Judge-And-Jury Journalism

Like an amusement park barker inviting passers-by to step right up and throw balls at some unfortunate’s head sticking through a hole, The New York Times editorial page seems to have been calling on any and all to pitch print projectiles at a mark of its own: the kosher-meat producer Agriprocessors.

An editorial in that newspaper on August 1 was entitled “’The Jungle’ Again” – a reference, of course, to Upton Sinclair’s famous novel depicting the horrors of the meatpacking industry in early 20th century Chicago. That book depicts a world of unsanitary, cruel and unsafe conditions, with human fingers mixed into ground meat, gross mistreatment of workers, corruption, venality and filth. Having set the tone with its title, The Times’ editorial begins by referring to “a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa” with “an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers,” and goes on to cite “reports of dirty, dangerous conditions” there.

While the editorial’s thrust was aimed at the government’s treatment of illegal immigrants arrested at the facility, the imagery of the “kosher meatpacking plant” [emphasis – or at least the italics – mine] and the “abusive practices” of which “once-silent workers now tell” was firmly embedded in minds’ eyes before they likely glazed over as the editorial went on with a predictable lambasting of the government for enforcing immigration laws.

A cynic, or perhaps just a savvy observer, might note that many of the alleged abuses have been denied and none confirmed, and that federal inspectors were a constant presence at the plant.

He might further note the involvement of an activist labor union in the Agriprocessors controversy. And further still, that a possible reason why “once-silent” workers only began telling tales of mistreatment after their arrests and facing deportation may have to do with something called a “U visa” – a special permit to remain in the United States available to noncitizens who have been abused by employers and might be helpful to a prosecution of that crime.

One didn’t have to be either cynical or savvy, though, to have been unimpressed by a letter to the editor of the same paper several days earlier from Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, in which she draws a parallel between “routine animal abuse” at Agriprocessors (that would be a post-slaughter practice that was discontinued after objections to it were raised) and the “human suffering” of the company’s employees. “It should come as no surprise.” she wrote, “that a facility that profits from tormenting and killing animals would also oppress and abuse humans.”

One wonders what the PETA president might make of the principled vegetarianism of human abusers like Charles Manson, Pol Pot and Adolph Hitler. One needn’t even wonder, unfortunately, about her reaction to a recent murder, the stabbing to death, dismemberment and cannibalism of an innocent passenger on a bus near Manitoba, Canada. Ms. Newkirk attempted to place an ad in a local newspaper describing how “his cries are ignored… the man with the knife shows no emotion… the victim is slaughtered… and his flesh is eaten” – before informing readers that the description was – surprise! – of an animal in a slaughterhouse. The paper chose to reject the ad, perhaps seeing it as abusive in its own way. She should have tried The Times.

But the crowning outrage came on August 6, in a superficially high-minded but innately ugly op-ed piece deemed fit to print by The Times. Written by the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., the piece’s “hook” was the imminence of the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, which is preceded by eight days when the eating of meat is eschewed by observant Jews. Therefrom, the writer – following The Times’ and Ms. Newkirk’s lead and taking accusations as facts – decries the “abusive practices” at Agriprocessors (described, he explains, in “government documents” – i.e. affidavits of illegal immigrant workers’ claims).

Although he takes the necessary pains to avoid a libel lawsuit, throwing in the requisite qualifiers, the rabbi marches proudly in step with the editorial page’s drumbeat, nobly slapping his fist against the collective Jewish breast in penance for the unproven sins of others.

I do not know if Agriprocessors knowingly hired illegal aliens, or mistreated workers or was a front for a drug operation, as statements in the “government documents” allege. But neither do The New York Times, PETA or the rabbi. And so, until the facts are known, none of us has any moral right to act as if we know what we cannot.

Which is why some readers, like this one, felt that the rabbi’s Tisha B’Av hook was indeed most appropriate for his op-ed. Although not quite in the way the rabbi intended.

For Tisha B’Av, according to Jewish tradition, has its roots in the failure of character of those Jews in the Sinai desert who, the Torah tells, spoke ill of the land promised them by G-d.

“If speaking ill of trees and stones is [so sinful],” comments the Talmud (Arachin 15a), “all the more so is speaking ill of one’s fellow.” And so Tisha B’Av is a mournful moment in Jewish time because of the grave sin of slander.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

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

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22 comments to Judge-And-Jury Journalism

  • L Oberstein

    The Conservative Movement is a shadow of its former self. The whole idea of a “hechsher tzedek” would make sense if there were any Conservative Jews who would actually buy only those products. L’havdil, if the Satmar Rav said to only buy a certain product, thousands of households would follow his decree. How many Conservative Jews keep strictly kosher out of their homes and how many actually would adhere to this new hechsher?Very few. So who are they kidding?

