Unkosher Meat, Unkosher Politics

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Off-hand, one might think problems at a kosher meatpacking house are the concern of the Jewish community alone. But in a current case, not so.

The Rubashkin meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which has been the biggest supplier of allegedly kosher meat in America, has violated many moral, ethical, and legal codes of conduct -- American and Jewish. It has tortured the animals it is supposed to kill painlessly. It has exploited its workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants who were fearful of complaining. It has even had the chutzpah to collect union dues from some workers and then pocket the money instead of passing it on to the unions.

How should Jews, Americans of other ethical and religious communities, and the American government respond?

Looking first at the Jewish community: Rubashkin is under serious criticism, and some have called for a boycott of this unkosher meat, both because of the way the company treated the animals it slaughtered and the way it treated its workers.

But for two reasons, this is not just a Jewish issue. For one thing, some non-Jewish customers buy kosher meat because they think it less likely to be contaminated by sloppy slaughtering. And for another, there are laws at stake here – laws of the American government as well as Jewish tradition.

Indeed, finally the federal government decided that laws were being violated in Postville. It took vigorous action.
To do what? To imprison hundreds of allegedly undocumented workers and –- with rare if any precedent –- to charge hundreds with criminal offenses while deporting hundreds of others. (Many of those criminally charged pleaded guilty under threat of even worse treatment for them and their families if they did not.)

Ironically, the federal search warrants specified as evidence of probable cause an article in the Forward, a leading Jewish newspaper, which had pointed out that many of the Postville workers were undocumented Central Americans.

As for the owners –- so far, no action at all by the federal authorities against them. And the Jewish organizations that have condemned the treatment of workers in Postville, and even those that have called for a boycott of its unkosher meat, have not called for Federal action against the owners. (See statements in this Websection from trhe Jewish Labor Committee, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and Uri "L'Tzedek, a relatively new liberal Orthodox group.)

Perhaps the failure of the federal government to act against the wealthy violators while destroying the lives of the powerless workers is rooted in the conventional deference to the rich. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Rubashkin family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates – especially, though not exclusively, to the party that happens to be running the federal government at the moment.

What to do about this whole mess? Some usually progressive organizations have reported that many workers and labor organizers in Postville have wanted to keep the issues quiet, for fear that a successful boycott would bring the business to collapse and disemploy even more workers. Perhaps the owners would do their slaughtering elsewhere –- even in another country.

But since The Washington Post covered the story of anti-immigrant raids on its front page (May 18 ), this strategy would seem pretty unworkable. And even if it had been feasible, it raises a further ethical question.

There is an old Yiddish satirical song, "Sha shtill, mach nisht kein gevalt!" – "Be quiet, don’t make any trouble." Some “activists” are recommending “sha shtill” for the sake of those workers still employed, even though they are underpaid, denied health and safety protections, and prevented from union organizing. But we must ask whether it is wise to support or condone criminal behavior, including the oppression of workers, in order to preserve the jobs of oppressed workers.

On somewhat the same principle, some people argued that boycotts of apartheid South Africa would further damage the livelihoods of poor South Africans. Some pastors of some black churches in the South warned against “racial agitation” because it might incite more repression against blacks. Some have argued that pressing “no sweat” campaigns against child labor and slavery may result in no jobs at all for the desperately oppressed workers in the sweat shops of some countries.

The “sha shtill” approach invokes one aspect of religion: It treats compassion as a private, personal emotion toward a small group of people caught in a single narrow bind. But it misses the broader question of justice and compassion for much larger numbers. For if company after company, industry after industry, is allowed to violate morals, ethics, and law –- then the downward slide into oppression gets worse. "Sha shtill" makes a bitter kind of sense only if progressives feel helpless to bring about broader change.

How then can we build a broader movement for the protection of animals, workers (immigrant and otherwise) , and consumers (these last at least from fraudulent claims of kashrut and possibly also from health-endangerment)?

Only by addressing whatever is going on in meatpacking plants generally. Only by supporting union organizing and enforcement of fair labor standards, of health and safety and wage protections. Only by demanding that both religious communities and governmental authorities enforce these standards.

The clearer it becomes that these standards will be applied nationally and internationally, the clearer it will be to would-be oppressive owners that there is no point to moving their operations somewhere else.

It is an important step forward that some members of the Jewish community have called for a boycott of the meat supplied through such vile violations of Jewish standards. But it can’t stop there.

Many many of us, of all religious and ethical traditions and beliefs, should be making a stink far greater than the smell that surrounds a meatpacking plant.

We should be demanding immigration laws and treaties that treat border-crossing and the oppression of labor and the torture of animals as not merely a "domestic" issue, but a matter of international concern. Our trade agreements should insist on decent labor and environmental standards in Mexico and Central as well as North America, so that Hispanic workers are not forced to choose between watching their families go hungry and get sick, or daring an illegal and life-endangering dash across the Rio Grande.

Not only should we support a boycott of this meat –- unkosher in every sense –- but we should also press federal authorities to take vigorous action against the owners to the full extent of the law, while dropping criminal charges against workers caught in this oppressive bind.

To do this, we suggest you write a letter to the editors of your local papers. We have drafted a template, which you can change as you like. Pleae click to --


and fill in your zip code. Then fo,low the path to send a letter.

Deep beneath the decent laws that decent folk have struggled to be enacted by our official governments, there still sprout the biblical seeds of compassion: "Do not oppress your fellow; I am YHWH, the Interbreathing of all life." (Lev. 19:13-14) "You shall love the stranger as yourself; for you were strangers in the Tight and Narrow Place." (Lev. 19:33) "You shall not turn over to his master a runaway slave who seeks refuge with you. He shall live with you in any place that he may choose, among the settlements in your midst; you must not oppress him." (Deut. 23: 16-17)

Apply these teachings to our industries, and not just the meat will be meeting kosher standards; our politics will come much closer to deserving the Kosher stamp that only God can apply.