The Missing Ethic

A reader asks why I haven’t seen fit to address ethical concerns raised by news reports about a kosher slaughterhouse/meatpacking concern in Postville, Iowa that was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in May, during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested.

He is right to chide me, especially since one ethical concern – perhaps the most important one – has been all but ignored by press and pundits.

The company, Agriprocessors, has been in the news before. In 2005, an animal rights group secretly recorded scenes of unusual post-slaughter procedures that appeared inconsistent with animal welfare and asked the local District Attorney to open an investigation. He declined to do so. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors immediately changed its methods. Subsequently, renowned animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin declared her satisfaction with the changes, and the plant received excellent grades in five independent audits.

Then there were other charges over several years by local authorities of violations of environmental and safety laws. Fines were levied and the plant made the necessary changes.

What has seized the public’s attention, however, was the recent raid on the facility, said to be the largest such ICE action ever. Some of the illegal immigrants arrested, moreover, subsequently accused their erstwhile employer and supervisors of a host of crimes, including exploitation, abuse and illegal drug production.

Jewish reaction came fast and furious. The Conservative movement urged kosher consumers to consider forgoing meat produced by Agriprocessors; a Reform leader called for investigations of all kosher slaughterhouses; a liberal Orthodox group circulated a boycott petition aimed at the concern; well-known activists like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss signed it; and Jewish newspapers and blogs buzzed with outrage at Agriprocessors and its owners.

The ethical offense I see here is a different one. It violates something not only rooted in Judaism but part and parcel of American jurisprudence and respectable journalism as well. It is called the presumption of innocence.

I don’t know if the violations of regulatory laws on Agriprocessors’ record are unusual for plants of its type and size. But whether they are or are not, the firm corrected whatever needed correcting.

Which brings us to the recent raid, about which we know three things: 1) Illegal aliens presented forged documents to obtain employment at Agriprocessors, 2) Some of those workers subsequently leveled complaints against the company and 3) The company has stated that it had no reason to doubt the workers’ documentation and has vehemently denied all the workers’ charges.

Yet, the petition-circulating Orthodox group has judged Agriprocessors guilty of “knowingly exploiting undocumented workers,” and deemed the situation a “desecration of G-d’s name.” A self-described “leading progressive Zionist movement” has called on Jewish organizations to “avoid serving Agriprocessors products at their kosher functions’ and expressed shock at how “a company devoted to selling… kosher meat can be so inhumane to the people working for it.” A well-read Jewish blog has demanded that the company “make legal all those people whom they’ve brought in illegally, since they deliberately sought out illegal workers so that they could be treated with less care.” A Conservative cantor sermonized about how wrong it would be to “dismiss the events in Postville.” A Reform rabbi demanded to know “what it mean[s] to label something as ‘fit and proper’ that hurts people, exploits people or was produced cruelly.”

Neither I nor Agudath Israel of America has any connection to Agriprocessors. And for all we know, it may yet be shown that the firm indeed knowingly hired illegal aliens. Or that it mistreated them, or that it was a front for a drug operation, a neo-Nazi group or a baby-cannibalizing cult. All under the eyes of the federal inspectors present at the plant at all times.

But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being – certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah’s clear admonition in such matters – has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.

To be sure, a Jewish business operating in bad faith, violating the law of the land or mistreating its employees deserves tochacha, halachically appropriate criticism. Its actions violate the Torah and carry great potential for “chilul Hashem,” or desecration of G-d’s name. But, as the Rabbinical Council of America rightly noted in a statement about Agriprocessors, “in the absence of hard facts,” no one may “rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…”

It’s not at all clear why so many Jewish groups, clergy, papers and pundits are so energetically railing against Agriprocessors in the wake of the recent government raid. The righteous indignation has the smell of adolescent excitement at the discovery of a new “noble” cause. Whatever the motivation, though, until the facts are actually in, the armchair ethicists would do well to give some thought to the Jewish ethic they somehow managed to miss.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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42 comments to The Missing Ethic

  • Daniel

    “Yet, the petition-circulating Orthodox group has judged Agriprocessors guilty of ‘knowingly exploiting undocumented workers,’ and deemed the situation a ‘desecration of G-d’s name.'”

    The petition circulated by Uri L’Tzedek hasn’t “judged” Rubashkin’s guilty of anything. It merely makes the following requests of the company, with the threat of a boycott if the company does not comply:

    “1. Pay all of your workers at least the federal minimum wage.

    2. Recommit your company to abide by all federal, state and local laws including those pertaining worker safety, sexual harassment, physical abuse, and the rights of your employees to collective bargaining.

    3. Treat those who work for you according to the standards that Torah and halakha places on protecting workers–standards which include the spirit of lifnim meshurat hadin, going beyond the bare minimum requirements of the law.

    In order to ensure that you meet these modest requests, we ask that you establish a department and staff with external transparency to a reputable, objective third party to deal exclusively with these three concerns. We ask that you maintain this office on an ongoing basis to ensure the basic ethical standards demanded by Torah, the U.S. government, and the American Jewish community.”

    In light of the overwhelming evidence of morally dubious activity (if not criminal wrongdoing) by Rubashkin’s in the areas of labor and animal rights and environmental policy, as detailed in the Jewish press, these seem like reasonable requests. (As an example, in an NLRB hearing, management argued unsuccesfully and rather short-sightedly that they could prevent their workers from unionizing because the workers were illegal immigrants; I’m sure they were shocked when they were later raided by ICE.) In fact, as described in today’s Forward, Rubashkin’s representatives have already met with Uri L’Tzedek members in what sounds like a highly unproductive meeting. What will happen and whether a boycott is initiated remain to be seen.

