I hope that none of you are thinking that, with all the excitement of living here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, we are not mindful of what is occurring in the rest of the planet – affectionately known as chutz l’aretz. Six days a week, The New York Times, masquerading as the International Herald-Tribune, arrives at our door, and, because that newspaper undiluted would cause serious brain rot, we also get the European edition of the Wall Street Journal. My favorite newspaper, The New York Sun, is only an internet click away from my computer screen, as are any number of other sources of information. So, if something interesting is going on wherever you are, we’re on top of it, whether it’s political, topical, or gastronomical. Which reminds me: can anyone explain how tomatoes get salmonella? I think of this whenever I am standing at my favorite stand at Mahane Yehuda, picking out luscious, ripe, healthy agvaniot, which sell here, depending on the time of year, for as little as twenty five cents a pound. It makes up for the totally tasteless corn which is being peddled around. Speaking of the totally tasteless, the internecine struggles for the presidential nomination in America are, if nothing else, a lot more entertaining than anything the Kadima group and their Knesset allies could ever put together. I’ve been considering which American politician most closely resembles Ehud Olmert, Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. But both of these were semi-tragic figures, talented men brought down their own personal demons. A better comparison would be Spiro Agnew, a man who might have tried to sell you your own used car.
And from the totally tasteless, we can neatly segue into another zone of discomfort which we can entitle “Am I, or am I not in Chelm” (to paraphrase something in a letter which one of our friends had published in JPost). She was referring to a recent bizarre event here in The Land with a rather tragic ending. An East Jerusalem Arab was working at a construction site near the Central Bus Station, and for reasons not quite clear, drove his tractor onto Jaffa Road, going against traffic, smashing into cars and buses, resulting in the death of three Jews. This madman was finally stopped when a young soldier who had just finished his army basic training killed him with a borrowed revolver. A subsequent police investigation exonerated one of their officers who had failed to stop the terrorist. The report “explained” that when the policeman arrived on the scene, the construction vehicle had stopped, and the Arab was seemingly dead. However, shortly after that, a Hareidi man hurled a rock through the vehicle’s window; whereupon the Arab suddenly regained consciousness and then continued on his rampage, causing the death of the three innocent bystanders. The soldier was appropriately celebrated, but no one mentioned the identity of the Hareidi rock thrower. My personal feeling is that if this man can truly raise the dead, he may well be the Messiah we have been awaiting these thousands of years.
A situation back in The States which I have been following with similar not-to-be-believed features is the on-going desecration of G-d’s name by Agriprocessors, Inc., “the nation’s largest kosher meat producer,” the Rubashkin family which owns the company, as well as the company’s detractors and supporters. (And if you are patient and read until the end, you will figure out why I am taking up your precious time in discussing this particular train wreck.)
Several years ago, somebody employed by PETA managed to get into their main plant in Postville, Iowa and surreptitiously videoed scenes that seemed to document their allegations of animal abuse. Now my take on that is this: it takes a special bit of genius to make PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group on the extreme lunatic fringe of the “animal rights” movement) appear to be the “good guys” in a dispute. How the Rubashkins managed to do that, I’ll never understand, but they pulled it off.
When one was disposed to forget about all that, with assurances that the abuses had been corrected, in May of this year, Federal immigration officials raided ther Pottsville plant and arrested 390 employees who were “illegal aliens.” Not surprisingly, allegations followed of labor abuses, other mistreatment of these workers, sexual abuse, even that illegal drugs had been manufactured in situ. The Rubashkins and their supporters were “shocked, shocked” to find out that so many of their employees (ten percent of the population of Pottsville) were working illegally. They had simply not noticed that three quarters of the almost 1000 employees had suspicious social security numbers (according to an affidavit filed by federal agents).
As a consequence of these events, labor unions and organizations which focus on specialized “human rights” issues have joined the “animal rights” people in attacking AgriProcessors. The ranks of these critics also include Jews, including leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements. . One Conservative group has called for the creation of an “ethical standards-based certification of kosher food.” Here are religious leaders who normally would not be called upon to certify bottled water – and a majority of whose members are not concerned with issues of kashrut on a daily basis – suddenly injecting themselves into the discussion. The story just gets weirder and weirder.
