The Missing Ethic
A reader asks why I haven’t seen fit to address ethical concerns raised by news reports about a kosher slaughterhouse/meatpacking concern in Postville, Iowa that was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in May, during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested.
He is right to chide me, especially since one ethical concern – perhaps the most important one – has been all but ignored by press and pundits.
The company, Agriprocessors, has been in the news before. In 2005, an animal rights group secretly recorded scenes of unusual post-slaughter procedures that appeared inconsistent with animal welfare and asked the local District Attorney to open an investigation. He declined to do so. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors immediately changed its methods. Subsequently, renowned animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin declared her satisfaction with the changes, and the plant received excellent grades in five independent audits.
Then there were other charges over several years by local authorities of violations of environmental and safety laws. Fines were levied and the plant made the necessary changes.
What has seized the public’s attention, however, was the recent raid on the facility, said to be the largest such ICE action ever. Some of the illegal immigrants arrested, moreover, subsequently accused their erstwhile employer and supervisors of a host of crimes, including exploitation, abuse and illegal drug production.
Jewish reaction came fast and furious. The Conservative movement urged kosher consumers to consider forgoing meat produced by Agriprocessors; a Reform leader called for investigations of all kosher slaughterhouses; a liberal Orthodox group circulated a boycott petition aimed at the concern; well-known activists like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss signed it; and Jewish newspapers and blogs buzzed with outrage at Agriprocessors and its owners.
The ethical offense I see here is a different one. It violates something not only rooted in Judaism but part and parcel of American jurisprudence and respectable journalism as well. It is called the presumption of innocence.
I don’t know if the violations of regulatory laws on Agriprocessors’ record are unusual for plants of its type and size. But whether they are or are not, the firm corrected whatever needed correcting.
Which brings us to the recent raid, about which we know three things: 1) Illegal aliens presented forged documents to obtain employment at Agriprocessors, 2) Some of those workers subsequently leveled complaints against the company and 3) The company has stated that it had no reason to doubt the workers’ documentation and has vehemently denied all the workers’ charges.
Yet, the petition-circulating Orthodox group has judged Agriprocessors guilty of “knowingly exploiting undocumented workers,” and deemed the situation a “desecration of G-d’s name.” A self-described “leading progressive Zionist movement” has called on Jewish organizations to “avoid serving Agriprocessors products at their kosher functions’ and expressed shock at how “a company devoted to selling… kosher meat can be so inhumane to the people working for it.” A well-read Jewish blog has demanded that the company “make legal all those people whom they’ve brought in illegally, since they deliberately sought out illegal workers so that they could be treated with less care.” A Conservative cantor sermonized about how wrong it would be to “dismiss the events in Postville.” A Reform rabbi demanded to know “what it mean[s] to label something as ‘fit and proper’ that hurts people, exploits people or was produced cruelly.”
Neither I nor Agudath Israel of America has any connection to Agriprocessors. And for all we know, it may yet be shown that the firm indeed knowingly hired illegal aliens. Or that it mistreated them, or that it was a front for a drug operation, a neo-Nazi group or a baby-cannibalizing cult. All under the eyes of the federal inspectors present at the plant at all times.
But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being – certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah’s clear admonition in such matters – has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.
To be sure, a Jewish business operating in bad faith, violating the law of the land or mistreating its employees deserves tochacha, halachically appropriate criticism. Its actions violate the Torah and carry great potential for “chilul Hashem,” or desecration of G-d’s name. But, as the Rabbinical Council of America rightly noted in a statement about Agriprocessors, “in the absence of hard facts,” no one may “rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…”
It’s not at all clear why so many Jewish groups, clergy, papers and pundits are so energetically railing against Agriprocessors in the wake of the recent government raid. The righteous indignation has the smell of adolescent excitement at the discovery of a new “noble” cause. Whatever the motivation, though, until the facts are actually in, the armchair ethicists would do well to give some thought to the Jewish ethic they somehow managed to miss.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]