  • Tal Benschar

    The Yiddish phrase tsaddik auf yenem’s cheshbon springs to mind.

    I wonder how many of the Rabbis who have so much to say about AgriProcessors have ever said a single sentence to their congregants about how they treat their workers.

    Any of them employ illegal immigrant maids or child-care workers? How about the personnel who wash the dishes and mop the floors at the local kosher dining establishments?

    Or who work for the local kosher caterers?

    Have any of these Rabbis spent five minutes checking into their status or admonishing their congregants about how they are treated?

  • Yossi Ginzberg

    Indeed correct, there should never be a rush to judgment, especially when the incomes of so many will be affected. Perhaps they will be vindicated on the newest charges. Anything is possible.

    The question that is being ignored, though, through all these nit-picking refutations of details in so many recent cases aside from this one, is the biggie : Where is the outrage over the known abuses?

    Why does our community arise in hysteria when non-kosher chickens get sold in Monsey, but not when a “heimishe” scams $110 million? Why the fuss over a non-tznius picture in a sheitel-store window, but no public outrage over a prominent talmid chochom who scammed $42 million from the government mortgage insurance? No reaction to so many recent scandals involving abuse, deception, molestation, and more…why?

    What is the lesson that this lack of reaction is giving our kids? I suspect that the lesson is, that it’s okay to lie, cheat, and steal, as long as in prison you only eat glatt!

  • DF (labor lawyer)

    Rabbi Shafran is right, of course. But he bends over backwards to say one should be cynical or savvy to recognize the dues-hungry union behind all of this. One need not be cynical or savvy, one need simply open his eyes. The whole investigation is a well-orchestrated union “corporate campaign”, a process whereby scores of charges are filed with government agencies, in the hopes of getting the company to agree to unionization. [why not just have an election? Becasue the unions keep losing elections. More than 92% of private industry non-union, according to DOL statistics.]

    That SOME government violations somewhere will be found on the part of Rubashkin is, naturally, a given. There is hardly a large company anywhere in the country that is not in standing violation of any one of thousands of government regulations. Left-wing rabbis and newspapers, like those cited above, would love to trumpet about some preliminary agency findings of violation, if they get ‘em, as support for their causes. Intelligent people are smart enough to know propaganda when they see it.

    I very much enjoy Rubashkin products, and will continue to enjoy them. But even those who have never tried them should make it a point to purchase them now, as a show of support.

  • micha

    The OU said they were waiting for gov’t assessment.

    Well, OSHA has been assessing them since a least 1998, when their on line files begin. Before PETA, before the union tried to get in. And guess what… they have a worse record than other places. Fined nearly annually for “severe violations”, defined as danger of death or maiming including “repeated violations” — onces that were found even in following inspections.

    People who follow worker safety issues have not been eating Agri products since before the raid. Ths whole thing isn’t some secret that came out because a bunch of antisemites stirred up a hornets nest at ICE. It’s been there all along, and few bothered to look.

    So why was the question treated as though it was still open? What is he OU waiting for from the gov’t that hasn’t been done again, and again, and again….

    Fortunately, this recent visit — and more tellingly, Agri’s readiness to invite people, shows real improvement is being mad. Perhaps some of it is smoke and mirrors for a pre-planned showing, but progress can’t happen overnight. The mess is gone. The wages are up at $10, double what the Gautemalans ended up with (despite promises exceeding minimum wages), they at least hired someone whose job is to chase down these problems so we shouldn’t here of “repeat violations” fom OSHA and IOSHA, etc…

    But let’s not pretend we’re all innocent. Someone at Agri has been doing something wrong for years. The Jews involved, if none of them are the primary guilty parties, must have at least known about it. OSHA and Iowa OSHA told them over and over again to the tune of more fines than the rest of Iowa’s slaughterhouses an meat packers combined — and pork is a major export for the state! Nothing was done. We heard rumors… we blame PETA, we blame the union, we blame the Forward, we do everything but check to make sure our actions aren’t hurting other people.

    Once again, we talk about shemiras halashon, and forget that it doesn’t absolve us of the obligation to check the veracity of claims that can be fixed. There is a real connection to how we’re trying to change our handling of child abuser and sexual predaors in our midst. Just as the latter requires knowing when too much shemiras halashon is a bad thing, so too when the victim isn’t one of our own.

    What would Rav Yisrael Slanter have said?

