to us and our faith, be it in Jewish or non-Jews eyes, it must be avoided.

Public Interest Principles

The availability of reliably supervised kosher meat (as with other kosher food) at a reasonable cost to the consumer is essential to Jewish life (and indeed to many who are not Jewish.) This requires an appropriate understanding of current business models as well as the requirements of Jewish law in providing and supervising such products.

Without necessarily impugning the current motives of various parties involved in any given dispute, we must keep in mind lessons learned during the course of the long history of unwarranted attacks on kosher slaughter practices in Europe and elsewhere, carried out by groups with agendas of their own.

In this connection one can raise for consideration whether or not the laws of the land, in themselves entirely legal and proper, have been consistently enforced, or whether a particular group or company has been singled out for such enforcement or legal action.

The Proper Parameters of Kosher Food Supervision

There are some who have called on kosher supervising agencies to take responsibility for comprehensive supervision of all “ethical” aspects of the kosher food industry. They would have rabbis provide informed and reliable judgments regarding financial auditing, human resource department practices involving hiring, firing, promotion, workplace safety issues, treatment of animals, tax and financial compliance, compliance with immigration law, et al. In our view such expectations of kosher supervising agencies are unreasonable, impractical, and without merit. Kashrus agencies do not have the expertise, resources, or enforcement powers to adjudicate such matters.

Extending kosher supervision to the full gamut of business practices raises many difficult questions. For instance, do we want ethical certification of practices involved in the production and distribution anywhere in the world of clothing, appliances, and furniture? This type of certification requires very different skills, and a very different arena of activity, from that involved in kosher certification. It requires looking at the company’s books, human resources practices, suppliers and distributors, all by experts in the field – at significant cost to the consumers who, even if such broad-ranging review is possible, will end up paying for such investigations.

On the other hand it is certainly appropriate for supervising agencies to incorporate into contractual agreements from the outset, an expectation of adherence to the principles outlined above. It is also appropriate that if improper practices are found to have occurred as a result of regulatory or other substantiated revelations, the kashrus agencies should review their relationship to the businesses involved. Such review should consider, and balance, all of the relevant factors, including

a. The nature, severity, and frequency of the infractions involved. Who was responsible for them – ownership, management, a failure in oversight by government or other supervisory agencies?

b. The likely impact on kosher consumers of continuation or discontinuation of supervision, including the availability and cost of the products in question.

c. The likelihood of continued improper activity by the company, versus its willingness to improve its record going forward in verifiable fashion.

The Rights and Responsibilities of Individual Consumers

Kosher consumers certainly should be free, at any time, to choose to purchase kosher products based on whatever halachic or ethical criteria they value. Some may choose to withhold their business even on the basis of rumor or media reports until such time as the facts emerge. That is their right.

At the same, in the absence of hard facts, they too should exercise appropriate restraint, and not rush to premature judgments that might unnecessarily imperil the availability or affordability of kosher products and services, or impute guilt where none, or little, exists.

They should also be wary of any group that would seek to exploit the kosher food industry, or any particular company, based on ulterior motives of an economic, philosophical, or even religious, nature. Here the principle of caveat emptor, in its broadest meaning, applies.

Conclusion

In the matter of recent allegations against Agriprocessors and its company policies, the RCA is certainly concerned at news reports published to date. But both Jewish Law (Halacha) and civil law require a presumption of innocence by all parties, including the concerned public, as well as an understanding of the broad implications involved on all sides, until the facts will have been clarified, especially in a case that is as complex as the one at hand.




The first thought that came to my mind is how reasoned and cautious the RCA comments were. While the comments left on The Yeshiva World blog are less than useful themselves, criticizing the RCA for making in the words of a few of the posts, "useless", to the contrary, they are quite important and almost ground breaking. The RCA had to comment, had to leave the door open for sanctions, yet had to be clear not to draw conclusions until all the investigations have been complete into the legal matters facing Agriprocessors. What cannot be missed is that the facts however, speak for themselves. No matter who was responsible whether Agriprocessors (and at whatever level) or the government as suggested by Aaron Rubashkin in the interview above, undocumented workers were arrested and have been convicted. What is left is the blame game.

The RCA did the right thing by pointing out the enforcement consistency in the immigration law and by implication, the standards of the meat industry. This is no excuse for identity theft, and APRPEH has been clearly on the side of little tolerance for breaking the law. The RCA, however, is looking at the issue through the eyes of kashrus and the precedent being set for oversight. It is personally interesting to note that much of what is found in the RCA statement could have been read on this blog in previous entries. APRPEH discussed the separation of kashrus and law in this previous post pointing out that there can be an advisory role and even upfront expectations placed on an agreement to extend a heksher to a company but the rabbinic role is to insure kashrus while the government role is to insure safe working conditions, baselines for compensation, protections against harrassment, etc. This isn't the job that the rabbis do. As the RCA points out, what's next? What industry standards must the rabbis learn in order to intervene in the non-food market if the expectation of acceptable practice and use is forced upon the batei dinim? <B<; span>r>
And, thus we have swerved into concerns raised in the APRPEH post linked above. The JTA article offers the following:
The Conservative movement has urged kosher consumers to "consider" whether they should purchase Agriprocessors' products, while Uri L'tzedek, a social justice initiative launched by liberal Orthodox rabbinical students, circulated a petition threatening a boycott of the company.

The APRPEH post revealed the Conservativist and Reformist agendas
of seeking relevancy through the woes of fellow Jews, the Rubashkin family. Now, we see the entry of the "liberal Orthodoxy".

Like many proponents of liberalism, who use the vehicles of poverty, homelessness, access to healthcare, disparity of income, the environment, world wide expansion of freedom, etc., not to propose ways to advance the cause of liberty (comprised of tearing down the imposed barriers to the access to information, the ability to build coalitions based upon common purpose, to achieve equal access to the means to resolve their own problems, demonstrating that all matters of social and economic prosperity are achievable by everyone, thereby lifting everyone) but to tear apart the structure of society, break apart the sources of influence and to impose an equality of outcome. This is the method and true agenda of the leftist. This is the cause of social revolution. This is the dogma of leftism. This is, I am afraid, the cause de jour of a crowd who aligns itself with Jewish leftism circulating through the organs of such groups as the Jewish Funds for Justice (formerly the Shefa fund) (some background can be found in the essay on the Uri L'Tzdek website A Jewish Liberation Theology). For additional background on social revolution and Saul Alinsky see here.

The motivation to make social revolution, not social justice, AKA the old mantra of Reformism posing as tikkun olam, a Jewish enterprise based in Torah is an idea which is bubbling beneath the surface of awareness in much of the Jewish world. The throwback to this 1960's idea seems to be in the eyes of it's advocates, a path to Jewish unity. Targeting the institutions of kashrus, seeking to infiltrate the socialist agenda into the duties of a kashrus supervisor is a dangerous and risky calculation on the part of the leftists who advocate it in my opinion. This battle of ideas needs to play out in the public domain and be discussed openly, not in secret. What will be the role of Modern Orthodoxy in American Jewish life? If you are advocating leftist solutions to social problems, say so. If you hide your agenda, you will be exposed.

In the mean time, the battle ground is in Postville, IA, the US courts, and Brooklyn. The offices of the OU and RCA have now staked a position and the Rubashkins are playing the role of sacrificial lamb.

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