Monday, June 2, 2008

Postville, Kosher Meat, Rubashkin, Ethics Scandal

Clearly, the allegations against the slaughterhouse may be false. It may be that undocumented workers were working at Postville, but that they deceived Postville management, inducing them to believe that their working papers were in order. Employers in Iowa cannot be expected to suspect every Latino and Latina who arrives in Postville, seeking employment. It would be understandable that legal immigrants from depressed societies would flock to a large plant that offers labor opportuntities, albeit at lower pay than skilled professional work.

Similarly, it may well be that the undocumented workers, and other low-paid workers, now are fabricating stories of workplace abuse and even sexual harassment for any of a number of reasons: (i) thinking that such claims will shift the focus of law enforcement away from them and onto Postville's management and rabbis; (ii) thinking that, if they are going under, they may as well take their employers with them; and (iii) perhaps even being motivated by union activists, immigration groups, and others -- including activists within the legal community --to fabricate accounts that could lay a foundation for class-action lawsuits.

So I am not yet prepared to believe unequivocally anything being said, dissseminated, or otherwise spread and published within the media, including the JTA daily news reports.

But there is no question that this thing is a massive Chilul Hashem. By this weekend, Jewish weekly newspapers will be having a field day, lambasting "the Orthodox," using the news to revisit the issue of the filmed slaughter that troubled those who viewed it previously. Already, there are those using this scandal to imply that it is they who are the more noble guardians of kashrut and Judaism by suggesting that, unlike "the Orthodox," they would deem Jewish ethics an essential part of any certification.

Like we don't?

Even as the Gerut Crisis emerged unexpectedly in Israel and compelled an organized response, so does the Postville matter call us to address the matters being disseminated and to set forth that, although the early reports and press conferences may prove absolutely and utterly unfounded, there is an halakhic imperative to be ethical in all business matters.

Now, let us be fair and understand the dilemma faced by kosher certifiers at any meat plant, whether at Rubashkin or anywhere else. In a way, it goes back to the politics of the 1970s when people asked how anyone could certify the kashrut of Pepsi products when the company was doing business with the Arabs and the Soviets but not with Israel. Kashrut certification should almost-always be separate from politics. And, just as the USDA has a limited mandate -- to inspect food and not to adjudge working conditions and workplace issues -- it would be quite a thing to have kashrut certifiers take on themselves the responsibilities of OSHA, the EPA, the EEOC, the INS, and all those other acronyms.

A rabbinically trained mashgiach is trained particularly in the laws of Yoreh De'ah, one of the four compendia of the Shulkhan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law. Those laws are complex and esoteric. I know because, as a Rav with Orthodox s'mikha, I had to pass a whole series of exams on aspects of Yoreh De'ah. We learned Yoreh De'ah intensely for a year, and we still did not learn everything that a trained mashgiach certifier at a slaughterhouse must know.

It would be profoundly unfair to expect such a person to be expert also in determining whether immigration documentation is authetic or forged, to adjudge whether workplace conditions comply with OSHA rules, etc. Certainly, no one expects such broad knowledge among USDA inspectors. Moreover, if the rabbinate ever were to assume the duty to inspect worker documentation, that assumption of responsibility would open the floodgates of litigation liability. So let's be fair.

That said, this scandal looms as such a mammoth Chilul Hashem – just wait till this weekend’s secular Jewish weeklies arrive – we have to ask, good and hard – when there looms a Chilul Hashem on so mammoth a proportion as looms at Postville – whether we ought to have a mechanism in place to affirm and explain the Torah community’s position on business ethics.

On the one hand, we know our balabatim (laity) are, for the most part, as honest or more honest than the norm. As a purely impressionistic observation, the paucity of kosher meals ordered by Jewish prisoners in the federal incarceration system reflects that we make up far fewer crooks than our numbers in the population might otherwise anticipate. Few of us know any real crooks among our balabatim, and those who are crooks are profoundly outlier.

Yet, the stereotypes pervade. The image of a Chasidic community in upstate New York that bullet-voted for a particular United States Senate candidate after her husband, who did not pardon Pollard, extended quasi-pardons to crooked members of that Chasidic community. The gentleman who was photographed wearing his black fedora as he alighted the federal courthouse steps in Washington, D.C., in the center of the lobbying scandal two years ago. The recent money-laundering, tax-evasion scandal involving certain Chasidim on the East Coast and certain members of the Orthodox Union leadership on the West Coast. And now Postville.

Our position on ethics – a position we all intuitively know like “aleph-beis” – should be made clear to a Jewish public that whispers. For example, my role model on this issue (as on so many other issues) is Rav Steven Weil of Beverly Hills. When a financial-ethics scandal hit in Southern California, including a prominent member of his shul, Rav Weil spoke so strongly and firmly from his pulpit that the waves reverberated down to Orange County. (Well, at least I heard about it in Irvine.)