    -micha

  • Dr. E

    If Agriprocessors adherence to the Mitzvah D’Oraisa of “Vihiyisem nikiyim” was as strong as its Glatt standards, it never would have gotten itself into this mess.

  • Bob Miller

    It should never reach the stage—at any company—where the government gets involved. Internal audits, as practiced by all world-class companies, should find everything that needs improvement, and management should implement the findings on its own because that’s the right thing to do. This makes sense from every point of view, and is also much cheaper than any form of post-publicity damage control.

  • Steve Brizel

    Let’s be realistic here. PETA views shechita as Lhavdil akin to the work of the Nazis Yimach Shmam vZicram and views animals as having many of the same legal “rights” as humans. IMO, their views should not be seen as a legitimate source of criticism. As far as R Y Salanter ZTL is concerned, it is now evidently clear that the story quoted by R Herzfeld never happpened. Thus, we cannot extrapolate as to what RYS might have said on this issue. To paraphrase R Seth Mandel, if you think that Rubashkins’ influenced the views of those who toured the plant, then I can have a bridge for sale. I also should note that another aspect of this issue that noone cares to note is that the charges against Rubashkin’s have been led by a heterodox rabbi-if we would shrink from even thinking of asking such a person and some of his allies a simple halachic query, why we would give his allegations re Kashrus any legitimacy whatsoever?

  • mb

    Hmmm. Two years ago there were similar posts to this on this blog regarding Yisroel Valis and his killing of his baby. In fact the posts were rather triumphant as the case against him appeared to crumble.
    Just a reminder that the media was correct, as Yiroel Valis was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter.
    Now, as then, you appear to be defending the indefensible.

  • LOberstein

    I wondered what happened to Valis. I remember Jonathan Rosenblum writing in defense of the “defense fund” to pay for his lawyers.Then I never heard anything further. In fairness, the two cases are not identical. Agriprocessors, so far, seems to have hired a lot of illegals, so what.It’s Zoe Baird allover again. They have a lot of trouble finding anyone willing to work hard, that is why we have so many illegals in the first place. When my prople were being killed, America didn’t let us in , it is hard for me to be on the side of those who want to protect our country from hard working people who only seek a better life for their families.

  • Lawrence M. Reisman

    “A cynic, or perhaps just a savvy observer, might note that many of the alleged abuses have been denied and none confirmed”

    Samir Kuntar’s defenders have been saying the same thing about the killing of 4-year old Einat Haran. Denials are worthless until they are tested in the courts. The case agains Agri is just beginning. Confirmation may yet come.

  • Bob Miller

    It’s quite clear from the reports that Valis was railroaded by a highly prejudiced judge who chose to ignore compelling expert testimony. Outcomes in the Israeli justice system are subject to capricious power trips by the judges.

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    Part of the problem of the encirclement of the covered wagons on this issue is the feeling of the frum world, influenced by the surrounding culture, that we have to consume very large quantities of meat consistently. If we looked at meat as a ritual object which we consumed by the measured kezayis on very special occasions and wanted to check ourselves as we do our lulav and esrog on Sukkos, we would be both physically and spiritually healthier. A shrinking of the kosher meat industry would probably be healthier for the frum body politic. Let more Jews go into high-tech, produce more sforim, whatever. Let’s have a more spiritual approach to meat-eating in preparation for the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash speedily in our days, amen.

  • E Martin

    Seems the whole affair was a set-up by corrupt government officials to replace the undocumented Hispanics with — get this, radical Somali Muslims. Read the story Debbie Schlussel’s website (its the last entry for Aug 18th). Judge for yourself.

  • Larry

    L. Oberstein writes:

    “The Conservative Movement is a shadow of its former self. The whole idea of a “hechsher tzedek” would make sense if there were any Conservative Jews who would actually buy only those products. L’havdil, if the Satmar Rav said to only buy a certain product, thousands of households would follow his decree. How many Conservative Jews keep strictly kosher out of their homes and how many actually would adhere to this new hechsher? Very few. So who are they kidding?”

    Why are the principles embodying a “hechsher tzedek” — that the notion of the permissible should include an expanded set of ethical considerations — only relevant to Conservative Jews? And can’t this issue be discussed without the need to malign a significant segment of our fellow Jews and without the denominational infighting that can only have the tragic effect of alienating so many of our fellows?

  • Yaakov Menken

    To compare the Valis conviction to the Valis case is ridiculous, and the conviction itself, an obscenity. The case did crumble, and the evidence of negligence in the ER was overwhelming.

    Even the biased judge could not sustain the obvious determination that there was no abuse and no history of abuse. With everything we’ve covered since then, I would still say the Valis case represents one of my personal best efforts as far as our stated goal of counter-balancing a biased media. Everything I (and others) posted concerning the Valis case was proven correct.