    We don’t need to wait for the DOJ, NLRB, ICE, FDA and EPA to reach separate settlements with Rubashkin’s before demanding that they clean up their act.

  • Noclue

    This post is disingenuous. The presumption of innocence under U.S. law only operates at trial. It has nothing to do with suspending belief in the face of the apparent facts.

    Anybody who Googled Aaron’s and Rubashkin could have discovered the numerous violation of law at Postville. How is it possible that management and the owners did not?

    Moreover, closing your eyes to obvious legal violations does not exempt a person from criminal charges under U.S. law.

    The Torah does not command that a person believe the unbelievable.

  • Ari K.

    This is very disturbing. With all due respect, it seems as though Rabbi Shafrans antipathy for liberal orthodoxy is causing him to blindly defend Agriprocessors. If you take a close look at the boycott, it says that they were giving Agriprocessors 3 weeks to explain and correct their actions. During that time, more information has come out about how this company shows utter disregard for the law and human rights. I fear that attitudes like the one displayed in this post simply breeds complacency and allows injustice to continue. Of course, the injustice is being perpetrated against non-Jews , so why should they care anyways? It is articles like this that remind me why I took off my black hat and began to align myself with the Modern Orthodox.

  • Charles B. Hall

    In fact the Orthodox community does NOT rely on presumption of innocence in kashrut matters. Is there anyone reading this blog who can honestly say that he/she has *never* paid attention to any of the lashon hara about kashrut agencies that pervades our community? Why do we accept someone who says, “this hechcher isn’t reliable” without even hearing the reasons why it supposedly isn’t, much less contact the agency itself to hear its side of the story?

    At least in the case of Agriprocessors, it has admitted hiring illegal immigrants and used that as an excuse in its attempts to deny its employees rights under federal labor law. (As David notes, how could the ICE *not* have raided Agriprocessors after it had the chutzpah to try this?) But it is worth noting that none of the other allegations against Agriprocessors mentioned in the search warrant and in Rabbi Shafran’s essay have been confirmed.

  • Dr. E

    Reb Avi

    I find it a bit ironic that an organization which subscribes to managing our Hashkafic and Halachic affairs through hastily assembled Kol Korehs by “Daas Torah” is all of a sudden preaching the patriotic axioms of “innocent until proven guilty” and “due process under the law”.

    Let’s just call it like it is and use the Talmudic principle of “anan sahadei”. The company has obviously been playing fast and loose with U.S. immigration and labor laws for some time now. They got caught and it made the secular and Jewish press. The result is a Chillul Hashem. And for that, all Torah observant Jews with a connection to God should be very upset. Upset to the point where we can expect changes, not only at Agriprocessors but in all Orthodox businesses and institutions.

    Maybe the Hechsher Zedeck people should consult with the professionals, the “Askanim”, on how to run an effective protest/boycott campaign. :-)

  • Garnel Ironheart

    Although I promised RYR I would stop being bitter, I really can’t help this one.

    I could imagine Rav Shafran working as the PR guy aboard the Titanic and sending off a little missive right after that fateful moment. Without a doubt, he would have explained that icebergs are, of course, made of ice which comes from water and everyone knows that water can’t break the skin of the Titanic! Besides, the boat is still afloat so those who are prematurely screaming out on the deck about it sinking are clearly overreacting. Maybe if there was some evidence other than the boat listing high on one side we could conclude that the ship was in trouble but surely you wouldn’t want to derive anything from such limited evidence. Now if you’ll excuse him, he has some deck chairs to go rearrange.

  • Joseph

    Noclue (indeed): The Torah DOES demand Dan Lkav Zchus on a PERSONAL basis by each individual (not merely at the trial level), regardless of what the “media” declares.

  • L Oberstein

    Either I am mellowing or Avi Shafran is makiing more sense but I find myself in agreement with him more often than not.
    1. How can anyone boycott AgriProcessors when they control the market? Where do they propose to get their meat ?
    2.How many of those who are in a snit pay their housekeeper’s social security taxes or make sure that “Graciella” has a green Card? If not they are Hypocrites.
    3. What has the Conservative Movement or the Ultra Modern Orthodox for that matter done for Kashrus? How many shochatim have they produced? Why aren’t they operating slaughter houses using their hechsher tzedek?
    They are all talk and no action when it comes to strengthening the faith and providing teachers, shochatim, or anything else that isn’t glamorous and high paying. They are arm chair liberals, not willing to actually do anything. Pathetic.

  • DF

    This post is exactly right. Agriprocessors is simply the target of a union corporate campaign. This is a tactic unions use to attemopt to force unionization on a company when the company, or even the employees themslves, don’t want it. The goal is to file as many charges as possible, knowing that the army of taxppayer-funded government lawyers will eventually find things. (As a lawyer, I can confidently tell you that in our over-regulated society, you can always find anybody in violation of something.) Just google “corporate campaign” and you’ll see what I mean.

    In any event, other people have already pointed this out. But it bears repeating. Just remember that every single allegation and charge all come from one union with an agenda of unionizing Agriprocessors and getting the dues money for themselves. Intelligent people not only give the presumption of innonecne to Agriprocessors, but they affirmatively disbelieve the union allegations.

  • Toby Katz

    Daniel, I am not judging you guilty of anything. I am only making the following requests:
    1. Stop beating your wife.
    2. Obey all federal and state laws regarding bigamy.
    3. Invite the neighbors to come in and look around your house to make sure everything’s OK.

