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Mon Jun 2 11:48:23 MDT 2008
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Kosher Meat Boycott
Thanks to the terrific group, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
(JFREJ) for alerting me to the kosher meat boycott currently roiling
parts of the Jewish community coast to coast. It turns out that
AgriProcessors, the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse, seems to be
guilty of some ugly union busting and targeting of immigrants that has
outraged at least a portion of the Orthodox community.
The allegations against the company -- which produces sixty percent of
the beef and forty percent of the chicken provided to the kosher
marketplace -- include a pattern of knowingly exploiting undocumented
workers with sub-standard pay and severe workplace mistreatment;
violation of child labor laws by putting children as young as 13 to work
and reports of floor supervisors physically, verbally and sexually
AgriProcessors has been cited multiple times by federal and state
regulators for food-safety, environmental, labor and animal-cruelty
violations. The company was also the site of a recent immigration raid
as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials closed the plant and
arrested 389 workers for immigration violations. Far from properly
punishing any criminals, the action was, in fact, "A Raid on Fairness,"
as the Boston Globe called it in a strong editorial on May 24.
If the government wants to send a message, it ought to pay more
attention to prosecuting abusive employers who hire undocumented
immigrants and mistreat them by withholding pay or doling out verbal and
physical abuse. So far, no officials at AgriProcessors have been charged.
Glaring allegations of such abuse can be found in the search warrant
application that officials submitted to raid Agriprocessors. In one
case, a former worker told federal agents about finding a
methamphetamine lab on the company premises. The former worker spoke of
having destroyed part of the lab and said that this led to a physical
confrontation with an immediate supervisor and, eventually, to being fired.
A federal informant who worked at AgriProcessors told officials about
workers who appeared to be undocumented having trouble getting paid. In
one case, a supervisor put duct tape over a worker's eyes and hit him
with a meat hook, without, the warrant says, causing serious harm.
The violations were first reported by a Jewish newspaper, the Forward,
prompting Jewish advocacy groups to note that Jewish law protects
workers and forbids inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.
Picking up on that theme, Uri l'tzedek, a group established to serve and
inspire the American Orthodox Jewish community towards enacting social
justice, is asking the estimated one million Americans who observe
kosher restrictions to consider whether a company can meet religious
standards if it violates ethical ones.
Uri l'tzedek's conclusion is clear by its petition drive calling on
Agriprocessors to pay its workers the minimum wage of the land, to
recommit to abide by all federal, state and local laws including those
pertaining worker safety, sexual harassment, physical abuse, and the
rights of your employees to collective bargaining and to treat its
workers according to the standards that Torah and halakha places on
protecting workers--standards which include the spirit of lifnim
meshurat hadin, going well beyond the bare minimum requirements of the law.
And for those history buffs among you, Kosher meat boycotts have a
storied tradition. The first recorded kosher meat boycott in the US took
place 1902 and was an early demonstration of the rising political
consciousness of Jewish women in New York City's ghettos. Most of the
boycotters were not yet American citizens, but they had lived in America
long enough to observe the organizing strategies of the nascent labor
and women's suffrage movements. The example set by the kosher meat
boycotters was later emulated in Jewish neighborhood rent strikers in
1904 and 1907-08, and in food boycotts in 1907, 1912 and 1917. Many of
the daughters of the kosher meat boycotters of 1902, especially those in
the garment trades, would become the backbone of New York's labor movement.
I'm not under the impression that this blog is especially well-read in
the Orthodox community but I think the AgriProcessor boycott is an
important cause to highlight. Even beyond the legitimate and worthy
goals of the campaign this movement shows the social justice side of the
Jewish tradition that is too often drowned out by the rasher and more
The Boston Globe, April 20, 2001
ASSIMILATION AND KEEPING KOSHER IN IOWA
By Bob MacDonald, Globe Staff
Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America
By Stephen G. Bloom
Harcourt, 338 pp., $25;
Iowans are so high on the hog that some years ago one small community
erected a giant statue of a porker in the town square. This is not a
state where you would expect to find a settlement of Hasidic Jews
running a kosher meat-packing plant. Yet there it is, outside the town
of Postville.Meanwhile, in Iowa City, author Stephen G. Bloom is getting
his own taste of white-bread Iowa, having moved from San Francisco to
teach journalism at the University of Iowa. The residents are mostly of
German descent, the majority of them Lutherans.
It is a place where Lutherans do not marry Baptists, Baptists do not
marry Catholics, and Jews are hardly known. Not only are Bloom and his
wife and son part of that last group, they also qualify as outsiders
simply because they came from the city.
As Bloom tries to adapt to country ways, there are disconcerting events.
Christianity is assumed at Cub Scout meetings he and his son attend.
When on Easter morning the Cedar Rapids Gazette runs the banner headline
"He Has Risen," Bloom wryly points out to his journalism students that
the event "was neither breaking news nor could it be corroborated by two
And, in an incident that looks awfully like anti-Semitism, the Blooms
are selected by a neighbor to host the watermelon social, and very few
people show up.
Feeling stranded in Middle America, Bloom begins to look toward the
Hasidim of Postville as a connection to his roots. But making contact is
not easy. Their leader, Sholom Rubashkin, does not jump to return
Bloom's phone calls.
What's happening in Postville is a more intense, larger-scale version of
what Bloom is experiencing in Iowa City. But whereas Bloom tries to
blend into the Iowa community, the Hasidim wish to remain apart. Their
packing plant is outside the town limits, ungoverned by town laws,
untaxed, which rankles the locals.
The Hasidim have been highly successful and brought prosperity to a
formerly dying town, yet they are resented. They buy impressive homes
but don't mow the lawns in the summer or shovel their sidewalks in the
winter. They pass by on the street without speaking. They haggle over
While in the Northeast this behavior would simply mark them as New
Yorkers, to the people of Postville, Iowa, it is because they are Jews.
A referendum is scheduled to annex the lands where the packing plant is
located, making it a part of Postville, giving the community some
measure of control. The Hasidim are threatening to leave if it passes.
Bloom eventually visits with the Hasidim, who are welcoming yet admonish
him for his assimilation: "The word Hasid comes from the Hebrew, and
literally means 'the pious one,' but the Postville Hasidim I had
encountered were anything but pious. You couldn't become casual friends
with them; it was all or nothing. They required total submission to
their schema of right and wrong, Jew vs. Christian - or you were the enemy."
He attends intense temple services with them, yet sees the separation of
men and women as a demeaning concept. He cringes when one man boasts of
getting something for nothing, of paying his bills only when he feels
Bloom relates all this in easy-reading narrative and as a good
journalist pursues every lead, including traveling to the Hasidic
community in New York. It's a thought-provoking book in this, a nation
of immigrants. The American melting pot has always remained an ethnic
stew, with people clinging to their identities. Most immigrant families
gradually change their dress and customs, however, and this is where the
Hasidim balk. Religion and daily life are inseparable. To them, to
assimilate is to disappear.
One wonders how much of this is a reaction to the persecution Jews have
endured over the centuries. There is a note of sadness as the referendum
passes and Sholom Rubashkin notes of the result, "You know, to be liked
by forty-five percent of the people? Hey, that's not bad." To be liked,
it seems, is not something he expected.
On a positive note, since the book has come out, a Jew has been
appointed to the Postville City Council.
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