Judge-And-Jury Journalism

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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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LOberstein
7 years 15 hours ago

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.

David
7 years 18 hours ago

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.

blackie
7 years 1 day ago

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
7 years 1 day ago

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.

Lawrence M. Reisman
7 years 2 days ago

“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.