This week, Sholom Rubashkin, the imprisoned Lubavitch Jew and former head of Agriprocessors, was released from prison after President Donald Trump commuted his sentence. Upon the urging of bipartisan leaders, from Orrin Hatch to Nancy Pelosi, President Trump released Rubashkin twenty years earlier than planned, though he wasn’t pardoned.
Opinion | Liberal Jews Who Turn Their Backs On Rubashkin Are Hypocrites
At the news of his release, 770, the headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch, erupted in dancing, singing, and drinking. Hundreds of hasids from other sects arrived to celebrate.
I, too, couldn’t help but feel slightly giddy. Giddy – and betrayed – by liberal Jews who just could not muster up any excitement.
I’m an Orthodox Jew who stands up against both injustice and criminal activity. Growing up, our bookshelves had pictures of the Lubavitch Rebbe. I learned Tanya with my father, who studied in Chabad yeshivas. He wore a Chabad-style frock on Shabbat. I also grew up listening to protest songs about the injustice of the criminal justice system.
So I’m not just excited because one of us is out. I’m excited because an instance of criminal malfeasance across the board has been rectified.
For this reason, along with what felt like thousands of hasids, I was and continue to be jubilant. I’m happy because it’s easy to demonize a man with a straggly beard and a kippa. He looks different and is thus scrutinized with a closer lens than people who are white and appear more American. The fraud he committed is rampant in many large corporations, and while that obviously doesn’t make his activities defensible, it calls into question why one man was scapegoated. Agriprocessors isn’t the largest employer of illegal immigrants. And yet it was the biggest workplace immigration raid in US history, costing taxpayers 5 million dollars.
Opinion | Liberal Jews Who Turn Their Backs On Rubashkin Are Hypocrites
And there are even more concrete reasons to suspect that justice wasn’t served. The judge who sentenced Rubashkin, Linda R. Reade, is married to a man invested in the prisons Rubashkin and the immigrants were detained in. He owned stock in two private prison companies, and bought more stock five days before the raid. It was like insider trading, but with people’s lives. According to reporting done by Mother Jones, Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann was one of over a hundred DOJ officials who came out against Rubashkin’s harsh treatment. She even met with immigration officials numerous times before the raid, colluding about effective strategies. There was not even a hint of impartiality.
Then there were the problems with the case and sentencing. The defense team asked for six years. But the prosecutors asked the judge for a life sentence. It was clearly an absurd request. This was after Bear Sterns and AIG went under, with its executives unscathed, and they were going after a hasid from Brooklyn.
An uproar from a collection of leaders including six attorneys general and over a 100 DOJ officials ensued.
“We cannot fathom how truly sound and sensible sentencing rules could call for a life sentence — or anything close to it — for Mr. Rubashkin, a 51-year-old, first-time, nonviolent offender,” they wrote. The letter is signed by Janet Reno, William Barr, Richard Thornburgh, Edwin Meese III, Ramsey Clark and Nicholas Katzenbach, all of whom served as attorney general. In response, the prosecutors asked for 25 years.
And the judge sentenced Rubashkin to 27 years — 2 years more than the prosecutors requested. This was during the crises when millions of American families lost their home to foreclosure due to widespread fraud and activities done by financiers who knowingly hurt the customers they were paid to take care of. Not a single CEO went to jail. Meanwhile, Rubashkin received 27 years and had to repay 23 million dollars.
In addition, he had supporters from the locals who lived in Postville. When PBS Frontline visited the town where his plant was located, reporters interviewed employees and residents. They were overwhelmingly supportive. His employees were mostly from two towns, one in Mexico and one in Guatemala. Women and children, now destitute because the plant’s closure, told heroic stories about this hasidic man who employed their fathers and brothers. They received medical attention for chronic illness and were able to send money back home. These rural villages with no opportunity were thriving because of an Orthodox Jew with a long beard from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It’s a miracle of Globalization that he was able to help them. According to the documentary, “The hundreds of undocumented workers were a vital part of the local economy. They said they had risked everything to work here for $7 an hour.” Amid the recession, the plant helped the town thrive. Soon, after the raid, the town felt the pain of many small towns in the US. Rubashkin helped the US, Mexico, and Guatemala. Very rarely does trickledown economics work, but here is a shining example.
On the other hand, reports in these pages told of animal and human abuses. Rubashkin was accused and later acquitted of knowingly hiring underage workers. The animal-rights advocacy organization PETA advocated tirelessly against his company, leveling claims of animal cruelty and mistreatment.
Given these reports, my feelings of happiness are tempered by more complex feelings of unease. And yet, as I mull over the events of this week, I keep coming back to the jubilation.
True, Sholom Rubashkin is not the perfect martyr that we need him to be. And yet, imperfect martyrs can also be scapegoated. The US attorney’s office went after a small fish. A raid on Cargill or Tyson would have yielded better results. Instead, ICE’s largest raid went on an easy target, a man who looks like an outsider and sounds different, a man with a strange name.
As uncomfortable as I am with making claims of Anti-Semitism, I feel like I have no choice, because I can’t wrap my head around this case. I don’t understand why Agriprocessors was chosen as the face of greed and misconduct in the meatpacking industry, and why they gave him a prison sentence that was two years longer than the prosecutors requested. I can’t help but feel fleeced by my liberal friends who should have supported him, based on the facts.
I also think about other victims of the criminal justice world. Many of my liberal friends stand up for minorities in the justice system who have been the victims of mass incarceration. They quote Ta Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, and Bryan Stevenson. Some causes are cool, more sexy. Still, some of them should have rallied behind one of their own. They turned against their brother.
I wonder if it’s because he’s too Orthodox, to old school, where fellow Jews might assume he has racist or retrograde views. Maybe it’s because they don’t perceive him to be a victimized sufficiently.
The same way I stood up for Kalief Browder, the same way I stood up for Black Lives Matter, the same way I stood up against stop and frisk, I stand up for Sholom Rubashkin. There was an injustice done here, and it is intellectually dishonest to fight against one injustice and allow another to occur.
I am hurt by my fellow Jewish activists who turned against their brother in his time of need.
Eli Reiter is a teacher and writer living in New York. He hosts and produces the long-form storytelling show “Long Story Long.”