"Gold drive for Rubashkin!" read the subject line in my inbox. I knew that millions were being spent to defend Sholom Rubashkin, but when I read the email calling people to donate their gold to the defense fund, I was shocked. This gold drive, combined with a petition to the US Attorney seeking to get 50,000 signatures asking for better treatment of Rubashkin, is being pitched under the premise of the mitzvah of "Pidyon Shevyuiim" (redeeming of captives). In the olden days, Jews would be captured by corrupt governments and ransomed, thus there was a mitzvah to redeem these captives. The appeal to this mitzvah in the Rubashkin case is erroneous and misleading.
I recently encountered signs posted around Brooklyn calling the community to rally to Rubashkin’s defense. Surprised and confused, I wondered how a small segment of the Jewish community was now holding values that were a complete anathema to me.
Don’t get me wrong; I feel bad for Sholom Rubashkin. I wish he could have celebrated Passover his family. American prisons are not good places to be. But in America, the Jewish community (Jewish legal authorities included) has decided that we live in a just state and we are bound by the laws of the land. When a Jew is arrested by American security officials with immense evidence against him, we cannot immediately cry anti-Semitism and call for "redeeming the captive."
On May 12, 2008 the largest immigration raid in U.S. history was carried out at the country’s largest producer of kosher meat in America-the Rubashkins’ Agriprocessors plant. Sholom Rubashkin was charged with over 9,000 violations of child labor laws. He was convicted in November 2009 on 86 charges of financial fraud. Other allegations emerged of severe mistreatment of workers, especially the 389 immigrants arrested on the day of the raid. In addition, the raid destroyed the economic infrastructure of Postville, Iowa, shrinking its population to half what it was before the raid and thousands of immigrants’ lives were shattered.
Uri L’Tzedek (The Orthodox Social Justice Movement) launched an international boycott the week of the raid and around 2,000 Rabbis and Jewish leaders signed on. The Rubashkins sent a team to negotiate with Uri L’Tzedek including Aaron Rubashkin’s son-in-law Milton Balkany who, incidentally, was charged this February with trying to extort $4 million from a hedge fund.
While in Postville with Uri L’Tzedek, one face that will remain eternally plastered in my consciousness and memory is that of Maria who had worked at the factory for over 12 years under intolerable conditions. She explained through tears how she had worked, often for 14 to 15 hours a day, for less than minimum wage. Her husband had been imprisoned in the wake of the raid and was eventually deported. Their family was torn apart, their dreams shattered. The food industry in America relies upon immigrant workers like Maria, documented and not, yet we seem to punish them over and over. Those immigrant workers who had been providing kosher meat for American Jews for years were jailed and deported.
The Torah reminds us no less than 36 times of our obligations to love and care for the strangers and immigrants in our midst. So a few weeks ago, two years after I traveled to Postville, I staffed a service-learning mission for AJWS to Guatemala, the home country of most of the 270 deported workers, to work with families in poor rural villages. Sitting in a shack, I heard some of the most distressing stories about how families rely upon their relatives working in the states to survive and to put their children through school. You can see a short interview I conducted with a wife of a restaurant worker.
I left this village asking myself: where are all the kosher consumers looking to assist these hundreds of exploited workers with their legal fees and resettlement costs? Why are we treating the owner of the company like an innocent captive and raising millions of dollars to defend him while ignoring the needs of the workers in such a precarious predicament?
Some have claimed that the charges against Rubashkin were abnormally harsh, but they seem unaware that the charges against the workers were the toughest mass application to date of criminal charges against undocumented workers (5 months in prison and deportation).
Immigration specialists have referred to the aftermath of the Agriprocessors raid as "a miscarriage of justice" for the workers while Congressmen have asserted that the case "did not comport with the requirement of the law." If Rubashkin is being treated unfairly in any way in the justice system, that must be addressed. No one should be oppressed, neither Rubashkin nor the 400 workers that got arrested in Postville. One must consider priorities in these cases and the message sent by defending the owner’s case to the exclusion of the hundreds of workers.
Here are three things you can do to have an immediate impact:
1) Give a contribution to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) which is working on immigration reform,
2) Make a loan to workers in Guatemala through KIVA,
3) Support Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav HaYosher (the ethical seal securing the rights of workers based upon US law).
The gold drive sends the message to the American public that Jews value the welfare of one Jewish man over the well-being-and perhaps the survival-of hundreds of struggling immigrants.
It sends the pejorative message to the many Guatemalan villages to which these workers returned that the Jewish people are not their partners. Enough! The Jewish community should seek to support victims and be upholders of justice, especially when a fellow Jew was the proponent of injustice. Let’s get our priorities straight! We should always strive to love our fellow Jew, but at what cost to our commandment to love and care for the stranger and most vulnerable.
Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, a 4th year rabbinical school student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and a 4th year PHD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.
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