By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Media is abuzz with the story that US President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin. As CNBC notes: “The Chasidic Jewish Rubashkin was convicted in 2009 of several crimes connected to his family’s massive kosher slaughterhouse operation headquartered in Postville, Iowa. They included money laundering and financial fraud. Moreover, the financial prosecution came after federal authorities raided the Agriprocessors plant and arrested 389 illegal immigrants working there in 2008.”
However a review of the history of the case and the decade before the arrest shows that there was a concerted campaign against Rubashkin in media and among locals. A review of a 2001 book about the slaughterhouse and Postville even asked “Will the plant be annexed? Will the Jews leave?” Years before there were people trying to get “them” to leave.
Yet the case angered many with the excessive jail term. “Prosecutors recommended a sentence of 25 years, a stringent punishment for a nonviolent, first-time offender. But U.S. District Judge Linda R. Reade decided that the government’s proposed sentence was insufficiently harsh. She sentenced Rubashkin to 27 years behind bars, more time than the chief executives of Tyco and Enron faced. This fact alone is extremely troubling. Reade, it seemed, decided to factor in Rubashkin’s alleged immigration and child labor crimes even though he was not convicted of any immigration offenses.” The Slate.com piece notes that Rubashkin appears to have been targeted. “[Judge] Reade began meeting with prosecutors 10 months before the 2008 raid.” For this and other reasons “the American Civil Liberties Union supported Rubashkin’s quest for a new trial, as did dozens of former Justice Department officials, including two attorneys general, four deputy attorneys general, and two FBI directors.”
The real story behind the Rubashkin case is that it was always clouded by antisemitism. Officials sought to deny him bail because “the prosecution argued that Jews pose a greater flight risk even if they have no Israeli connections.” Rubashkin was not only targeted by officials and a trial with antisemitic overtones, he was also targeted within his own community by people who objected to his business and claimed it was harming animals and employing people illegally. Others have attacked Rubashkin for violating “Jewish” law. An article notes “In Rubashkin’s defense, some have claimed that the plant wasn’t any worse than others in the area. Really? What kind of excuse is that? As a supposedly religious Jew serving the food needs of a supposedly religious community, we should expect better.” So Rubashkin is condemned also because some in the “community” claim he didn’t “stand up for justice.”
The Forward has had several articles attacking Rubashkin. “For us, as Jews, we should not lose sight of the irony that our president has commuted the sentence of perhaps the Jewish community’s most well-known individual, whose business model was built on the exploitation of his immigrant labor force, indifference to the environmental damage caused by his plant, and unnecessary pain and suffering for the animals that he slaughtered.”
Articles about the case always try to make his Jewishness an issue. CNBC notes “Jewish Americans have long enjoyed success and acceptance in the United States, but the Orthodox community has felt slighted by the justice system in some cases.” Oddly when non-Jewish people are convicted of the same crimes in America, no one needs to point out that “white Americans have long enjoyed success in the US.”
A campaign against Rubashkin began long before the 2008 raid
To understand the 2008 raid and the subsequent sentence we have to understand that a group of powerful forces were arrayed against Rubashkin long before it happened. This wasn’t some isolated raid conducted as part of numerous such raids. It wasn’t an isolated case. He was a target precisely because of who he was. He was Jewish and he was ultra-Orthodox. He was a target within his community because of some bizarre sense of moral superiority of “we must be better” and a target by outsiders who viewed his group as “not integrating.”
This is because the plant was already in the news. In 2004 the plant had been targeted by an animal rights group and this was widely reported. “An animal rights group has captured videotape that it says shows cattle at a kosher slaughterhouse enduring an ‘absolutely outrageous’ level of cruelty.” Headlines focused on the “kosher slaughterhouse.” That was four years before the raid. Already the public was being conditioned to see kosher slaughter as something cruel and to see this business as particularly a problem. The article notes: “The plant is the world’s largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse and the producer of Rubashkin’s and Aaron’s Best meats.” A lot of work was invested in trying to show that the plant was doing “inhumane practices,” as the New York Times termed it in 2008. A seven-week undercover investigation by animal rights activists was carried out. Why did they happen to target this plant? There was also a 6 month investigation by the Department of Agriculture in 2004.
