Religion & Beliefs

The Kosher Fight for Justice

The strict definition of "kosher" prescribes a way to slaughter animals and lays out rules for eating. But the word has long held a broader, deeper meaning for the Jewish community. If an idea, an action isn't "kosher," it just … Read More

By / August 1, 2008

The strict definition of "kosher" prescribes a way to slaughter animals and lays out rules for eating. But the word has long held a broader, deeper meaning for the Jewish community. If an idea, an action isn't "kosher," it just isn't right – because at the basis of the Jewish legal system is a demand for ethical behavior. No justice, no kashrut.

 

At Agriprocessors, Inc., the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse, someone forgot that, and while exploitative working conditions and aggressive anti-union tactics are not uncommon in the meatpacking industry, it turns out that the Jewish community's very own Agriprocessors is, according to Esther Lopez of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), "a poster child for bad employers exploiting immigrant workers." And that's not kosher.

 

The situation came to a head in May when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) staged the biggest immigration raid in history at the Agriprocessors plant. Nine hundred ICE agents descended on the tiny town of Postville, Iowa, detaining some 390 employees.

 

Prior to the raid, though, Agriprocessors had been under growing pressure by segments of the Jewish community and organized labor to address accusations that go far beyond immigration: unsafe working conditions, child labor, sexual harassment, failure to pay wages, abuse of animals, and more.

 

The Forward has been singular in its unvarnished reporting, and the Conservative Movement and Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) spearheaded investigative visits to the plant. The movement's Hekhsher Tzedek project developed a new seal for Kosher food reflecting benchmarks of Jewish ethical standards, and the JLC worked with the UFCW in a union drive. In response to footage shot by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Shalom Center protested Agriprocessors' treatment of animals and since the raid, other Jewish organizations have begun to grapple with the scandal. The Orthodox social justice organization, Uri L'Tzedek, initiated an (unfortunately short-lived) boycott, and was joined by others including BBYO, Habonim Dror, and Young Judea.

 

On July 27, the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs of Chicago, Jewish Community Action of St. Paul, and St. Bridget's Church of Postville organized a march and rally. I was among the more than 1000 protestors, standing with affected workers, supportive locals, and a large Jewish contingent calling for comprehensive immigration reform and an end to raids.

 

The leadership made three demands of Agriprocessors: a $100,000 donation to assist affected families, back pay for former employees, and transparency in addressing working conditions. I was proud to be there, and the Jewish community is right to try to clean up its own backyard. We must support those who pursue correction of the specific problems at Agriprocessors.

 

But we cannot pretend in so doing, we'll resolve the issues that allowed the Agriprocessors situation to fester: government neglect and a failing economic system. Neither can we allow this story to become a classic anti-Semitic narrative in which Jews become scapegoats for a crisis whose dimensions are much broader.

Agriprocessors' abuses didn't appear out of nowhere. Complaints had been lodged for some time, and state and federal regulatory agencies had repeatedly found the plant to be noncompliant. But in a political environment that places a low priority on enforcing workplace-related laws, the plant owners could easily look at paying fines as a mere "cost of doing business."

 

Moreover, just two weeks before the raid, the UFCW informed ICE that Agriprocessors was involved in an ongoing labor dispute. According to internal ICE regulations, this dispute meant that the plant shouldn't have been raided – raising questions about intentional sidetracking of the investigation.

Indeed, the way the raid was conducted, and the behavior of ICE in the meantime raises additional questions. The huge numbers grabbed in Postville will help justify its five billion dollar budget, and ICE unveiled new tactics in the raid: charging workers with false papers as felony criminal offenders (rather than civil violators of immigration laws), and instituting group processing of cases. The former means that hundreds of Postville's "criminals" are now serving a five-month jail sentence prior to deportation, and the latter created an assembly-line style of justice that hampered lawyers' ability to explore legal remedies for the detainees (significantly, no criminal charges have been filed to date against the company that hired them). Finally, since Postville, ICE has continued on an accelerated program of workplace raids on factories, meatpacking plants, and construction sites, places where it can readily detain large numbers of undocumented workers.

Many organizations within the Jewish community have taken eloquent positions on the need for comprehensive immigration reform; a living wage; the right to unionize; humane treatment of animals. We have developed programs that include immigration freedom Passover Seders and Labor on the Bimah; we have worked in coalition for immigration reform and worker justice. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was particularly poignant in tying the raid at Agriprocessors to the "current de facto illegal immigration system" that "results in chaos and death on the borders, exploitation and insecurity in communities throughout the country." As Jews, we have much to be proud of in our work on behalf of social justice.

 

But as the economic crisis deepens, the temptation will grow to put demands for labor and immigration changes on the backburner. Undocumented immigrant workers with no option to legalize their status under current law will continue to be a captive audience for unscrupulous employers, who in turn sell their wares at bargain rates to consumers who themselves feel crunched. ICE will continue to tear apart families, creating havoc among immigrants under the pretense of making the country safer and improving the economy.

 

But our history, traditions, and ethical standards compel us to pursue justice, for others as much as for ourselves. The American Jewish community has a moral imperative to mobilize our community's grassroots base, to remain focused on the long-term goals of legislative changes in immigration and labor law and administrative changes in its application. The march in Postville on July 27th was significant not only because it brought together a multi-ethnic coalition with a strong Jewish presence to address the immediate problems at Agriprocessors – but also because it sent a message of clear and uncompromising support by the Jewish community for labor and immigration reform. We need to expand on the momentum generated by this significant effort and stay united as one voice within coalitions across the nation. Without this, substantive transformation will not be possible.

 

To reform our immigration system and institute genuinely fair labor laws is no easy task, as the situation at one meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa has demonstrated. But we must stand firm. If we truly seek the justice that lies at the core of our heritage, we'll have to seek it together. Photo: Demonstrators at a rally in Postville, Iowa, on July 27, 2008 show their support for undocumented Agriprocessors workers arrested in a May raid on the kosher meat plant. Photo by Denny Eilers. Courtesy of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

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