From UnKosher Postville to a Decent Society

Kosher, Eco-Kosher, & Beyond:
From UnKosher Postville to a Decent Society

By Arthur Waskoiw

Dear friends,

My letter two weeks ago, called "Unkosher meat, unkosher politics" addressed the oppression of humans and animals at the allegedly kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, by both the plant owners (Rubashkin family) and the Federal government, which jailed hundreds of its undocumented workers while ignoring the crimes of the owners.. (If you missed it, see – )

We urged our readers to write public letters to editors pressing the US government to stop charging undocumented workers with crimes, and start dealing with the far worse crimes of the plant owners. Our mailing has drawn a great many responses, a few of which we will share –- see below.

And the issue has raised a considerable fuss in, especially, the Jewish community. But not nearly enough.

I will come back to report on where this stands, and some thoughts about what needs doing, as follows:

1. Immigration is needed, within limits, and immigrants should be accorded decent working conditions, freedom to organize and other human rights, and avenues toward citizenship.

2. Limits cannot be set by walls and jails, but only by international & transnational action to lift labor and environmental standards across borders.

3. Labor laws inside and beyond the US must more effectively empower ALL workers, including the undocumented, to unionize without fear of being fired, deported, or criminally charged.

4. Our religious communities – all of them, not just the Jews – should be urging their members to demand foods that meet the highest standards – eight dimensions of sacred food. See

5. For the sake of the earth, communities must considerably reduce their eating of meat.

But first I want to introduce you to Debbie Nathan, a free-lance journalist in New York.

Shalom, salaam, peace – Arthur

Debbie Nathan writes: The tiny town of Postville, in rural Iowa used to have over 2,000 residents. Some were Chassidim. Hundreds more were non-Jewish Latinos, including many newcomers from countries south of the US.

But last month, Postville’s population was forcibly and drastically reduced by a government raid on AgriProcessors. It’s the biggest kosher meat plant in the nation, Postville’s mainstay business, and principal employer of the town’s Spanish-speaking immigrants.

On the day of the raid, Postville was completely surrounded by trucks and helicopters from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department (ICE), which is part of Homeland Security.

ICE agents then stormed AgriProcessors, while desperate workers ran through the plant, trying to conceal themselves in dark places and rafters. Those without proper papers were forced out at gunpoint. Then they were herded into buses and transported miles away, to a hall built to house livestock. ICE proudly announced 389 arrests, of men and women. Virtually all were from Guatemala and Mexico.

Back in Postville, sobbing families fled to the area’s few churches, seeking refuge. Little ethnic restaurants were abruptly shuttered, leaving half-eaten plates of tacos and coffee still steaming in cups. Native-born, non-Latino residents stood around on the streets, shaken and in tears. Most Latino children disappeared from classrooms.

Days later, the school superintendent noted that “We had 10 percent of our entire community arrested. It’s just like having a tornado that wiped out an entire part of town. A pastor recounted how aid workers were still trying “to get a list of who was missing. We didn’t know if they were taken, if people were hiding....”

Reading, looking and listening to such news, I was sickened. Sickened particularly as a Jew, because in its minutiae, this raid in America in 2008 evoked memories of the Holocaust in Europe just a few decades ago.

I pulled a recent bestseller novel from my shelf: Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. One page, describing a Nazi operation on a shtetl in the Ukraine, could just as well have appeared contemporary newsstands in Iowa:

The men had guns, I will tell you, and they were pointing them at our doors and windows in case that someone should try to run…They made us stand in lines…some of the women were crying and this was because they were very afraid…everyone else was remaining outside to hear the cryingofthebabies and the cryingoftheadults…

Foer runs those last words together to communicate panic and hysteria. He goes on to describe the shtetl being bombed.

Postville wasn’t bombed, of course. Nor were its Latinos gassed (they were charged with faking their social security cards, sentenced to several months in prison, and deported). ICE agents aren’t the Gestapo, and US immigration policy is not the Holocaust. Still, I was furious and wanted to join my fellow Jews in venting our feelings of outrage toward the government. After all, this is about far more than a kosher meat plant. Leviticus tells Jews that “ if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him…thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

But since the raid, most Jewish groups have ignored the outrage our government perpetrated on Postville’s Latino’s, focusing instead on the sins of AgriProcessors. …

Two small groups have spoken on behalf of the AgriProcessor employees and are trying to help them. A Twin Cities organization based in the Conservative movement , Jewish Community Action (JCA), condemned the raid and said that “the national immigration debate should not be fought out in workplaces on the backs of workers.” JCA’s address is 2375 University Avenue W., Suite 150, St. Paul, MN 55114-1633. They are taking donations for the affected workers and their families. So is Hazon, whose members are Jews concerned about harm to food and workers caused by agribusiness. But again, neither organization has organized to actively protest the government.