    I make no assumptions at all about your character, but remember that handyman you fired just because he did a lousy job and stole a few baubles from your drawer? Well he’s been spreading gossip about you which of course I don’t believe but hey, where there’s smoke…..

  • Dovid

    The efforts of Uri Le’Tzedek are troubling for a host of reasons. First they no firsthand knowledge of the plant. They seem to be working together with the new Conservative Heksher Tzedek which is led by a Conservative rabbi Maurice Allen. He has been working hand in hand with a union is trying to take over the meat plant in Iowa. He went to Potsvile and pronounced judgment after interviewing workers pre-screened by the Union in a church. Allen himself according to media reports eats in non kosher restaurants and preforms gay commitments ceremonies.

    There may be a more deeper agenda by the Uri which is part of the new left winged rabbinical school with serious issues. Its well known in the Orthodox community that their graduates are not being in accepted by the major groups as Rabbonim. In fact their are reports of some synagogue groups demanding an additional smicha. Being on the fringe of Orthodoxy they are trying to muscle their way in with a new ethical standard, much the same as their partners in the Conservative movement.

    Rubashkins must follow all Federal and State Law. There has been no prosecution that the workers are being paid below legal wage. Its a story floating around on blogs. Its seems Rubashkin has failed to tell its side of the story. Without knowing that firsthand one cannot draw judgment.

    What we really have a group of liberal rabbis with an agenda of social engineering, a union,a group of students from a rabbinical school that many are not recognizing and PETA are in a political coalition. Sounds quite ominous.

    Dovid

  • Bob Miller

    I’ve read commentary here and there that the availability of Rubashkin glatt kosher meat is essential to the well-being of the broad Orthodox community in the US. Perhaps that is propaganda, but perhaps not. If our dependence on the stability of one supplier is so great, the broad Orthodox community needs to keep a very close watch on that supplier, not because guilt is assumed but because much is at stake (steak?). By close watch, I don’t mean only hashgacha by kashrus inspectors.

  • Philip

    The information Rabbi Shafran posted is incorrect:

    Shafran wrote:
    “In 2005, an animal rights group secretly recorded scenes of unusual post-slaughter procedures that appeared inconsistent with animal welfare and asked the local District Attorney to open an investigation. He declined to do so. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors immediately changed its “methods.

    This is the CORRECT information about the PETA investigation:

    Based on the PETA 2004 undercover footage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation determined—per a report released in April 2005—that AgriProcessors “had engaged in acts of inhumane slaughter.” When the PETA footage was originally released, the USDA forced Agriprocessors to immediately stop its illegal trachea dismemberment on still-conscious cattle.

  • Ivan

    Do people really understand the facts here? From some of the comments above, it would seem the answer is no.

    There has not been, to date, one iota of evidence presented that, as the Uri boys put it, the Rubashkins “knowingly” hired illegals. They, like many employers, hired foreigners who presented proper papers. It is not an employer’s responsibility to play private investigator.

    Nor have any of the union/employees’ claims of economic or physical abuse been taken from the level of accusation to anything higher. The future might show otherwise, but the point of the posting is that at this point it is wrong to in effect accept the accusations as facts, make demands of the company and threaten it. Those who are doing so are simply tzaddik-wannabees, trying to present themselves as righteous (and of course important). If the really aspire to tzidkut, they should go back to the beit medrash and begin by learning the laws of motzi shem ra and those about the issur or causing financial loss to others.

    If anyone wants to personally think negatively about Agriprocessors, with regard to kashrut or business ethics, that’s his business. But the concerted effort to make a villain of it is wrong — especially from a Jewish perspective, as yeshiva boys (what the Uri’s aspire to be seen as) should know.

  • Dovid

    Lets get real here. PETA wants to do away with kosher slaughter. The Union wants to take over the plant. The Conservative movement trying to muscle its way back into Kashruth. And a group of students from a liberal Yeshiva that needs credibility since its students are not being being employed as Mashgichim by any national Kashruth agency. And these students, who have decided, based on the statements of a union and Conservative rabbi who eats non kosher, that they know what has to change, or else they will launch a boycott.

    How can the URI bachurim make such a irresponsible decision without impartial information. And how is these Uri guys to become judge and jury. Going public, fueling a Chilul Hashem (for this Rubaskin carries a big responsibility) much worse with out any factual independent corroboration.

    I would like to know if janitors in Chovevie, JTS and the American Jewish University(thats the west coast Conservative) have been unionized. Does AJU scrutinize the social cards for all their gardeners-they have a lot of grass to cut.

    Also take a peek at Empire they have numerous safety violation also. I think even more than Aggri. They are sitting on the side and enjoying the torment done to their competitor. Maybe we should boycott them also.

    There are full time Mashgichim from reputable Kashruth organizations in the plant. There are federal inspectors. They have not found a meth labs, one of the accusations. Nor is there much other proof of the stories spread by a union is being sued for racketeering by Smith Foods.

    Lets get real. In America you are innocent until proven guilty. In Halacha you need Edos. Neither the Rabbonim cheking the plant daily nor the Federal inspectors have indicated these allegations as being true.

    And if their biggest sin was employing someone with a social security card that turned out to be fake then its clear that a more nefarious agenda is behind all of this.

