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A Half-Hearted Defense of AgriProcessors

Since the raid on the Agriprocessors plant on May 12th, bashing the kosher meat giant has become something of a sport. Everyone from the New York Times to failed messiah to yours truly has taken a few shots (some cheap, some well-deserved) at the Rubashkin family and the business they run out of Postville, Iowa. I’ve never been a big fan of the Rubashkin family. In fact, I called for a boycott of their meat in January, months before Uri L’Tzedek was on the case. But I’m getting a little frustrated with the way the scandal is being dealt with by liberal-minded people like me. First of all, the boycott was a joke. It was called off too early, but even if it was still going on it wouldn’t be having any effect on the company itself. Many, if not most, of the people involved in the boycott are not regular purchasers of kosher meat to begin with. Either they’re vegetarians, or they buy non-kosher meat. So while it’s admirable that they want to be on the record against the practices at the AgriProcessors plant, they’re not creating much of a business loss for the company. Case in point: A good friend of mine manages a kosher restaurant in Chicago, and said he received an irate phone call from a Reform rabbi who demanded that the restaurant stop buying Rubashkin meat. But the rabbi in question had never eaten at the restaurant before. My friend just hung up on him. AgriProcessors is having business trouble these days, but it has to do with a lack of workers, not a lack of demand. If their workers weren’t mostly incarcerated, they would likely be producing as much as ever. Like many lefty issues, the decision to buy other brands of kosher meat, if they’re even available, and especially to push kosher organic meat, is only viable for the people who can afford the significant price tag that comes with most AgriProcessors alternatives. An ultra-Orthodox mother of 10 in Borough Park might care deeply about labor practices and animal treatment, but if she can’t afford organic kosher meat, she’ll end up with Rubashkins. I’d love to say that vegetarianism is the answer to this crisis. As a milchigatarian I’ve observed the Rubashkin uproar with an admittedly smug smile. But while I think vegetarianism would be great for the Jewish community, I think the sell would be about as effective as the abstinence pitch for teenagers. It might work on a select few, but for most, the allure of a hamburger is just too great. If we want to change the way AgriProcessors does business we have to recognize how important their product is to our community and be respectful and cognizant of what they need to stay a profitable business. We should also not forget ways in which the Rubashkins have been generous in the past. This includes donating kosher meat to various Jewish institutions, and exporting members of their small community to even smaller communities that otherwise wouldn’t have had a minyan for the High Holidays. As far as I can tell, the most effective way of dealing with the Rubashkin family would be within a halachic framework. It is clear that they don’t feel any obligation to the American legal system, but they have to pay at least lip service to halacha, so an appropriate conversation with them would focus on the halachic violations in their plant (of which there were many) and how they could change their behavior to be compliant with halacha and maintain whatever profit margin they require. Obviously this conversation needs to be initiated by someone within the frum community, preferably someone within Chabad. A liberal activist, even one with smicha, is unlikely to be taken seriously by Rubashkin. I have some pretty serious doubts as to whether AgriProcessors is likely to ever change its ways significantly enough that it would pass inspection by the liberal Jews I identify with. But if there’s any chance it will ever happen I think we need to be realistic about what would be the most effective way of negotiating with a company that doesn’t take us seriously.

(Cross-posted on The Jew and the Carrot)

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