I was in New York on Thursday, May 25, when a banner front-page headline in that week’s Forward caught my eye from the newspaper box on the Manhattan street-corner. It shrieked: “IN IOWA MEAT PLANT, KOSHER ‘JUNGLE’ BREEDS FEAR, INJURY, SHORT PAY.”
(I have represented AgriProcessors, the kosher meat company owned by the Rubashkin family, in its battle with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA surreptitiously took videos of shechita at the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa, and posted them on its website in a campaign to discredit AgriProcessors and, in my opinion, to rouse public sentiment against kosher slaughter.)
I injected four quarters into the vending machine. The article was written by Nathaniel Popper, a Forward reporter who had no trouble finding me by telephone on March 13, when he was writing a piece headlined “USDA Slaps Kosher Slaughterhouse” that appeared in the March 17 issue of the Forward. A year-old Department of Agriculture report that largely exonerated AgriProcessors and recounted that the AgriProcessors shechita procedure was fully known to, and approved by, the Agriculture Department inspectors had recently been made public because PETA had made a legal demand for its publication.
I had told Popper in March that notwithstanding the “spin” that PETA was putting on the few negative aspects of the report, the Agriculture Department report was overwhelmingly exculpatory. Popper did not like my response. He gave me two sentences in his story. He took advantage of the opportunity to give much larger play to his assertion that the Orthodox Union “has questions about the rotating pen used at the [AgriProcessors] plant,” although shechita munachat is the only shechita that the Israeli rabbinate accepts and allows for kosher meat imported into Israel.
The Orthodox Union’s supervising rabbi was invoked, as was the president of the Rabbinical Assembly – the Conservative national rabbinical organization – who, according to Popper, maintained that the rotating pen “violates the prohibition against tza’ar ba’alei hayyim.“
A colleague of Popper’s was also able to find me easily when the Forward decided in early April that it was newsworthy to write a story about PETA’s release of a video that again attacked shechita generally and AgriProcessors in particular. The film was narrated by novelist Jonathan Foer and featured a Conservative rabbi and Rabbi Irving Greenberg of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.
The Forward reporter spent at least ten minutes on the phone trying to get me to agree that if modern science discovered a more humane method of dispatching animals than kosher slaughter, the Orthodox rabbinate would have to reexamine shechita. I didn’t give him even the inch for which he cajoled and pleaded. My reward was that our interview was not mentioned in his story. The interviewees he quoted were only those who fit his agenda.
So I probably should not have been as shocked as I was to read the Forward’s front-page attack and to note that its allegations had never been presented to me or, to my knowledge, to any AgriProcessors representative for response. But the claims made by Popper’s article – both explicitly and by implication – were extraordinarily serious.
Popper claimed that the approximately 800 employees of AgriProcessors in Postville – mainly Hispanic immigrants – were being exploited by being forced into sub-human living quarters, cheated in their paychecks, subjected to corrupt supervisors, denied medical care and safety training, and essentially imprisoned in Postville with no chance to leave or to seek better employment. No decent person – much less a Jew concerned about allegations of unethical behavior by religious Jews that might give rise to a chilul Hashem – could fail to be troubled by what Popper was reporting.
I contacted Sholom Rubashkin, manager of the Postville plant, who was quoted in the article. He insisted that the story was fundamentally false. I wondered whether we could verify AgriProcessors’ denial of the story’s allegations, thinking to myself that the story could only be effectively refuted by the employees themselves.
On Monday (which was the Memorial Day holiday), Rubashkin told me that he had received siyata di’shmaya. Acting entirely on his own, Rabbi Asher Zeilingold, a rav hamachshir in St. Paul, Minnesota, who gives hashgachas to AgriProcessor products as well as to others, had decided independently on Sunday to travel to Postville to see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears whether the condition of AgriProcessors employees in Postville was accurately described in Popper’s article.
Rabbi Zeilingold took with him Dr. Carlos Carbonera, a distinguished member of his congregation who is fluent in Spanish. Dr. Carbonera’s field is mathematics, in which he was awarded a Ph.D. by Berkeley. He went along to be able to communicate easily with Hispanic employees, but Rabbi Zeilingold asked him to be an independent investigator and not simply to serve as the rabbi’s assistant.
