Not Free To Desist


Published August 28, 2008, issue of September 05, 2008.
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Not much remains to be said about Agriprocessors, the giant kosher meat company whose Iowa slaughterhouse has been the object of so much public scrutiny. Allegations were made — credible ones, we believe — of abusive working conditions, grossly inadequate worker safety measures, health and environmental violations and much more.

Religious authorities who have gone to investigate have reached differing conclusions; some looked and saw evidence of the abuses we first reported, while others saw only a shiny, modern-looking plant. One group of rabbis has drafted a new set of rules to ensure decent working conditions in the kosher food industry; another has dismissed the idea, arguing that ensuring workers’ safety and fair pay is the job of the government, not the rabbinate. The company itself, reacting to the public pressure, is reported to have instituted some reforms, for which it is to be saluted.

For all that, there is still one critical point that demands acknowledgement while the episode is still fresh: the utter perversity of the governmental response to the furor. In what documents show to be a direct response to the Forward’s initial coverage, a task force of no fewer than 16 federal and state agencies mounted a massive enforcement raid on the plant in May to arrest suspected wrongdoers exposed in the reporting. Their targets, however, were not the company executives and shop managers suspected of shorting paychecks, ignoring safety requirements and extorting workers for money and sex. Rather, the government targeted workers, the helpless victims in the episode, for violating immigration rules in their quest to make a living. Nearly 400 workers were arrested and hauled off to lockup. Close to 300 were sentenced to prison before deportation. It was the largest-ever government raid of its kind up to that point. It vastly overshadowed, in one quick sweep, all the efforts to date by local, state and federal authorities to address the substantive human-rights issues raised by the company’s behavior over years.

In a way, this misdirection of government priorities should come as no surprise. This administration is renowned worldwide for its misguided priorities, its preference of business and the rich over the needs of the working majority, whether in tax policy, regulation, enforcement or legislative programs. Indeed, our national government has been on record for decades as rejecting — solemnly, formally, publicly — the very notion that food, clothing, shelter or jobs may be considered human rights at all. America doesn’t go along with that sort of thinking, regardless of what the rest of the world says or does. We should hardly need reminding of that.

But a reminder does seem to be in order for those rabbis who refuse to consider company conduct when they issue kosher certification. Their articulated stance over the past two years has been that the available tools of religious oversight cannot be used to ensure the ethics or social conduct of the kosher food producer. Granted, certification can be withheld if a hotel in Tel Aviv hosts a rowdy floor show or a New Year’s Eve party, if a restaurant in New York serves food on Saturday or a kosher food inspector in Pennsylvania is found driving on the Sabbath or living with a girlfriend. The rules may be adapted to cover those infractions — but not to ensure that workers are able to feed their children and get home from work with all their arms and legs attached. No, that’s the government’s job.

And if the government isn’t doing it? That, it seems, is not our problem. Some other religions may get involved in messy issues like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but not ours. Our religion is about keeping our knives sharp.

That’s just not good enough. They’re wrong on text, wrong on context and wrong on principle. We are commanded to stand up and be human in a place where there are no humans. We may not finish the job, the Talmud says, but we’re not free to desist.

There’s nothing in there about ducking your head or passing the buck. Judaism is better than that.

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