Of all the Forward has done to bully those from whom it has no fear of a fatwa, nothing compares with what it has written editorially in the wake of Sholom Rubashkin’s conviction, as he faces a potentially life devastating sentence: precisely nothing. The issue here is not whether Mr. Rubashkin committed crimes; a federal court found that he did, and most fair-minded people agree that if so, he owes a debt of penance and reasonable incarceration for those deeds.
But the Forward has a special connection to Mr. Rubashkin’s case, which makes its utter silence in the face of the truly Draconian aspects of his imprisonment and sentencing all the more deeply disturbing.
Just last week, the paper featured a piece entitled “One Journalist’s Jewish Journey,” by the young reporter whose investigative coverage played a large role in the unraveling of the Agriprocessors’ meat processing plant and the Postville, Iowa, community that had developed around it. In it the reporter, who is no longer with the Forward, looks back at his time at the paper, as he progressed from ignorance of all things Jewish, the product of a “barely Jewish home,” to becoming more comfortable with his Jewish identity, and eventually marrying a young woman he met on a Birthright trip to Israel. It’s a poignant account, accompanied by a touching photo of the handsome young reporter and his bride under the chuppah.
But of the Agriprocessors affair, not a word in this piece. And as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking about the author’s role in landing Sholom Rubashkin where he sits today, a sword of Damocles poised above him. It was, after all, his relentless reporting that culminated in the raid on Agriprocessors by 600 armed federal agents, accompanied by Blackhawk helicopters, and the arrest of hundreds of alleged illegal immigrants. It was that May 2008 raid, in turn, that apparently sent the company hurtling into bankruptcy and the loan default of which Mr. Rubashkin was eventually convicted.
The reporter, newly prominent for his hard-charging and award-nominated investigative reportage, has since moved on to join the Los Angeles Times, presumably an upward move. A new wife, a new job — I wish him well.
But I do also wonder: Is he no longer following the unfolding fate of his quarry, Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, first-time nonviolent offender, father of ten, friend and benefactor of hundreds, who faces at this writing the prospect of spending the prime of his life and beyond in prison, a sentence that numerous prosecutors and legal experts have said is entirely unjustified and unprecedented in its severity — and which the reporter had a not insignificant part in bringing about? Would it really be asking too much for him to pen his own letter, one that would presumably carry some weight with the sentencing judge, imploring her to mete out a sentence commensurate with the crime and the circumstances?
And what of the Forward, that paragon of social consciousness that reveled for years in the acclaim the Agriprocessors story brought it as a crusader in the fight against mistreatment of illegal immigrants, against a greedy corporation that refused to unionize and on behalf of animal rights — a progressive’s dream trifecta?
Can it, at this critical juncture, reach beyond its journalistic ego and progressive imago to find it within itself to echo the plea of Jeff Stier, a communal leader who had the moral courage to write in the Jewish Week:
“Rubashkin deserves to be punished. … But a sentence of life in prison is unbelievably outrageous, and inconsistent with others convicted of similar crimes. … We must put aside any personal dislike towards Rubashkin and Agriprocessors, see what is being done to him at this moment and ask, ‘Is it fair? Is it right?’ And isn’t it our duty as a community to stand up and speak out when injustice is done? We have a proud history of speaking out when injustice is being done to those outside of our community. Why cannot we do the same when it is one of our own?”
In a February 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal, the reporter himself wrote of how the raid and Agriprocessors’ subsequent collapse “have hurt a diverse swath of people, from the 300 immigrants who were thrown in jail to the [Rubashkins] …” Curiously, there is no mention of what this all has wrought for the beleaguered community — Jews and non-Jews alike — of Postville.
He then contrasts the Orthodox rabbinate’s efforts to “spring Mr. Rubashkin from jail … out of a kin-based vision of religion in which the thing that matters most is family and co-religionists” with progressive Jews’ attempts to help the jailed illegals, based on a “more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew.”
The reporter makes it quite clear, despite his presumed fealty to journalistic impartiality, where his sympathies lie in the clash of visions he describes. I won’t attempt to disabuse him of that conceit, although I have my significant doubts whether the important people in his life, from his new bride and his immediate family to his close friends — and, yes, the progressive Jews he references — would appreciate being shunted aside while he ministers to a Guatemalan Catholic in fulfillment of his universal vision of mankind.
But, more to the point, there are not, at this writing, any Guatemalan aliens facing the horror of emerging from beyond prison walls at age 75 — but there is a “ Brooklyn Jew”, a self-described “flawed and conflicted” one, who is. And the reporter needs to answer, not to me, but to himself: Is that Brooklyn Jew less deserving of my compassion than the Guatemalans I tried so hard to help?