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    While I suspect that there is a lot more smoke than fire involved here which does not justify a chilul hashem boycott campaign, there are a few inaccuracies in terms of what the options are.
    First, to the person who says that Agri is a monopoly and it is impossible therefore to boycott them, someone already pointed out that there is Empire. You HAVE to have red meat and not merely chicken? Ridiculous. If you had no alternative you could go veggie. Couldn’t someone import meat from South America as they do in E”Y? If not, make aliya since America (Ama Reka) is no longer the fleshpot that it once was.

  • Steve Brizel

    I agree with R Shafran. So far, what we have read is that Rusbashkin’s is the target of an agressive union organizing campaign, a huge immigration raid, that there are legitimate concerns re its OSHA record and that some of its employees may have supplemented their income in the same illegal manner as the lead character in a cable television program. The “concerns” raised by PETA will never be answered because PETA is resolutely opposed to shechita inasmuch that violates its view that man has no rigtht to derive any benefits from he animal kingdom-kosher or treife. Is Rubashkin’s perfect-hardly! However, as a community, we should be careful and almost loath to listen to groups who we would not consult on either minor or major halachic issues.

  • Miriam Shear

    Everyone here is missing the most important piece.

    Has it occurred to anyone that perhaps the raid was simply a pre-text by the government to find more information on other suspicions?

    Let me give you a hint: In November 2005, the Criminal Division of the Justice Dept launched an investigation against Agri, Alle, Globex, and Empire. The criminal investigation centered on ANTI-TRUST violations.

    This investigation was frustrated by the tactics of the kosher industry cartel: Nobody speaks against the other. This is to protect the monopoly that each processor enjoys in the region they have assigned to themselves via agreement by the group. This keeps food prices higher – and profits bigger.

    If anyone questions the veracity of this information, I would suggest you contact Agri’s CRIMINAL ANTI-TRUST ATTORNEY, MR. DAVID ROSENFIELD. He was hired to deal with the CRIMINAL ANTI-TRUST allegations for which Agri is being investigated.

    This is not about illegal aliens.

    There is more to this than meets the eye.

  • micha

    1- The union already won the right to enter Agri, and Agri can’t fire its members. The ICE raid harmed the union, as now illegals are less likely to join, as it would involve giving their name on a piece of paper.

    Given that the state charged 389 employees and haven’t yet gone after Agri, it would seem they are NOT motivated to shut them down. The town needs their influx to the economy too badly, I guess. But in any case, it’s not a suspect of organizing a witch hunt against Agri if they aren’t in any rush to actually charge them.

    2- Not proven? Agri racked up $182,000 worth of safety violation fines in 2007. That’s a rough estimate of quantity and size of what they’re doing wrong. To give you an idea of scale, Iowa OSHA gave out a total of $120,000 in safety fines total to all of the rest of their meat industry. That is in a state where pork is a primary export, as in Tyson chicken, Hormell (the makers of spam), etc… Agri is a tiny player in total employee cound dcompared to the dozens of larger slaughterhouses in the state who total 2/3 the fines.

    No other slaughterhouse was charged with having 12 hour nightshifts. With never having ever had a training program. Having employees clean the equipment without bothering to shut them down.

    The record number of amputations among their staff is also confirmed. As was the successful suit against them last Sept for not paying the full promised pay.

    They are saving enough money on labor for spending 50% more on fines than the rest of the industry in the state combined to be cost effective.

    These accusations have been growing for 8 years now. It’s not like the raid was the first word we got that they’re using the illegals’ unwillingness to appear in court as a license to abuse them. Other accusations? Who knows. When you’re tied to a shop that underpays, overworks, and risks you life and limb, I’m sure you’re motivated to lie to bring them down. I’m sure not everything said about them is true. But the core safety disaster is a record of fine after fine after fine. And not to the same tune as the rest of the dirty industry.

    By the way… Perdue Chickens is a union shop. They’re paying minimum wage or better. Agri paid newcomers $5/hour (regardless of what was promised when they arrived). Even with the extra cost of shechitah, how did their expenses justify charging us a premium for kosher meat? (People at Empire, I’m sure, don’t wonder how they were undercut on prices.) Yes, it is wonderful that they could offer cheaper meat in areas that would otherwise have none. But this was how — by not paying promised rates, and by getting overtime out of employees through intimidation, by saving time on taking the steps (the usual steps taken by others, never mind the legally mandatory ones) to keep people from losing or mangling their hands, not pay.

    I do not know how someone can enjoy their chulent and chicken on a Shabbos afternoon once they know how human beings were abused to get them to their table. And that question is worth asking of any food from any slaughterhouse that conforms to the US norm, never mind Agri.

    -micha

  • Yoel B

    “Grandin declared her satisfaction with the changes.”

    Actually, “Dr. Grandin said, “I told the Forward, and this is very important, that they [Rubashkin] have to learn to keep their process good so they don’t slip back.”

    She also told me [Shmarya Rosenberg] she believes all of Rubashkin’s customers, from the smallest kosher butcher shop up to the largest chain of supermarkets, should be allowed free, unannounced access to the plant to make sure that standards now achieved are held to.”

    Rather than the openness Grandin wanted, Rubashkin has stonewalled; the result we see in the news.

    “Then there were other charges over several years by local authorities of violations of environmental and safety laws. Fines were levied and the plant made the necessary changes.”

    The fines ran to many hundreds of thousands of dollars. There were also violations of labor laws involving fiduciary duties, such as deductions from wages that were kept instead of paid on to where they were supposed to have gone.

    Bottom line: Agriprocessors has a long track record of deliberate violations of the law. Aside from the chillul Hashem of identifiably religious Jews pouring filth into rivers and stealing from their workers for financial gain, what kind of ne’emanut is there here? I’m sorry, but when we have the OU reassuring us that despite repeated, protracted violations of civil law for financial gain, Agriprocessors can be trusted not to cut corners on kashrut for financial gain to me it tarnishes the OU’s credibility.