    And then the court convicted him of manslaughter because the baby fell from his hands — despite the fact that it was obviously accidental rather than negligent, and despite the family’s attempt to get prompt medical attention — failing to attribute any blame to the ER staff that ignored the baby until the damage was irreversible. Israeli “justice” at its finest.

  • Tal Benschar

    Samir Kuntar’s defenders have been saying the same thing about the killing of 4-year old Einat Haran.

    This is completely removed from reality. He is a hero to the perei adam precisely because of his slaughter of the 4-year old Hashem Yikom Damah. They don’t deny it, they REVEL in it.

  • Lawrence M. Reisman

    “Samir Kuntar’s defenders have been saying the same thing about the killing of 4-year old Einat Haran. … This is completely removed from reality.” Is it? Kuntar denied killing either father or daughter at trial, and members of the press have taken up the cause based on his denial. CAMERA has a very fine analysis of a NY Times piece:

    http://camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=35&x_article=1515

    I was using a reductio ad absurdum to make the point that a denial does not in and of itself constitute evidence, nor should anyone consider it as such.

  • David

    I don’t claim to have all the facts of what went on at Agriprocessors. What I will say, however, is that Rabbi Shafran and others like him have given the distinct and unmistakable impression that circling the wagons around Agriprocessors is a much higher priority than ensuring that the numerous alleged abuses are fairly investigated and, if found to have occurred, are prevented from ever occurring again in any place under Orthodox Jewish supervision.

  • blackie

    I won’t intrude upon this discussion because too many of you seem to have only your own ideological agendas to advance. I will merely offer the admonishment that – for once – all of you should think about coming together and uniting as Jews, regardless of your level of belief or your style of Jewishness. This mud slinging accomplishes nothing except to give more ammunition to those Jews who are obsessed with the continued secularization and gentilization of our People, and to those gentile anti-Semites who would love nothing more than to celebrate the global disappearance of Judaism (or have you deluded yourself into believing that using the word “anti-Semitism” is fear mongering?). Rather than picking apart the wisdom and courage of Rabbi Shafran’s op-ed, take a look at the many secular/left-wing oriented, Jewish community newspapers which week for week search feverishly to publish any articles intended to marginalize Rabbi Shafran and serve their own diabolical purposes. We need more Rabbi Shafrans and fewer stone-throwing detractors!

  • David

    Blackie:

    With respect, I think that you are arguing for something that will result in the exact opposite of what you intend. Without wishing to engage in any “mud slinging” at Agriprocessors, Rabbi Shafran, the Conservative movement, immigration authorities, or anybody else, I think that if we were to take a step back and examine this situation, we would see that the “coming together and uniting as Jews” that you appear to be advocating will be counterproductive.

    By all means, let’s come together and unite as Jews, but not as knee-jerk defenders of Agriprocessors or any other company against which serious charges have been made. Rather, let us come together and agree that, as Jews, we adhere to– and expect our fellow Jews to adhere to– the highest standards of ethics and morality. Let us welcome a full and open investigation, and, if Agriprocessors is vindicated, so much the better. If Agriprocessors is found to have engaged in the serious misconduct alleged, then let us be the first, as Jews, to say that this kind of misconduct is an offense to us, and not something that we wish to shield in the name of unity.

    If Agriprocessors is guilty of a chillul Hashem, then a blind defense of them for no other reason than their Judaism is a bigger chillul Hashem. Let’s not fall into that trap.

  • LOberstein

    Why are the principles embodying a “hechsher tzedek” — that the notion of the permissible should include an expanded set of ethical considerations — only relevant to Conservative Jews? And can’t this issue be discussed without the need to malign a significant segment of our fellow Jews and without the denominational infighting that can only have the tragic effect of alienating so many of our fellows?

    Comment by Larry — August 20, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    I just read Larry’s comments on my comments. You have got me totally wrong. However, much of the blog world is based on assumptions of what others think. I am saddened that the Conservative Movement is as weak as it is. I had a discussion with two kiruv professionals recently who told me that one generation ago , when Conservative Jews had more young people and were more tied to tradition, it was a major source of baalei teshuva. Now, since the children of those people no longer affiliate and are not involved, it is harder to reach them. The reality is that outside of orthodoxy, we are a dying people, aging and disappearing. That is a major tragedy because orthodoxy is only a small percentage of Klal Yisroel and the disappearance of Conservative Judaism destroys a major holding pen for potential baalei teshuva. You may not llike my analagy but I think it is true.