Flashes of Light from the unkosher dark of Postville, Iowa

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Most of the time, as a society we walk in darkness, wounded by walking blindly into an economic barbed-wire fence here, an environmental open manhole there. Once a generation - if we are lucky, once a decade -- there is a flash of lightning in the dark that lights up the truth of our country's politics.

For some of us, Katrina was such a flash of lightning. And now, for some of us, an allegedly kosher meatpacking plant oddly located, far from Jews, in Postville, Iowa.

Even in the dark, there is usually some prophetic voice warning of oncoming damage.

In this case, prophetic calls to apply "eco-kosher" and "ethical kosher" standards not only to food but also to such consumables as coal, oil, plastics went back to the work of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the mid-'70s and my own book Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex and the Rest of Life in the mid-'90s.

Calls for Jewish support for unionization and workers' rights went back to 1911 and the 1930s, and the continuing work of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Calls for a compassionate Jewish approach to immigration law went back to the work of HIAS, the Jewish Funds for Justice, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (in Chicago) in two different Jewish coalitions on immigration policy (one moderately liberal, one more progressive) in the mid-'00s.

All these warnings called out the necessity of action; few of the Jewish public saw the light.

And then came Postville - not just one lightning flash but a thunderstorm, flash after flash lighting up broader and broader aspects of oppression.

(For reports from various perspectives on these eye-opening flashed of light, see --
http://www.theshalomcenter.org/taxonomy_menu/1/128/4/164 )

First, PETA filmed the torturous killing of animals who were supposed to be ritually slaughtered in a virtually painless way. Indeed, that was exactly what made their meat kosher for observant Jews (and some other folks who hoped to be getting purer food). For some, under-cover films made of the torture suddenly lit up the whole structure of kosher certification in America, putting it deeply in doubt. Were the Orthodox certification bodies paying no attention? Were the fees they were paid by producers dulling their responses to violations of Jewish law and simple humane decency?

Then -- stirred by the kosher factor to look more closely at this plant -- a Jewish newspaper, the Forward, and the Jewish Labor Committee began to report rank illegal oppression of the Postville workers - many of them undocumented Guatemalan migrants who were afraid to protest for fear of deportation. That lightning flash revealed not only Postville but a little of what was true about the broader world of immigrant workers.

Whereupon, ironically tipped off by the Forward story, the Federal Migra raided the plant. They charged hundreds of the workers with criminal offenses, sent them to prison, and deported hundreds more. The raid decimated Postville's community, and when an official broke the customary silence, flashed a searing light on how Federal agents behave toward powerless "illegals": no time or lawyers allowed to shape a defense, families shattered.

But -- they brought no charges against the rich and powerful owners despite visible evidence of crimes they had committed far worse than those charged to the penniless immigrants. After all, the owners made massive political contributions.

Now larger sections of the Jewish community responded: calls for boycotts of Postville's unkosher meat; a somewhat beefed-up effort by the Conservative denomination to establish "hekhsher tzedek," its own version of an eco-kosher standard; a march of support and collections of money for the workers and their families; some renewed concern about the paralyzed campaign for a comprehensive and compassionate immigration law; (less, but some) renewed interest in stronger pro-labor legislation;

And wider parts of America woke up as well: a lead editorial in the New York Times quoted the court reporter of the kangaroo trials who described "the saddest procession I have ever witnessed, which the public would never see" - because cameras were forbidden.

"Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10."

Beyond these awakenings, there are three areas in which The Shalom Center seeks a broader vision from a broader community - one that draws on Jewish wisdom but is not restricted to the Jewish world:

1. Repairing an unjust "justice system" in which the wealthy are not required to obey the law, while the poor, the powerless, and the desperate are sent to prison for minor offenses, without the opportunity to defend themselves. All Jewish wisdom and all Jewish history teaches: Do not shrug off a system of injustice! In this case: why have the owners not been charged with numerous violations of labor law and immigration law, while desperate workers are sent to prison?

2. Facing the truth that immigration is not a narrowly "domestic" issue. So long as poverty, powerlessness, and environmental destruction in Mexico and Central America drive people to despair, there will be greater numbers of immigrants to the USA than our laws, our economy, and our culture can compassionately sustain. The pressure is a set-up for driving unemployed white and Black Americans into hostility against Hispanic Americans, while the rich and powerful chortle. We must use trade agreements and all other negotiating frameworks to insist on high wages, health and safety standards, and environmental protections for ALL OF US in Anglo and Latino-America, and we must support transnational pressure to those ends by unions, environmentalists, religious communities, and others.

3. Achieving ecological respect and sanity through reducing the amount of meat we eat. -- We have been reawakened to the first two factors of three aspects of eco-sanity: ; how animals are killed, and how they live their lives (so eco-kashrut must forbid factory farming, etc); Still deeper: It is all too clear that the obsession of many people with eating a great deal of meat is a twin to our addiction to oil and coal as a way to poison the planet. Huge farms of cows and pigs pour methane - an even more dangerous global-scorching agent than CO2 - into the atmosphere. And the obsession with meat forces us into factory farming, to meet the demand. To heal our earth as well as our own bodies, we must return to our forebears' diet of eating meat no more than once or twice a week.

We must go beyond the lightning flashes over Postville -- to a steady, open, sacred light of clarity about the dangers and the damages the lightning has revealed. The light of systemic change is what the Torah calls for.

Shalom, salaam, peace - Arthur

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center http://www.theshalomcenter.org and the author of Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life (Make of [tax-deductible] donation of !80 or mor on the blue Donate button to receive a free copy with a personal inscription.