  • Asher

    I don’t think the issue here is whether Rubashkins has acted properly or not in the past (although there is much cited as fact in comments above that is pure speculation — and maybe some wishful thinking). The writer specifically wrote that he doesn’t know what the future will reveal. His point, I think, is that the boycott calls and publicizing of the issue by some Jewish groups are premature at best — and violate halacha (and American law’s) insistence that we not judge others until they have had their day in court.

    From what I’ve read, there has not even been any accusation by authorities that Rubashkins knew they had hired illegals. The raid netted employees, not employers. And yet it was the raid that brought the calls for boycott.

    I think the real chilul Hashem here is caused by the boycott-callers, and all those who support them.

  • Bob Miller

    If any company of this type is unable to detect illegal aliens, its human resources department and upper management need to upgrade the company’s scrutiny of new hires. Whether we like it or not, the Federal Government calls the shots here.

  • Gene Warsaw

    Rabbi Shafran poses a great point – is what Agriprocessors does a violation of our kosher laws as we know them, as we have followed for a long time?

    The point you all need to be aware of here is that without the whipping boys of Agriprocessors, the Tdedek people have no leg to stand on. They need a hot issue. Also, the Orthodox, namely the big certification houses, who have a monopolized hold on kashrut authority in this country have so much to lose if Conservatives get their Tzedek, or if Avi Weiss gets his own, need a company with deep pockets as their shield and shill in this war. Without the processing plant, they’d need to pay to fight this on their own. Here they use the backs of the Rubashkins to fight the war for them.

    Let Rubashkin clean up, hire new workers, give homeless people a chance at a new life, fix their errors and issues, and get back to work. Let’s DEMAND that the kashrut parties involved here, take the fight to the street, to the people, thee congregations, the schools, the Jewish societies and the like, and keep it away from the company.

    Without the issues facing the Iowa plant, would Tdzedek even have an issue? Without the issues facing the plant, would the Orthodox establishment be able to convince us all that mass meat shortages is the reason to ignore tzedek and just keep status quo? The answer to both is NO.

    Get Agriprocessors out of the equation, allow them to get back to work, and let the real fight, for all of us, be waged in an honest setting. Than we’ll see the truth – the kashrut industry is an industry, much like meat processing, there is money, monopoly, graft, payoffs, etc. All in the name of kosher. That needs to be exposed.

  • Yerucham Stone

    Hey, in addition to all the heat here, there is a claim that Rubashkin muscled its way in to this and uses that muscle to keep competition out, but it is asinine.

    I’m old enough to know that Alie Packaging, 999, International Kosher, Vineland, Falls, Empire, Meal Mart, Teits, Heineman, KAJ, etc have been around far far longer than anyone else. I used to visit 999 when they were on the Lower East of New York in the Seventies. Why no one, no one, ever had the forethought to open up a midwestern plant and figure out how to become a NATIONAL distributor, not just one that sends to the largest Jewish communities, but to all points U.S. where a kosher Jew might live, is beyond me. I say sour grapes to all those who see what Rubashkin built as evil, and hey, it’s a free enough country for every one of thee others out there to start and compete and knock Rubashkin down. Do do this underhanded by laying out the claims that truthfully effect so many major U.S. companies, food, manufacturing, clothes, whatever, including small mom pop shops that hire the “Arbita” the illegals to shlep, or the building supers who are Mexicans, do.

    To say everyone does it is not an excuse, but it is a reality. Demand that Rubashkin clean up, but let’s just be honest that there are so many people out there who would financially see benefit of this Iowa plant shuts its doors.

  • The Contarian

    Rabbi Shafran witres: “But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being – certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah’s clear admonition in such matters – has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.”

    How then does Rabbi Shfran explain the fact that the Amora Rav would sentence individuals to be lashed on the basis of rumors of impropriety.

  • R. Benveneste

    The sum total of all the acusations against Agriprocessors – all stemming from a union trying to get dues money – is that they have OSHA violations and some of their employees are illegal aliens. Not a very big deal. If OSHA investigated your company, you would also be found in violation of something. OSHA is known to be one of the most poorly-drafted federal statutes. And as for immigration, the fact that it’s an issue in this election season shows it’s not just Agriprocessors, but employers everywhere that are grappling with illegal aliens.

    Bottom line is, some union out for money is organizing a witch hunt against a company. I sincerely wish Rubashkins the best of luck, urge them not to give an inch, and offer whatever support I can. I enjoy their franks very much, and will continue to eat them with gusto.

  • HK

    The article does wreak of an anti-liberal agenda. Though, at the same time we should assume Agri’s innocence until proven guilty. But, we should hold them responsible for letting something like this happen. If they would have acted with Lifnim M’shurat Hadin then this most likely would not have occured. Are we holding them to a higher standard? Yes, but that is how we must always act as Jews. People are constantly looking and judging us. If preventing a chilul Hashem, such as this one, requires higher standard in the way we act, then so be it. I am not going to accuse Agri of knowingly hiring illegal immigrant, give them illegal papers, abusing them or producing drugs. Although, based on previous accusation towards Agri, I think it would be legitimate to call them to shame for letting such accusations ever arise.

  • Robert Zimmerman

    How can we trust anyone anymore based on all of this information and misinformation? Agri says this, blogs, JTA and Forward say that, and all of the bloggers say other ridiculous things.