I spoke on Memorial Day with Rabbi Zeilingold. He told me that he was in the process of writing a detailed report of his visit to Postville, as was Dr. Carbonera. In the most vehement terms, he described the Popper article as “koolo sheker ve-chazav” – a total lie. His full report, which he sent to me by e-mail late on Monday night along with Dr. Carbonera’s, eviscerated the Forwardaccount. Rabbi Zeilingold’s report has been posted on various websites and Dr. Carbonera’s account appears on page 6 of this issue of The Jewish Press.
The principal questions Popper raised and Rabbi Zeilingold and Dr. Carbonera discussed are the following:
Do the employees live in dingy overcrowded quarters?Popper began his article by referring to the “mobile homes and cramped apartments” in which AgriProcessors’ Hispanic employees allegedly live. Later in his piece Popper described a “bare apartment” which five single Guatemalans call home. It has only “two beat-up couches with cushions that sink to the floor,” stained carpets, and a television “that sits on the box in which it came.”
Is Popper’s description accurate? If so, it is surely not typical – although that is plainly his implication. Rabbi Zeilingold saw very attractive separate homes that Hispanic workers had purchased, as well as spacious modern apartments in which many lived. The implication that AgriProcessors owns a trailer park where it deposits its Hispanic workers is demonstrably false. Rabbi Zeilingold heard from the employees he interviewed that some employees choose to live in a trailer park owned by a Postville councilman who has no association with AgriProcessors or the Rubashkin family. Some choose on their own to save money on rent to be able to send funds to Guatemala or Mexico or to build up a nest egg to buy or build their own homes.
Are the employees locked into Postville?Popper identifies one miserably unhappy woman who came to Iowa “a year ago from Guatemala.” She has stayed in Postville, says Popper, only because “It’s the only factory here. We have no choice.” No one can leave, Popper says, because there is “no publc transportation into or out of town, and few immigrant workers can secure driver’s licenses to escape the isolated community.” (Note the calculated choice of the word “escape,” designed to portray Postville as a prison.)
Rabbi Zeilingold spoke with 20 AgriProcessors employees, married and single men, wed and single mothers. All said that they were satisfied with their working conditions, that they could leave for other jobs, and that they chose not to do so. In fact, workers had come to Postville from other states, many on the recommendation of family members or friends who were AgriProcessors employees. Hispanic employees told Dr. Carbonera that they are staying at AgriProcessors because they are paid pay better at AgriProcessors and have better working arrangements than they would anywhere else in the country. And employees who wanted to leave Postville for other jobs had freely done so.
Do the employees get medical care and safety training?Popper’s Forward article implies that AgriProcessors’ workforce has absolutely no medical care. The woman who is his principal source of information has a cutting hand that is “swollen and deformed” and no doctor to treat it.
Rabbi Zeilingold heard otherwise from employees who told him that Postville has a “free clinic where they are treated well.” Had Popper asked Sholom Rubashkin, he would have learned that, as part of its benefits package, AgriProcessors pays at least 70 percent of the cost of medical insurance of those employees who choose to be insured. The rabbi interviewed one Hispanic employee who had been injured in a plant accident “and was taken to a Spanish-speaking doctor.”
That employee also told the rabbi that he had received safety training (which Popper reports as inadequate or nonexistent).
Other employees told Dr. Carbonera that, contrary to the Forward’s allegations, “the company trains them regularly and has established procedures for the safety of employees.”
Are the employees’ families happy?Rabbi Zeilingold sought out unbiased witnesses and deliberately did not rely on AgriProcessors officials. He spoke with Ron Wahls, a guidance counselor and teacher at the local elementary school. Wahls described the “care and consideration that the school has for . . . newly arrived immigrant children,” and the rabbi heard from the Hispanic employees themselves how happy their wives and children were in Postville.
