July 17, 2008
What’s a proper Jewish response to the ongoing scandal surrounding the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa?
And is it even proper, ahead of a court’s final judgment, to refer to the controversy surrounding America’s largest kosher meat processor as a “scandal”?
An Orthodox colleague and I have been debating this. I had expressed outrage over the long list of allegations at Agriprocessors and said they suggest a pattern of worker abuse that is shameful in itself and shaming the Jewish community.
He reminded me that no company officials — owners and managers — have been charged with wrongdoing and that the community has rushed to judgment based on the allegations of hardly disinterested parties. He didn’t specify which ones, but other defenders of Agriprocessors have hinted at dark motives by labor organizers, grandstanding U.S. immigration officials, and non-Orthodox Jews interested in embarrassing the Orthodox or gaining a larger stake in the kosher industry.
I referred to a thick binder of articles and reports about Agriprocessors, including a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department affidavit containing page after page of allegations. The affidavit alleges the company was exploiting its illegal immigrant work force, physically abusing workers, hiring workers without legal documentation, and monkeying with workers’ (below minimum wage) pay.
The U.S. Department of Labor and the Iowa Department of Labor are probing Agriprocessors, and the Iowa Division of Labor Services has fined the company for health and safety violations.
And of course there was the federal raid in which 389 workers were arrested and charged with using false identification or incorrect Social Security numbers. Two plant supervisors have been charged with aiding and abetting the workers’ illegal activity. The owners, like Sgt. Schultz, apparently knew nothing, noth-ing.
For some Jewish organizations, there certainly has been no hesitation about a “rush to judgment.” The Jewish Labor Committee says the company has shown “a clear pattern of employer negligence and even lawlessness,” including, according to the JTA, the violation of child labor laws and toleration of various forms of worker abuse. The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, an initiative within the Conservative movement to include ethical standards as a category of kashrut, issued a statement saying “the actions of this company have brought shame upon the entire Jewish community.”
Uri L’tzedek, an Orthodox group devoted to social justice, called for a boycott of Agriprocessors products until the company demonstrated that it would uphold the “basic ethical standards demanded by Torah, the U.S. government, and the American Jewish community.” (The group lifted its boycott after saying the company took unspecified “significant steps” to address concerns about the treatment of workers and animals.)
But still my friend warned me about a rush to judgment. Neither of us really knows, he said, how common or uncommon such health and safety violations are at other slaughterhouses — an admittedly dirty business. Besides, he suggested, Agriprocessors has complied with all suggestions and reforms made by government agencies and individual experts over the years.
I told my interlocutor that I was caught between the Scylla of his well-argued e-mails and the Charybdis of the mounting allegations of abuse and lawlessness.
But I became less conflicted remembering the powerful investigative journalism of the Forward’s Nathaniel Popper, going back to 2006, that grimly anticipated the findings and subsequent allegations of federal investigators, and the persistent reporting of Iowa papers like the Des Moines Register.
And while the courts have yet to speak on the issue, there’s a pattern here. Would a rabbi advise his readers to refrain from a “rush to judgment” if the allegations about Agriprocessors were about kashrut, pure and simple? If there were reports from reputable parties and government officials that a local restaurant or store was violating its kosher supervision, would he tell his folks to keep eating there until due process had run its course?
The engagement and outrage demanded by unmistakable signs of injustice would be stifled if all activism waited on the grind of the justice system. And while we wait for the courts to confirm or deny the well-documented allegations emanating from the press, government agencies, eyewitnesses, and community activists, what of the potential victims? Is there no category in Halacha for intervening in a situation where there is the strong suspicion of bodily or emotional harm?
Great injustices have been remedied in this country thanks to the heroic spadework of investigative journalists, fervent activists, and crusading lawmakers. They don’t have the power to put people behind bars, thank goodness, but they can goad the public to apply the kinds of pressures that will force changes even before the courts have spoken. The labor movement itself, so closely associated with Jews in the first half of the 20th century, is a testament to the power of moral suasion applied by those to whom many courts were actually hostile. The great muckraking journalists inspired revolutionary reforms by publishing exposés that might be condemned under Jewish conceptions of “lashon hara” — harmful gossip.
Agriprocessors certainly deserves it day in court. But something stinks in the state of Iowa, and it’s not too early for kosher consumers to demand higher standards from everyone associated with the industry. At stake is the integrity of kashrut itself — and the credibility of any Jew who quotes the Torah on justice.