    The raid on Agriprocessors has become more of a witch hunt, and even more of a game of broken telephone. This whole debate is lashon hora, because no one has printed bona fide facts, it’s all hearsay.

    The blog editor here claims to know the truth, the PR guys claim to know the truth, and the pseudo experts here claim to know the truth.

    The truth is that some of what is claimed against the meat processors are true and need to be fixed, while a lot of it is rumor designed to besmirch the movement Chabad and organized orthodox so-called “organizations”.

    This fight, and it is a fight, is not one that ought to be fought by a food maker/distributor, but between the rabbis, religions, streams and the consumers to see whether an idea of a hechser tzedek warranted, but more so, is even doable. Where are lines drawn, who makes the rules, is a “little bit” illegal, the same as a little bit pregnant, is immoral, my morals, your morals, Avi Weiss’ or Morris Allan’s, Avi Shafran’s?

    Asking for a hechser tzedek is a big deal, because once you declare it and firm it up, can Avi Weiss still eat at the Rivedale Pizza shop if the guy who sweeps or flips the dough is illegal? Can Morris Allan’s synagogue be considered treif because the janitor’s wife is illegal (not saying that any of this is the case)? Can I buy my tzitit at the Judaica store where a Mexican is crushing boxes in the back?

    A blog master who has been fanning the flames says its a 70%/20% ratio of illegals in one of his posts. He says its not about Federally illegal, but more of a moral code. So if that blogger says one guys’s use of illegals is good because he pays them better wages, does that rise to the level of Avi Weiss’ level of Uri LTzedek – which asks for U.S. legal guidelines?

    The questions here are not meant to be sarcastic, but will certainly be answered that way. They will get torn apart and mocked, my motives will be too, all in an attempt to deflect the true questions here. Can tzedek work, who will be the enforcers, and is the use of this company as the posterchild for non tzedek – the rumors, gossip and destruction of people’s lives, livelihoods and reputations – contrary to the whole point of tzedek in the first place?

    Or, to paraphrase a famous Kohen who just might be a legal ALIEN, “do the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few?” Do we continue to be counter to tzdek, using these people until they are destroyed for the purpose of building a greater call for Tzedek? That’s not my Torah that tells me that to save one life is to save the world ans that lashon hora is tantamount to kiling a person.

    Tear away people…

  • Natan

    “But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being – certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah’s clear admonition in such matters – has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.”

    Did this happen with Lipa Schmeltzer? According to his comments in a recent interview, there was much disinformation which resulted in the fiasco of the canceled concert.

    I am afraid that essays such as this by R. Shafran are counterproductive to his cause. What people see is that where there are claims of serious interpersonal wrongs (fraud, abuse, etc.), there is much talk about “don’t be motzi shem ra” and “innocent until proven guilty,” but where the allegations are of things not being in accordance with charedi religious sensibilities, it’s shoot first and ask questions later (if at all).

  • DF

    “Are we holding them to a higher standard? Yes, but that is how we must always act as Jews. People are constantly looking and judging us.”

    Actually, 99.9% of the country has no idea what’s going on in Agriprocessors,and is not looking at them and judging them. And there is no requirement I’m aware of for Jews to hold themselves to a higher standard where non-ethical government regulations are concerned. Jews should be very careful not to steal, cheat, lie, etc, behaviour that is universally despised. But things like unions, immigration, OSHA, or other political acts that are not universally approved of or favored – Jews should obey the law or, like jaywalking and speeding, act towards it as everyone else does. And countless companies are in standing violation of these overly-regulated areas. Unless you are a big employer like Agriprocessors, you have no business or credibility in sniping at them.

  • Yerucham Stone

    The truth will set you free:

    Guys, tachlis. All of you with itchy keyboards, take a look.

    Agri’s OSHA Record!

    The claim made that there are $182,000 worth of safety violation fines in 2007 is false. In fact, only $29,750 for 14 safety violations with no repeat violations cited.

    As for some of the others:

    AgriProcessors has a human resource department where abuse and harassment and sexual complaints could be filed.
    Unfortunately, there was; but just one such complaint was filed in about twenty years at AgriProcessors.
    The human resource department investigated the complaint with the appropriate authorities.
    The police did not find reason to file any charges
    AgriProcessors never had a charge for sexual abuse brought against it in any court or governmental establishment
    To say that their internal department dismissed the claim does not move me, whereas the fact that the local authorities who investigated the claim did – does.

    Also, you should note that:

    AgriProcessors has a government approved HACCP plan in force.
    AgriProcessors has the USDA staff on site full time – monitoring safety.

    So, unless the police, the local government, OSHA, USDA and everyone else is on the take, this is a series of unfortunate events that do not add up to the evil. More like a big company that does nasty work with blood, bones, sinew, flesh, knives and hooks that is so big is has some accidents, staffing issues, and harassment issues, but nothing is out of the ordinary for a workforce, small society or manufacturing plant.

  • Bob Miller

    This article gives the background behind the two figures given above for this company’s safety-related fines in 2007:

    http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080530/NEWS10/805300366

  • Yoel B

    There is a tachlis and a set of facts but it is not as Mr. Stone wrote.
    The figure of $182,000 was a PROPOSED fine (by the State of Iowa, which has primary responsibility for worker safety in Iowa, not federal OSHA, and certainly not the USDA which is primarily responsible for the safety of the food supply, not of the workers.) That was the maximum possible total fine for dozens of violations; the fine was reduced by 75% to less than $46,000.
    Also, there were 26 State safety violations in the October 2007 inspection alone, not the 19 for the whole year.