One Guatemalan employee who has been living in Postville for one year with his wife and three sons (and rents the lower level of a two-family house) spoke glowingly of AgriProcessors and the Rubashkins. He came to Postville from Texas, where he had worked for a plumber. He told Rabbi Zeilingold in broken English, “This is the best place.”
Do the employees get fair wages and are they “shortchanged?”The Hispanic employees to whom Rabbi Zeilingold spoke felt that the AgriProcessors pay scale is fair and in line with the pay at other slaughterhouses. One employee had worked at a California slaughterhouse for five years and then in an Iowa slaughterhouse. He felt that AgriProcessors “has been very fair to him.” He purchased his own home and brought his family from Mexico to Postville. Rabbi Zeilingold and Dr. Carbanero asked explicitly whether any of the employees had been “shortchanged” on their paychecks, as the Forwardhad alleged. The employees responded that they always received the correct amount and were unaware that anyone had ever been “shortchanged.”
Was the union unfairly excluded?The Forward quotes an unsuccessful union organizer twice in the Popper article – once to describe AgriProcessors as “the worst” slaughterhouse and then to give his opinion that the workers “were so scared and beat down by the company” that they rejected the union. Popper does not bother to provide details. Notwithstanding a four-month union organizing effort, too few workers were interested in a union to meet the minimum required for an election. This is as resounding a loss of the popular vote as one can imagine. The candidate who didn’t even get enough signatures on a nominating petition is attacking the fairness of the election for which he failed to qualify.
Federal law gives AgriProcessors’ employees a free choice as to whether they want a union. These employees decided overwhelmingly that they wanted none.
Does management hire corrupt supervisors?None of the employees Rabbi Zeilingold interviewed had heard or even conceived of the payment of “bribes” to supervisors. The rabbi was told that two supervisors at the plant had been too dictatorial and abusive. Management fired them after hearing the workers’ complaints. The employees told Rabbi Zeilingold that “there has not been a problem” since the discharged supervisors left.
Why is it, one wonders, that the Forward reporter was unable to find anyone who would say anything more favorable about the Postville plant than the “handful of employees” who, according to Popper, made the seemingly grudging acknowledgment that “with a good supervisor, work at the plant was tolerable?”
(Did Popper really hear the word “tolerable” or was it his personal substitution for “good” or “satisfactory”? Are the content employees truly only a “handful” while the critics’ numbers are so large that they are generically described throughout his article as “the workers”?)
Could it possibly be that Popper pre-selected his interviewees to fit the thesis that he was intent on proving and that he edited their comments? Or is his defense that the Hispanic employees who live in private homes and modern apartments, who have been deservedly promoted to better paying jobs at AgriProcessors, who are healthy and satisfied with the medical care they receive, and who have encouraged relatives and friends to come join the AgriProcessors work-force went into hiding when Popper came to Postville?
If conditions are as terrible as Popper describes, how could Rabbi Zeilingold have found, in his words, “that here was a food plant in small-town America that had workers who were satisfied and felt their lives had meaning and fulfillment?”
If Popper’s account had any validity, how could the rabbi have met Hispanic workers who “recognized the Rubashkin family and the AgriProcessors establishment as their benefactors?” And how could a self-respecting rabbi have said of Popper’s Postville that it “is a good place to work in a beautiful little town, one offering opportunity, happiness, and fulfillment?”
And how could Dr. Carbonera, in his report of his visit, have said of the same plant that Popper describes as a “Kosher ‘Jungle”: “That little Iowa town of Postville is providing a haven to immigrants from Latin America and Hispanics in general”?
Indeed, Dr. Carbonera lauded “The work opportunities, the health care and educational systems, the living conditions in Postville,” which he called “magnets for immigrants.”
His conclusion was that “AgriProcessors, faithful to Torah ethics, provides an environment where its employees are treated with justice.”
Because of Popper’s article, the Forward’s editorial writers dedicated their full editorial column in the same issue to challenging AgriProcessors’ ethics and questioning the kashrut of its meat. An editorial on journalistic ethics would have been more appropriate.
Nathan Lewin is a prominent Washington attorney who has appeared before the SupremeCourt in many Orthodox causes.