Two years before the raid there were already stories circulating targeting the plant. There was a 2006 story at The Forward: “AgriProcessors’ final product — sold under the nationally popular Aaron’s Best brand — is priced significantly higher than standard meat. Its kosher seal gives it a seeming moral imprimatur in an industry known for harsh working conditions. But even in the unhappy world of meatpacking, people with comparative knowledge of AgriProcessors and other plants — including local religious leaders, professors, and union organizers — say that AgriProcessors stands out for its poor treatment of workers.”
The Des Moines Register also ran lurid stories alleging sexual harassment at the plant “Reports that there was an expectation of sexual favors at Agriprocessors Inc. are beginning to emerge from workers at the Postville meat processing plant, and advocates for immigrants are trying to document the stories. Sister Mary McCauley, a Roman Catholic nun at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville, said workers reported that “there was sexual abuse, that there’s propositioning,” (Des Moines Register, “Advocates: Workers Allege Sexual Abuse,” May 20, 2008).” This was also reported at a website called America’s Voice in May 2008, after the raid.
The article notes that there was a whole website devoted to Agriprocessors: “For more details on Agriprocessors, including background information on their past history of violations, see http://www.eyeonagriprocessors.org/.”
One of the sources of the obsession with Postville, Rubashkin and the plant was a 2001 book called Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. The review Amazon has for the book is enlightening because it plays on stereotypes. First it details how Sholom Rubashkin bought a meatprocessing plant that had formerly been Hygrade meat. It was an “international success.” The Jewish population great to 150. “They were rich,” the review notes. But “the Hasidim kept to themselves, did things their own way, and basically had no interest in integrating into Postville. And why would they? Their laws are strict, their mission clear, their community defined by race and religion.” The review claims “their little boys do not swim with their little girls, are not educated together, and do not go on play dates with goyim.”
So it’s clear from the review that being religious and Jewish is a problem, because they don’t “integrate.” Did the white non-Jews in Postville integrate with the Native-Americans who came before them? Why is it when Jews have a different culture they are attacked for not integrating, but if they were African-American or Muslim it would be seen as diversity and the white majority would be asked to celebrate diversity? The article claims Iowa was a victim. “They [Iowans] wish each other Merry Christmas, they want you to feel at home. They don’t like that the new townspeople stomp up the street hunched over, talking in a foreign language and looking straight through them when greeted. They really don’t like it when one of the newcomers drives around town with a 10-foot candelabra strapped to his car playing music at full volume for eight consecutive winter nights.”
The article then notes that “Into this comes secular Jew Stephen Bloom, a professor at the University of Iowa. By the time he arrived in Postville, the town was riven along religious lines.” It turns out that in 2001 there was already a full-throated anti-Jewish campaign in the area. “One of the townspeople was running for mayor on the sole platform of annexation of the land on which the plant stood. Rubashkin was threatening that he’d shut the plant and leave if that came to pass.” And the review concludes, “Will the plant be annexed? Will the Jews leave?”
Will the Jews leave. That’s an interesting sentence written years before the raid on the plant and the excessive sentence. Could it be that in order to get them to leave, large forces were arrayed against them, including “activists” and “worker’s rights” and “American rights” and anti-immigration voices and tough prosecutors?
Publishers Weekly also reviewed the 2001 book on the “clash.” It notes that after the 1987 purchase there were some people in the town who “were suspicious and anti-Semitic.” It also claims that “the Lubavitchers, who traditionally live and work within their own closely knit communities, were not interested in fitting into Postville, and many were dismissive of, or overtly hostile to, its original citizens.” It accuses the Jewish minority of “buying real estate” and “exerting greater influence on the town’s finances.” Supposedly the locals felt “marginalized.” And then there were the rumors about the plant. “Workers were paid below minimum wage and were uninsured, women workers were sexually harassed and fighting among the (often illegal) immigrant workers escalated.” So “sexual harassment” was already a motif many years before the raid. Was this because there was sexual harassment or because, along with other antisemitic tropes, the newcomers were viewed as lecherous? “Finally, the town took legal action to gain more control over the slaughterhouse.” So the town was already trying to get rid of the slaughterhouse seven years before the raid? The review in 2001 asks “what it means to be an American.”
Perhaps Rubashkin was targeted because he didn’t fit the model of what an array of people felt it meant to be “American.” Had his name been Smith and he dressed “like the locals” and he was doing the exact same thing, perhaps there would have been no raid, or at the very least, perhaps he would have received the kind of sentence others have received.
We will never know, but what is clear from looking back at the years before the sentencing, is that this was not a normal case. There were many local interests at work tarring Rubashkin long before the arrest.