It is important to do hasbarah on the issue of Jewish ethics. And rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) must be fearless to lead the way. We should speak out on the ethics issues arising from Postville, fully cognizant that for all we know the Rubashkins may have done absolutely nothing wrong. I re-emphasize: it may well emerge that the Rubashkins did absolutely nothing wrong. They may have been deceived by people who traffic in undocumented workers, forging papers to present to unsuspecting employers. I absolutely scoff at the notion that there was a methamphetamine lab on the premises with their scienter. That is so bogus.

Yet we must speak out on the imperative of Jewish ethics. We should seek a mechanism for explaining to the public why mashgichim cannot check immigration documentation the way they check lungs. And we should explain that “Orthodox” Jewish behavior assumes, as a foundational principle, ethical business behavior.

These scandals raise questions in the minds of non-Jews because, as history has unfolded, that is the stereotype that we Jews have the "merit" to shoulder unfairly. Just as Italians unfairly are associated in the public mind with stereotypers of organized crime, just as Irish people unfairly are stereotyped with imbibing, and just as Polish people unfairly are stereotyped with jokes about being less smart. These are terribly unfair stereotypes. Not only unfair -- but ridiculously wrong-headed. Rudy Giuliani is Italian and rose as a crime fighter. Justice Antonin Scalia is tough-headed on crime. Similarly, Poles include world leading thinkers and just regular intelligent and even brilliant people, ranging from a former pope to Zbigniew Brzezinski to my morning radio fix, Laura Ingraham. Menachem Begin grew up in Poland. So did two of my four grandparents.

Stereotypes are tough. As for the stereotype that we bear, we are perceived as being very smart but also very cheap and so unethical that we will do anything, no matter how unethical, to make an extra penny. (And what a false stereotype it is! Only Jews want to save money? Like they never have a department store sale in Montana or Idaho?) And, as far as Wall Street crimes go, our boys did not run Enron.

Yet, this is life. If the immigration raid takes place at a shoe manufacturing plant owned by Jews, it is a shame, but it is not as stereotypically horrible as watching the federal government set up special holding cells for people being dragged from a kosher slaughter plant overseen by Chassidim. On the one hand, there is a glorious reward for wearing a yarmulka and tzitzit. On the other hand, the federal raid makes quite a story on page one of the New York Times (for those who still buy the paper).

Even for a guy like me who does not care a whit about what non-Jews think about me as a Jew -- c'mon, do non-Jews worry every day about what "the Jews" will think of their bad apples? -- it is a shonda. Clearly something has been terribly wrong in Postville. For goodness sakes, the owner just fired his son, who was the CEO, and now is seeking a new CEO.

So let us not remain silent. Let us explain that a mashgiach, like the USDA, certifies the meat, not the documentation of workers. Let us explain that Americans go to supermarkets and Home Depot stores, and we receive help from workers whose accents suggest they were not born here. Yes, theoretically, they may be undocumented. But we do not ask questions. No one checks. We assume that the people in Human Resources ("HR") have checked the papers. Similarly, we assume that the Postville slaughterhouse has someone in HR who checks the documents. Let us explain that a mashgiach who certifies kosher slaughter has no right and no business encroaching on HR.

This is what we must explain to the public. In the federal government, one agency checks workplace safety – OSHA. Another checks compliance with discrimination – EEOC. Another checks compliance with environmental concerns – EPA. It is not fair to mashgichim, who have their hands full protecting our access to kosher-slaughtered and -checked meat, to expect them to do so much else. Even among the secular government agencies, the officials who check the meat – USDA – do not have to check compliance with building codes, documentation of workers, etc.

We must explain that a large corporation typically has a Human Resources department. “H.R.” is a common reference in corporate parlance. HR assigns workers, checks documentation, gathers W2 forms, oversees whatever benefits, if any, are paid, assures compliance with minimum wage laws, settles disputes among workers, makes sure that all those annoying posters that no one ever reads are posted in the proper font and typeface, advises on terminations, etc. Therefore, when a federal INS raid reveals that 300-plus employees apparently have gotten jobs despite false, forged documentation, there is something scandalously wrong at HR. First and foremost, the HR director has much to answer.

When a markedly Jewish business is conducted as a model of decency, we all stand prouder, as we did when Aaron Feuerstein, the employer in New England, took care of and continued paying his idled employees while he was rebuilding his burned down factory. Yeshiva University proudly advertised his story. We were so proud. We were a light unto the nations.

And an important lesson may be derived for the future: It may be worthwhile for kashrut-certifying agencies in the future to modify their business contracts with food producers, instituting a policy that, while rabbonim and mashgichim do not and will not check businesses for their adherence to ethics, such businesses will need to know – as part of their respective kashrut contracts – that any convictions for ethical violations that transcend a certain rubicon will result in immediate withdrawal of the kashrut certification. Just as a business that is open on Shabbat scares away the vast majority of kashrut certifiers, so a business that is exposed as run unethically should be denied kashrut certification.

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