    So, Agriprocessors fines were less than half as much as the whole rest of the State of Iowa’s massive meat industry put together. What an Ohr lagoyim!

    Furthermore,

    “”This does not include anything related to child-labor allegations, as that investigation is still ongoing,’ said Kerry Koonce, communications director at Iowa Workforce Development.

    Koonce said workplace safety fines are often proposed at the maximum level, then reduced through negotiations.

    ‘Frequently, when companies are willing to participate in an informal conference to discuss the violations, and they demonstrate the measures they are taking to make corrective actions, (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will reduce the penalties,’ she said.

    ‘Penalties are sometimes reduced provided the employer takes a specific action by a certain date. If that doesn’t happen, then the penalty returns to the full amount.’

    In the statement announcing the proposed $182,000 fine, Iowa Labor Commissioner David Neil said that protecting worker health and safety ‘is paramount to developing a productive work force,” and that workers hurt because of failed health and safety measures “create an economic burden for their community.”

    http://beta.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080530/NEWS10/805300366

  • Miriam Shear

    “Unless you are a big employer like Agriprocessors, you have no business or credibility in sniping at them.”

    Are you serious? Are you trying to say that the ONLY people who have a RIGHT to criticize Agri are those of EQUAL stature? Does this mean that a smaller business who has been the victim of Agri’s anti-trust activities and has been put out of business because of them, has no right to level criticism toward them for destroying their business investment, parnassa, and holding entire Jewish communities hostage to any price or quality Agri dictates?

    Since when or where in Jewish law or American law, is there such a principle that only those of equal stature can level a justified complaint against its oppressor?

  • Charlie Hall

    The big positive that I have seen from this affair is that bashing of illegal immigrants has virtually disappeared from frum blogs.

  • Larry

    As someone involved in a variety of kiruv (outreach) efforts directed toward teens and young adults from Orthodox families who have now abandoned normative Jewish practice, I often hear the complaint that Orthodox Jews are indifferent to the welfare of the wider community, uninvolved in the struggle for social justice, and excessively parochial and self-centered in their concerns.

    Defending the Orthodox community from these sorts of allegations is made far more difficult by the types of comments made by both Rabbi Shafran and by many of the posters on this board, comments that reflect an indifference to alleged wrongdoing, a willingness to slander those whose religious or philosophical approach or interests differ from their own, and a “circling of the wagons” intended to shield the Chareidi community from criticism or scrutiny.

    Unfortunately, we as an Orthodox community are indeed acting and being perceived, more and more, like a mere self-serving interest group of the sort that is common in today’s fractionalized world, hardly the standard bearers for HaShem’s great and holy Torah and message. The world is suffering from our absence, and our idealistic and young are being lost.

  • Bob Miller

    At one point do the advocates of unrestricted immigration take responsibility for the broader outcome outside their immediate personal concerns such as cheaper goods (e.g., glatt meat) and services (e.g., glatt meat processing)? Do they expect the immigrants to require no taxpayer-funded services and financial aid? Do they expect to turn the immigrants into productive English-speaking American citizens or to let them deteriorate into a permanently oppressed low-wage class?

  • Ori

    Bob Miller: Do they expect to turn the immigrants into productive English-speaking American citizens or to let them deteriorate into a permanently oppressed low-wage class?

    Ori: Illegal immigrants cannot sue, so they are not protected by US labor laws. This means that they are likely to be stuck as a permanently oppressed low-wage class.

    We have three choices:

    1. Close the border effectively, using minefields and armed patrols with orders to shoot the way Israel does it. If 95% of the Mexicans who try to cross the border die in the attempt, illegal immigration will drop to a trickle.

    2. Keep illegal immigrants as an oppressed low-wage class. They think it’s better than living as a poor Mexican in Mexico. Since they’ve experienced both, I assume they are correct. I think this is the preferred option from the perspective of US employers who employ them – complying with labor laws costs money.

    3. Legalize them, which will give them access to the police and the courts to enforce US labor laws. This will require their employers to obey US labor laws, raising their costs and the costs of their goods and services. It will also raise the salaries of unskilled US employees who compete for the same jobs.

    I don’t know which option is preferred according to the Torah, I’d appreciate learning that.

  • Ori

    I forgot another option.

    4. Fix Mexico. From what I read Mexico’s problems are due to a 3rd world class system (most of the population low class, a few fat cat family at the top, and nothing in the middle). Since the upper class people would like to stay upper class, doing this would probably require conquering Mexico and occupying it for a decade at least.

  • Yoel B

    A recent Des Moines Register story details safety problems at Agriprocessors, including the company forcing workers to buy necessary safety equipment. Some highlights:

    “Federal and state records give conflicting information on fines against the company, but for the past few years Agriprocessors appears to have compiled one of the worst safety records of any meatpacking plant in Iowa.”

    “During an on-site inspection, an executive asked a state inspector whether she would recommend protective ‘rain suits’ for the workers. ‘Yes!’ she said.

    She asked the company’s operations manager and plant engineer whether they would want rain suits if they had to spray caustic chemicals. According to the inspector’s report, both men said, ‘Absolutely.’

    But company records indicate that workers had long been forced to either do without the protective gear or purchase it themselves from the company. And because some workers allegedly had no lockers at the plant, they often took their chemical-soaked rain suits home with them at the end of their shift.

    Company Vice President Sholom Rubashkin, in a September 2000 memo to all employees, included an ‘equipment price list’ that identifies rain pants and jackets, as well as ‘wrist wraps’ and ‘back support,’ as ‘personal clothing-type equipment,’ rather than mandatory, company-issued safety equipment.