Politically speaking, the one group I know of that has gone further is Shalom Center. They’ve organized a citizens’ letter writing campaign to the media. The campaign includes a model letter that condemns the “harassment” and “unprecedented criminal prosecution of hundreds of [AgriProcessors’] workers.” It further urges “that Federal authorities take vigorous action against [AgriProcessors’] owners to the full extent of the law, while dropping criminal charges against workers…”

You can easily send this letter -- or another one if you want to write your own – by going to:

That site provides a list of publications you can choose to send the letter to. Ironically, it does not include The Forward -- US Jewry’s biggest newspaper. It should, because through no fault of its own, The Forward is directly implicated in the Postville raid. Here’s why:

In order to carry out an immigration raid on a factory, ICE has to get a warrant. To do that, they must submit an application to a court. This happened in Postville, and after the raid, some of those Midwestern websites posted the application. In it, ICE listed reasons why they thought undocumented immigrants were in the AgriProcessors plant. Most had to do with data the government itself had developed: Many workers’ social security numbers, for example, did not match up with authentic records and appeared false or stolen.

But in addition, the warrant application cited a 2006 article in The Forward about AgriProcessors’ mistreatment of workers. They came from countries such as Guatemala, The Forward noted. ICE also mentioned a Washington Post article from 2007 that obviously had been inspired by The Forward’s earlier work. The Post piece quoted concerned rabbis who visited AgriProcessors and expressed dismay that many employees were not being given safety instructions in Spanish, even though they were fresh from Latin America. Ergo, they were illegal aliens.

Unintentionally, then Jewish communal efforts – including compassionate, justice-loving journalism in The Forward -- helped ICE rationalize an act of inhumanity, cruelty and devastation. The Forward knows this. I sent them the warrant and an editor told me they read it weeks ago. But the paper has not reported on this outrage. It should. As the voice of our community, it should also run editorials and letters protesting what happened at Postville. Everything Jews say and do about that awful raid should shout – not just to ourselves but to the world beyond -- “Not in our name!” We can start shouting by making noise to our own media. The Forward’s Internet address is:

Here are some additional responses to our work:

Shalom Arthur,

I agree with most of your sentiments about Postville. As rabbi in Des Moines, I have had to work through a great deal of fallout.

Our lone kosher deli in town is owned by the local Chabad rabbi and until the raid solely carried Rubashkin's meat products.

You can find my sentiments delivered in a sermon at

Where I disagree with you is that Rubashkin did not only give money to Republicans as you seem to contend, but also to Democrats including our
state's Governor.

Fortunately, the raid has not harmed relations between Jews and Catholics in Iowa that I can tell. It has offered us the opportunity for constructive dialogue about immigration reform and social services
both of which I have lobbied on working with Interfaith Alliance.

It is time for Hecksher Tzedek. {See explanation below.]

Tzedek Tirdof [Pursue Justice},

- - Rabbi David Kaufman
Shalom Rabbi Arthur:

Thank you for all you do for Judaism with social justice. I became ordained in February 07 at the age of 54. You and your rabbinate have always been an inspiration to me.

I am not a pulpit rabbi. I study, write, teach, do mitzvoth... not much different than I did before the title was granted to me.

A few weeks ago, when the Chillul ha Shem [profanation of God's name] news with Agriprocessors broke, I did an exhaustive study of their company, and their problems go way beyond their Iowa plant and recent events. We Jews have been standing idly by for many years, while many of us, have been getting bribes to look the other way.

And this problem is not confined to Agriprocessors. It is endemic in the so -called kosher meat packing plants. Using the most basic of Talmudic reasoning, even using Israel Lipkin Salanter's view that Matzah made according to ritual law but not according to the law of man, was not kosher for Passover, none of this meat made in plants abusing workers or animals is kosher. Jews buying kosher meat have been defrauded. And since Agriprocessors is the only company allowed to import kosher meat into Israel, those in Israel thinking they are keeping kashrut, have been defrauded as well.

Your letter to the editor which I incorporated into my Shavuot article for the local paper, minutes ago, (thanks!!), of course discussed the ill treatment of the animals and the workers. Details of these treatments are in my below two part report, along with video.

In the below, I have called for a Heksher Tzedek. The system of plants hiring their own rabbis who give hekshers for the ritual slaughtering, with kickbacks being made to so- called "orthodox'' organizations, who turn a blind eye, as they interpret love your fellow, as ''love your fellow-Jew'', is rotten and corrupt.

I would like you to look over this, pray and meditate for Guidance on this, and give me your opinion. If this is something the Shalom Center would like to do with me, I would be honored. I have the time, but not the organization. Response is great. Jews of all movements are outraged. Even those who couldn't quote a pusek [verse] of Torah nor Mishna, know intrinsically, this is not Jewish behavior.