To make matters even worse, several representatives from various Orthodox groups have chosen to write articles defending Agriprocessors. For example, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel (and someone who should know better) wrote an article which I saw in the JPost several weeks ago, in which he summarized the sordid recent events and then asked, “Where’s the presumption of innocence…?” He quotes from a statement from the Rabbinical Council of America (failing to mention that the RCA is the rabbinical arm of the Orthodox Union, which is responsible for providing the certification of kashrut to Agriprocessors) “in the absence of hard facts” one shouldn’t “rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…” Rabbi Shafran does not understand “…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.” (In listing the “adolescents” involved in this crusade, he mentions “well-known ‘activists’ like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss” as signators to a boycott petition.)
Rabbi Shafran forgot to mention that, among other things, the company paid a settlement of six hundred thousand dollars to the E.P.A. for wastewater pollution in 2006 and was assessed one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in fines this year by state officials for various health, safety, and labor violations. You can keep your family well supplied with rib steaks for a long time with that kind of money. He also did not mention that KAJ, an agency which also certifies kosher foods, withdrew its certification of Agriprocessors in April. So, if I am permitted a response to the good Rabbi Shafran, as well as the esteemed rabbis who comprise the RCA, it is simply: G.M.A.B., which stands for “give me a break.” (I do not know if Rabbi Shafran has any experience in the field of law; if he does, he might want to consider joining the legal team for Ehud Olmert, who will need all the help he can get for quite a while.)
One might think that this can’t get any sillier. One would be wrong. Last week, I read another column, also reprinted in JPost, by a rabbi from Orange County, NY, who basically repeated the same defense of Agriprocessors. However this rabbi pointed out that Rabbi Riskin had nothing to do with the campaign against the meat packer. This is simply too delicious. The director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America writes an article about the “presumption of innocence,” in which he inaccurately (until further notice, I am accepting the Orange county version) attacks another rabbi for violating “Jewish ethics.”
In regurgitating the same talking points about Agriprocessors, our second rabbi referred to Rabbi Riskin as “Steven,” even though Rabbi Riskin has called himself “Shlomo” for at least thirty years. I am reminded of a mental game Barbara and I have enjoyed playing, which we call “The name on the checkbook.” Many of the people we know in our Jewish world were given an “American” name on their birth certificate, but have chosen to use their “Jewish” name with family and friends – retaining their original legal name. So if you are trying to find “Dovid” in the phone book, remember to look for “Bernard.” And if you call “Eli” at work, remember to ask for “Elliot.” Surely, our second rabbi knows Rabbi Riskin’s name. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what this little dig is all about.
Believe it or not, all this examination of human folly was simply a prelude to my main point, which goes back to Rabbi Shafran’s attack in which he referred to Ruth Messinger and Rabbis Riskin and Weiss as “activists.” Now I have a lot of trouble with that terminology, going back to my days as a caseworker and supervisor in what was then called the NYC Department of Social Services. We had a union which had elected officers and paid staff. In addition, each work location elected shop stewards. Then there were “activists,” people who were somehow “involved” in the union, but were not authorized by anybody to do anything. To put it simply, if you were an “activist,” you were a nobody. You might think you “counted,” but you really didn’t. Don’t agree with my definition? How would you use the term, and to whom would it apply? Would anyone call the late Lubavitch rebbe a kiruv activist? Former Vice President Al Gore an anti-global warming activist? So why would you denigrate Ms. Messinger, a former Manhattan Borough President and current CEO of American Jewish World Service? And why would you insult Orthodox rabbis, even if you don’t agree with them?
Is it merely a coincidence that Rabbi Shafran and his colleague repeat the same lame arguments in defending a company as problematic as Agriprocessors, and, at the same time, find it necessary to belittle as prominent a person as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin? Many of us are aware of his work at Lincoln Square Synagogue which started the revival of Orthodox Jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Anyone who has stood on the hills of Efrat and looked out at the surrounding communities in the Gush Etzion bloc must be at least dimly aware of his role in its development. My hope is that some day, Rabbi Shafran will use his considerable gifts to defend Rabbi Riskin and the tens of thousands of Jews who live between Jerusalem and Hebron.
Yes, we have many things here in The Land as troublesome as the controversies surrounding Agriprocessors, and, unfortunately, we are in the front seat when it comes to corruption. But, ultimately, our struggle will of necessity revolve around our continued right to live in Efrat, Maale Adumim, and even Tel Aviv. There is a certain nobility, an honoring of G-d’s name to this cause. Most of us would rather in this Land engage in this battle, rather than in a dustup with no dignity in Pottsville, Iowa.