Post-Postville: A Year After the Raid, Lessons Learned

The controversy over abuses at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, sparked an intensive bout of soul-searching and intra-communal debate among American Jews — and helped fuel our national discussion about immigration.

A May 2006 investigation into working conditions at the plant by the Forward roiled the Jewish world, and heightened scrutiny of Agriprocessors, the country’s leading producer of kosher meat, and of its owners, the Rubashkins, a Brooklyn-based Lubavitch Hasidic family. But it was the massive federal immigration raid on the plant on May 12, 2008, that put the company in the national spotlight.

To mark the first anniversary of the raid — and the approaching third anniversary of the Forward’s initial report — we asked a diverse group of contributors to reflect on what this episode has taught us about immigration, labor, kosher food and Jewish community and values.

To Sanctify? Or Desecrate?

By Shmuel Herzfeld

One of the lessons of the Agriprocessors fiasco is that the world around us does not have a narrow, legalistic definition of the word “kosher.” To most of the world, kosher means that a given item is produced in complete accordance with sacred Jewish values. This understanding might be flawed, but it is nevertheless a definite reality.

Consequently, kashrut organizations and the communities that support them have the responsibility of living up to those expectations. We might not want such a responsibility, but we have no choice. Any product that is called kosher by a rabbi must adhere to strict standards of both Jewish law and ethics.

If we fail in this area, we will desecrate God’s name. But if we succeed in this daunting task, His name will be sanctified by our actions.

Help Workers Help Themselves

By Sybil Sanchez

Sadly, the Agriprocessors story is nothing new, although some of its lessons may have to be learned anew.

If the Forward reported similar abuses of workers in a kosher food plant 75 years ago, readers would have known immediately what was needed: U-N-I-O-N. The only way for workers to prevent horrific working conditions is for them to have a voice through their union so that they can defend their most basic rights.

“It is up to the working people to save themselves,” famed labor leader Rose Schneiderman said in the aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. “The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

But with Agriprocessors, we saw how a determined company can thwart workers’ efforts to organize. That’s why we must support the Employee Free Choice Act, to remove hurdles to workers trying to join a union and secure decent contracts — and to stop situations like this from happening again.

The Rubashkin Rorschach Test

By Avi Shafran

‘Rubashkin,” to me, conjures blackness. No, not as in clothing. As in a Rorschach blot. As a screen onto which people have projected their feelings about Jews, especially Orthodox ones.

A prosecutor and a judge denied former Agriprocessors plant manager Sholom Rubashkin bail in part because, like all Jews, he qualifies for automatic citizenship in Israel. Yes, what you smell is a whiff of the old “dual loyalty” stench.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, the Forward reporter who spearheaded the Postville story described the Agriprocessors plant as a place where “Bearded, Orthodox rabbis… buzzed around,” ensuring adherence only to ritual laws and not values. The Orthodox Jew is painted as narrow-minded.

Non-Orthodox rabbis, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others all eagerly shared their own dark visions of Agriprocessors.

Accusations were accepted as facts, revealing more about the critics than about their target.

So the lessons are not new ones: Jews, to many, are invidious. And the Orthodox have become the Jews’ Jews.

Immutable Laws, Changing Times

By Menachem Genack

Though the laws of kashrut are immutable, conditions do change. We at O.U. Kosher adapt to these changes regarding food technology, plant design and all of the technicalities governing the modern production of food.

We also have to be concerned about the legal and ethical environment of the companies we supervise — a reality that the Postville episode underscored. If our field kashrut supervisors observe actions in a plant that break legal or ethical standards, they must report these to senior management — and we will act.

Ultimately, however, kosher-certification agencies such as ours rely on the federal and state agencies that monitor the multitude of workplace issues. But in the case of Agriprocessors, we saw how government itself can perform poorly. The immigration raid, with its helicopters, wholesale arrests, violations of due process and destruction of the local economy was a gross overreaction. Government actions must be proportional and also “kosher.”

Kosher Questions Awaiting Answers

By Joan Nathan

As someone connected to the Jewish food world, I have followed the Agriprocessors story closely. Frankly, it has not only upset but also embarrassed me.

We’ve learned — and the world has learned — that kosher doesn’t always mean adhering to a higher standard. As a result, this episode has prompted some real soul-searching about the meaning of kashrut: If we eat kosher meat that has been slaughtered without compassion, can we really call it “kosher”? (Indeed, would it not be better to buy meat from a local farm that we know raises and slaughters animals in a humane manner, even if it lacks kosher certification?) And just as we must have compassion for the animals we eat, aren’t we also obligated to respect the dignity of the workers who make this meat available to us?

How we answer these questions will determine how kashrut is perceived both by Jews and by our neighbors.

Becoming More Observant Jews

By Jill Jacobs

The revelation that religious Jews were paying poverty wages and endangering workers’ safety in order to produce kosher meat has sparked widespread outrage. But our communal response — in the form of the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek initiative and other similar efforts — showed that many Jews are unwilling to limit their religious observance to ritual practices such as Shabbat and kashrut.

Judaism demands consciousness in every aspect of life, from what we eat to the way we do business. Jewish law mandates standards for relationships between employers and employees, treatment of criminals, care for the poor and other civil matters.

It is easy to condemn Agriprocessors for their violations of both federal and Jewish law. But rather than limit our outrage to the most egregious cases, we should also look inward and ask whether our own institutions treat workers with dignity and pay them enough to support their families.

Twice Abused

By Jane Ramsey

In Postville, the Jewish community learned firsthand about a broken immigration system that does not reflect our values.

Workers who had already suffered injustices at the hands of Agriprocessors’ Jewish owners were further abused by federal authorities. They were arrested and convicted on criminal charges without due process. Families were torn apart; men and women were taken away in shackles. Many of those remaining in Postville, including children, were left without means to meet their basic human needs, including food and shelter.

Ensuing Jewish protests and an outpouring of support sprang from our deep wellspring of prophetic and Talmudic values, which demand: “Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” Today, as a result of Postville, Jewish communities feel the urgency of the need to prevent further human rights abuses and are mobilizing with allies to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

Our House Divided

By Stephen G. Bloom

Jewish reaction to the Postville raids showed something most Jews already knew: There is a vast, irreconcilable divide within Judaism. Postville was a crucible. It demonstrated how greatly in opposition competing Jewish groups are today.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews rushed to the defense of the Postville Lubavitchers. More liberal Jews, recognizing the atrocious actions of some of the Lubavitchers in Postville, sought to undo the wrongdoing committed in that bucolic Iowa town.

Despite overwhelming evidence of misconduct in Postville, the Jewish community as a whole is still skittish about challenging the we-are-right, everyone-else-is-wrong mindset that prevails within ultra-Orthodoxy. In fact, if you disagree with certain elements of the ultra-Orthodox community, you’re dismissed as an antisemite or a self-loathing Jew. But that shouldn’t stop people of good will in our community from speaking up. Jews need to condemn all forms of injustice, exploitation and bias — particularly when the wrongdoers are fellow Jews.

Stephen G. Bloom is a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa and the author of “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America” (Harcourt, 2000).

Post-Postville: A Year After the Raid, Lessons Learned

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