    For at least six years, workers were being charged $30 for the pants and $30 for the jackets. Boots were $20.85. At those prices, 100 rain suits would have generated $8,000 in revenue for the company. By comparison, the state fine for this serious safety violation was $1,000.”

    “OSHA cited the company for more violations, and federal investigators launched a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of people in the United States illegally who were hired there, of child-labor law violations and of workplace safety issues.

    Court records show that in January 2008, federal authorities equipped an informant with a hidden device to record a safety briefing for new employees. During the briefing, employees were allegedly told that their pay would be docked $2 per week to pay for gowns and gloves that they were required to wear.”

    http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080706/NEWS/807060335/1042/LIFE02

  • Yoel B

    A worker illegally in this country illegally has no right to, for example, back pay if his employer unjustly fires him for trying to organize a union. The firing may still be illegal, of course.

    But what Daniel said in #1 seems to be correct: “in an NLRB hearing, [Agriprocessors] management argued unsuccesfully and rather short-sightedly that they could prevent their workers from unionizing because the workers were illegal immigrants.”

    Let’s parse that:

    •Agriprocessors was unjustly trying to prevent its workers from organizing
    •Agriprocessors management admitted (against interest?) that it knowingly hired illegals

    So management knew (supported by the reports of the discovery of stacks of forged documents in the HR office and the testimony of some of the workers) that many of Agriprocessors’ workers were illegals.

    Hebrew National’s advertising has for many years, including in a catchy and popular series of TV ads, proclaimed that being kosher means “We answer to a higher authority.”

    That is what many people in this country think that keeping kosher means. Isn’t it wonderful that the defenders of Agriprocessors are correcting this horrible misapprehension by vigorously and eloquently proclaiming that kashrut only means following a set of technical rules about food processing, and that cruelty to animals, working conditions, concern for the environment, and other unethical behavior (see the recent revelations about 5W, Agriprocessors’ PR firm, and its vigorous use of sockpuppets and other forms of geneivat da’at (including impersonating a Hechsher Tzedek official in blog comments!*) have nothing to do with keeping kosher? I’m so happy to have that horrible misunderstanding about Orthodoxy cleared up so that people don’t wrongly think better of us than we deserve.

    BTW, so far, 5W is blaming this on “an unpaid intern” who posted the worst impersonating comments from a 5W VP’s house after 10 pm one evening. Others were traced to 5W corporate IP addresses. Classy.

    *http://www.jta.org/cgi-bin/iowa/breaking/109424.html

  • Yoel B

    The Agriprocessors story now has the metastory of 5WPR, the PR firm Agriprocessors hired to help protect and rehabilitate its image. Here’s a good summary of the metastory from blogger Gawker:

    “•After being hired for its internet PR expertise, 5WPR attempts to plant fake comments from both supporters and (most deviously) critics of the kosher slaughterhouse on various websites.
    •This scheme unravels because the company doesn’t bother to leave its office or mask its IP address when posting.
    •This scheme also unravels because the company misspells the name of a rabbi when signing a comment in that rabbi’s name.
    •CEO Ronn [sic] Torossian claims an ‘investigation’ is under way to find out which of his employees spun a laughably incompetent Web of amoral deception in the service of flackery. This time.
    •VP Engelmayer, assigned the slaughterhouse account, blames an unnamed, unpaid ‘intern’ for the fraud. Says this ‘intern’ has been fired.
    •This story starts to unravel because, as blog Failed Messiah notes, the first two impersonation posts appeared in February, ‘well before any summer interns were working at 5W.’ Ahem.
    •The story unravels further when two* fraudulent Web comments are traced to Engelmayer’s apartment.
    •’Intern’ calls to say he was hanging with Engelmayer at his apartment Tuesday night and slipped, undetected, onto Engelmayer’s computer to do some impromptu character assassination, so don’t blame Engelmayer because Engelmayer did not do it…”

    *as of this posting, eleven fraudulent comments origination from Engelmayer’s IP address have been found. Y.B.

    5WPR is justifying its actions as being in defense of Kashrut and traditional Judaism. Now my question: There have undoubtedly times in Jewish history when actions which in general are completely assur (lying, cheating, forging, stealing) are not only permitted but required. The Va’ad Hatzala’s actions during the Churban Europa seem to me to be a case in point.

    Is the current situation with Agriprocessors such a circumstance? 5WPR says that it is. What do the Rabbis say?
    Do the actions of Agriprocessors’ chosen spokespeople reflect on the yashrut if not the kashrut of Agriprocessors?

    Finally: In my admittedly limited experience as a mashgiach (tmidi and visiting factories) it rapidly became obvious that the willing participation and transparency of the operation being supervised was critical. It would have required many mashgichim throughout the facility– at least 2 or 3 even in small restaurants– to keep an eye on things otherwise. In my experience the yashrut of the business and kashrut were inseparable.
    Of course, my work mainly involved supervising non-Jewish and non-observant businesses.
    Perhaps on the strictly Orthodox side of kashrut, more compartmentalization has historically taken place and ritual kashrut could coexist with crooked business practices, though where the yirat Shamayim and ne’emanut is in that I don’t know. In today’s information age, however, we can see that the era of compartmentalization is ending. I have often thought that browser cookies and other internet tracking technology are an clear demonstration that what we do leaves traces and that somewhere someone who wants to can find out where we have been and what we have done.

    And can it be coincidence that these stories are breaking as we approach Tzom Tammuz?