The viral video defending Sholom Rubashkin is a sleekly produced three minutes. A young, clean-shaven actor sits in a chair, facing a camera. A dramatic score plays under his monologue, which relates a reasonable narrative.
“Rubashkin’s gamble with the law is a no-no, and he should get punished,” the man says after describing how the manager of the now infamous and defunct Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, was found guilty of financial fraud.
But, the actor continues, Rubashkin is a family man, a father of 10 children and a pillar of the community. Despite his “no-no,” why should he be threatened with life in prison, as he briefly was? “Is this the face of American justice? Can we justifiably compare Sholom Rubashkin’s victimless crimes with those of violent criminals? Can we really place him in the category of murderers and rapists?”
Prosecutors at Rubashkin’s sentencing hearing, which took place at the end of April, backed down from the maximum life sentence they had initially recommended and asked instead for 25 years; a decision will be handed down on May 27. But this has not allayed the distress of Rubashkin’s supporters, who remain exasperated by what they see as grossly unfair treatment at the hands of the federal justice system.
The video is just one element of what has been a wide-ranging campaign orchestrated in large part by members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. Though the video itself is attributed to “Chabad News Online,” a Chabad official says the movement was not directly involved with its production. The various efforts have had some success, even convincing six former attorneys general to sign a letter condemning the life sentence. But the campaign has also exposed the vastly different worldviews that can exist inside and outside the ultra-Orthodox community.
Some facts are beyond dispute. After years of being accused by both People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and local unions of engaging in animal cruelty and abusive labor practices, and after a series of stories in the Forward, an aggressive government raid in May 2008 led to the arrest of 389 illegal workers. A cascade of other charges followed as Agriprocessors slid into bankruptcy. The immigration charges have since been dropped, but Rubashkin was convicted in November 2009 of defrauding a St. Louis bank of $26 million. He had been fabricating invoices and shipping papers in order to maintain a $35 million credit line.
To the non-Haredi world, Rubashkin exploited poor illegal immigrants, some of them underage. He cheated banks and caused great economic harm to the small Iowa town that came to depend on his family’s business.
To the Chabad-Lubavitchers, who count Rubashkin as one of their own, as well as to other ultra-Orthodox Jews, he is a martyr. He did nothing exceptionally wrong in their eyes. How was he to know that the illegal immigrants were illegal or underage if they gave him legitimate-looking papers? And the bank fraud? That was the bank’s fault. He was inflating his finances so that he could borrow more money, on which, they say, he dutifully paid interest. How can the bank complain now about something from which it benefited? Moreover, they wonder, why is he being singled out for doing what so many others have done?
“We had a whole economy collapse on bank fraud,” said Alex Rapaport, a Satmar Jew who is the executive director of Masbia, which runs soup kitchens in New York. “Why should one man become the villain of bank fraud?”
This dissonance is not new; it has existed over the issue of Rubashkin and his meat plant since the beginning of his troubles. While Agriprocessors was targeted for the way it slaughtered animals and for the working conditions in the factory, the Haredi community never gave the accusations any legitimacy. Agriprocessors was providing cheap kosher meat, distributed nationwide. That was the essential point, many Orthodox observers said.
“You had involvement with PETA and the unions, and they were attacking ritual slaughter, which affects all of us,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, a Lubavitcher who is the executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. “It was agenda driven. And unfortunately, we saw how agenda drove it, not truth.”
Now that the various charges against Rubashkin have either been dropped or turned into convictions, the main criticism fueling the feelings of injustice have to do with the way the case has been handled.
Haredi critics have a number of complaints. They point to the large number of counts that multiplied with each successive indictment against Rubashkin, which added up to the 86 counts of bank fraud for which he was found guilty. Rubashkin was not allowed to be free on bail because it was feared that he might flee to Israel — a decision that was seen by his supporters as antisemitic. And finally, the prosecution’s demand that Rubashkin be sentenced to many years in prison is perceived as an unprecedented and discriminatory move based on political calculations.
“We understand he made mistakes,” said Aaron Goldsmith, a rabbi living in Postville who is close with the Rubashkin family and also served on the city council. “But there is unilateral support for the fact that he is being singled out and treated worse than anybody who’s faced the same accusations. We think there is a lot of politics behind it because the federal government made a very big showcase. If they don’t end up with a monster-type person at the end of it, it may appear that they’ve overstepped what they should have done.”
Even a harsh and persistent critic of the Rubashkins like Shmarya Rosenberg, whose website, FailedMessiah.com, has kept up a steady drumbeat of posts uncovering their various wrongdoings, thinks the federal government was “ham-handed,” as he put it, at various points in the prosecution. The threat of life imprisonment and the use of “right of return” as justification for denying bail were two such moments, according to Rosenberg.
“I don’t want to see him suffer,” Rosenberg said, referring to the fate Sholom Rubashkin might face in jail. “I’m not interested in seeing them suffer. But given the prosecution’s guidelines, I don’t see him getting any less than 15 years. And, remember, you are not talking about an angel here.”
Though representatives of Chabad say they have not been officially involved with the campaign, most of the activities on behalf of Rubashkin have emerged from the community and drawn on its extensive networks. There were large prayer vigils on the days leading up to the sentencing hearing, and Lubavitch Jews have been urged to flood the United States Department of Justice with calls of protest.
For those who study the Haredi community, it’s not unusual that its members should have such a different perception of the case than that of the secular world.
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and the author of several books about Orthodoxy, said that for the ultra-Orthodox there is a sense that they operate under a different “moral compass,” one more important than the legal rules of the wider society in which they live.
“A man who is an observant Jew, who is a Hasid, who is a good Lubavitcher, can’t possibly be someone who breaks the law, because he lives by the law,” Heilman said.
But the reasoning and mystery behind Rubashkin’s strong support among the Hasidic sects might have an even simpler explanation. As Jeffrey Gurock, a Yeshiva University historian and the author of the 2009 book “Orthodox Jews in America,” put it: “At the end of the day, it’s a desire to help one of their own.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch the viral video defending Sholom Rubashkin below:
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman