Orthodox "Justice group" Uri L'Tzedek seems more interested in it own PR than in substance.
ULT ended its boycott of Agriprocessors based on promises made by Agriprocessors newly-hired compliance officer, Jim Martin – promises ULT recently said Martin…
Further, ULT admits stories of new worker abuse keep flowing from Agriprocessors and the staffing companies it contracts with.
ULT also alleged threats made against ULT by Rubashkin son-in-law Rabbi Milton Yehoshua Balkany. And ULT's domain names were squatted by a kosher industry insider with a long business relationship with Agriprocessors.
Add to that the Rubashkin family's long history of criminal and illegal acts. Yet, somehow, ULT trusts these criminals as if there was not a decades-long track record of illegality and crime, as if the Rubashkins had never before sinned.
No independent third party unannounced audits and inspections. No transparency. No oversight.
Just the blind faith of children.
ULT's boycott is still off, allowing Agriprocessors to sell meat where it otherwise could not, and to sell more meat that it otherwise would.
Lifting the boycott also gave Agriprocessors a much needed – and very undeserved – PR boost. Agriprocessors needs this PR boost to help stabilize the company's rapidly failing image.
The Rabbi of ULT's founding co-director, Shmuly Yanklowitz, Shlomo Riskin wrote a letter to the Jerusalem Post supporting the decision to lift the boycott. The letter is long on praise for Shmuly and ULT, and short on facts – especially the facts cited above. Rabbi Riskin did not answer questions about these facts or his support for ending the boycott.
None of these abject failures has stopped ULT from claiming victory, and from doing so in the most public manner (and shameless) possible.
Enter today's Ha'aretz op-ed.
Note how lifting the boycott is described as a victory, followed immediately by ULT acknowledging continued abuses – as if the two were somehow unrelated yet still related, the red heifer of ULT 'logic.'
ULT approvingly cites the camps and other Jewish (non-Orthodox) institutions that are boycotting Agriprocessors' meat., but justifying its own boycott lifting. Another red heifer moment.
All the better left out. Put in, ULT looks absolutely craven.
And it is.
Repairing a sacred relationship
By Ari Hart and Shmuly Yanklowitz
With black helicopters buzzing overhead, scores of U.S. Federal agents on May 12 conducted the largest immigration raid in American history, at a meatpacking plant in the small town of Postville, Iowa. Affidavits and search warrants alleged that the slaughterhouse had hired hundreds of undocumented Guatemalan immigrants, abused and threatened them, and paid them sub-minimum wages. The episode shocked many Americans and revealed major flaws in our immigration system and domestic labor practices. Even worse, from the Jewish point of view, was that this story unfolded at Agriprocessors, the largest supplier of kosher meat in America.
The Jewish community in general and the observant community in particular are obliged by countless directives, rooted in the Torah, to protect and support the workers who produce the goods and services that sustain us. Even if our skin colors and faiths are different and we are hundreds of miles apart, our lives are deeply intertwined by virtue of the sacred social relationships between consumer, worker and employer. The charges raised by the government made it eminently clear that those relationships had been violated: Its affidavit outlined many health and safety violations, including dangerous working conditions, at the Agriprocessors plant. There were also many horrific stories in the media about physical and sexual abuse of workers and severe mistreatment of animals.
Uri L'Tzedek, the first Orthodox social justice organization in the United States, responded. Our initial action was to raise funds to help the families that, as a result of the raid, were left destitute without income. We also petitioned the company's owner, Aaron Rubashkin, protesting the abuse of workers, who included many immigrants, vulnerable populations that the Torah repeatedly demands the Jewish people protect.
Signers of the petition demanded that Agriprocessors agree to pay its workers at least minimum wage, $7.25 in Iowa, and recommit to abiding by all U.S. laws relating to worker safety and rights. Approximately 60 percent of kosher beef and 40 percent of kosher chicken in America and much in Israel come from Agri, but these signers committed to buy from and patronize only those institutions that purchase the alternatives. While the Orthodox Union, the country's largest kashrut certifier, decided not to challenge Agri on these allegations, nearly 2,000 Jewish leaders and kosher consumers, from the U.S. and Israel, did sign on to our demands. Many synagogues, schools and camps have also vowed to cease buying Agri products until the injustices are rectified. We believe this in itself was a victory confirming that the Orthodox and broader kosher communities care about the oppressed, the stranger and the worker.
Members of Uri L'Tzedek also met with members of the Rubashkin family and company management in early June. The atmosphere was tense, but the company did commit to complying with our demands. At the same time, it hired Jim Martin, a reputable former U.S. Attorney, to serve as the company's chief compliance officer, a new position created in response to these major problems. Martin has already instituted a number of reforms, intended to bring Agriprocessors into compliance with U.S. laws governing worker protection. Our negotiations and dialogue with the company and with Mr. Martin have continued, and the boycott was suspended in response to these initial signs of reform.
This was an important victory for the kosher consumers who signed on and for the workers who remain at the plant. The arrested undocumented employees and their families, however, have lost out: Hundreds have been imprisoned and await deportation. And new allegations of withheld pay and exploitation of workers continue to arise.
More generally, a failed immigration system remains in place in America, by which many industries rely on the labor of easily exploited poor undocumented immigrants to provide cheap services. When the government does take action, it is often against the workers, rather than seeing them as the abused party.
The Uri L'Tzedek team intends to visit Postville on August 12 to assist and meet with workers past and present, and their families. A number of leaders of Jewish youth groups also plan to join the delegation: They are the next generation of kosher activists. Addressing these larger issues is integral to Uri L'Tzedek's work as Orthodox Jewish activists. In addition to mobilizing members of the Orthodox and broader Jewish community to raise funds for the families that have been hurt by the raids, we have attempted to raise awareness about workers' rights and immigration through educational campaigns in the Orthodox community, and have lobbied U.S. House and Senate staff to express our concerns about the human suffering that results from these kinds of enforcement tactics.
As Orthodox Jews, we feel that we must go beyond addressing our own parochial needs and wield the unprecedented influence we now have for the values the Torah holds dear: justice, love and compassion. As American Jews, we have been deeply inspired by the path blazed by B'maaglei Tzedek in Israel, placing social justice at the forefront of religious priorities. It does this in part via its tav hevrati (social seal), which certifies restaurants as not only kosher but also as meeting ethical standards. We value the effort to carry out the ethical mitzvot as stringently as we observe the ritual ones.
We believe this campaign signals a new level of communal expectation of all our Jewish businesses to conduct themselves with the highest standards of ethics and justice, as demanded by our holy tradition. We work and we yearn for the time when "justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream" - may it come speedily in our days. Amen.
Ari Hart and Shmuly Yanklowitz are Orthodox rabbinical students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and co-directors of Uri L'Tzedek (http://uriltzedek.webnode.com).