Much Thanks,
Shalom and many blessings for a wonderful Shabbat and Shavuot!
Arthur Segal
Friday, May 30, 2008

From: Rebecca Hozinsky

i will definitely do this [write a letter to the editor], God willing, but i want to say that this is a great opportunity for you to write about stewardship of the earth and healing of crap like this through vegetarianism or drastic reduction of animal-eating in general for health, environmental as well as social reasons.

the huge demand in this country for beef by gluttons and creatures of habit who think they cannot live without their daily cow is one of the major culprits in these sorts of catastrophes both on the ground in factory farms as well as energetically in the atmosphere.

such farming and killing fosters the resulting internal environments in people's psyches of not taking care. not all may agree with me that vegetarianism is a major key to a lot of healing, but i don't think many would dispute its potential positive effects in this case. i'm not convinced that *any* kosher meat is kosher these days when one considers tsa'ar ba'alei hayim unless it is truly from cows who have grazed freely, eaten well and not been terrified by their impending slaughter.

i do not believe it is possible or likely that anyone actually does approach cattle farming and slaughter with enough consciousness and presence to make any meat kosher in our day and age. and i see a direct link between cavalier attitudes toward animals and cavalier attitudes towards people.

thanks for listening.
Back to Arthur Waskow again:

On our Website in the section at --

you will now find official statements by Or L'Tzedek (a new liberal-Orthodox group) , the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) on the Postville mess. They call for a boycott of the Rubashkin family's meat, but not one calls for the US government to enforce its laws against the owners.

(The Conservative movement's new "Hechsher Tzedek" project, presumably intended to apply decent standards of care for workers and the environment to defining kosher food, doesn't even go that far. It issued a statement of concern but stopped short of urging people not to buy Postville's meat, even though the perversion of ritual slaughter being used there seems to violate every standard of Jewish law.)

I was distressed that none of these groups seemed ready to call the US government to account for ruining the lives of powerless workers while refusing to touch the wealthy owners. After some correspondence I had with one of the groups –- the Jewish Labor Committee –- its interim executive director, Rosalind Spigel, included in her press-conference statement last week the following passage:

Just as the immigrant workers at Agriprocessors need to answer to the law, so too should the employers. Employers who threaten and harass their workers, short their pay, put their health and safety at risk, and hire children must also be brought into compliance with the law and face the consequences of their actions. The conditions under which documented and undocumented workers endured were clearly contrary to Jewish values. We uneasily witness the impact of families being torn apart and held in detention on one hand, while the employers -- after repeated violations of the law – are neither held responsible nor taken to account.

I am glad Ms. Spigel spoke to this concern. But even now, there is no Jewish Labor Committee petition that addresses the government's failures.

Postville is a poster case of what is wrong with our food industry, our labor laws, and our immigration policy. The first lesson is that by its very nature, Immigration is Not a Domestic Issue. It cannot be dealt with only within the US borders. Only when trade agreements like NAFTA with Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean require those countries as well as the US to lift all our wages, health and safety regs, and environmental protection to decent human levels will the flood of people coming across the Rio Grande level off.

I have talked myself cross-eyed, with various Jewish and other religious organizations, trying to make this point. So far, they have been impervious.

Sad! – because the necessary changes will only happen when US labor, environmental, and religious groups join with those to the South of us, pressuring all our governments and all employers, will it happen.

Secondly, labor laws inside anf beyond the US must far more effectively empower workers, including undocumented workers, to unionize without fear of being fired, deported, or criminally charged.

Third, our religious communities – all of them, not just the Jews – should be urging their members to demand foods that meet the highest standards of what "sacred foods" are. Last year, I took part in a trans-religious exploration of what makes food sacred. We came up with eight dimensions of practice:

Preface: The Web of Life.

Dimension 1. Growing Food in Ways that Protect and Heal the Web of Life
Dimension 2. Humane Treatment of animals

Dimension 3. Protecting the integrity and diversity of life

Dimension 4. No One Should Go Hungry

Dimension 5. Fairness toward and empowerment of workers

Dimension 6: Responsible and ethical forms of business

Dimension 7. Food as an Aspect of Spirituality

Dimension 8. Reflection on our Actions and Impact

Coda: A New Era in Religious Life?

For the whole of this report see

Fourth, it is clearer and clearer that over-consumption of meat is endangering our planet. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization reported that about one-seventh of the "greenhouse gas" effect, over-heating our earth, is from the production of methane by cattle. Without demanding absolutist vegetarianism, we should be encouraging the use of other protein sources and discouraging huge cattle farms.

This is only a beginning, and Postville is a good place to start, but ONLY a "poster example" of what is wrong. Far broader change must take place. It is worthwhile for the Jewish community to begin, but its perspective must be broader and others must join.

Shalom, salaam, peace –