Initial news coverage of the Postville kosher meatpacking plant raid focused on the barbaric treatment of the mostly Guatemalan workforce. Immigration authorities charged them with falsifying social security papers which carries a stiff prison term. The undocumented workers did not understand that they were being charged with this felony and thought that they were pleading guilty only to being in the U.S. “illegally”. It was largely due to the efforts of Erik Camayd-Freixas, a court-appointed translator, that this injustice was exposed:
NY Times, July 13, 2008
The Shame of Postville, Iowa
Anyone who has doubts that this country is abusing and terrorizing undocumented immigrant workers should read an essay by Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and Spanish-language court interpreter who witnessed the aftermath of a huge immigration workplace raid at a meatpacking plant in Iowa.
The essay chillingly describes what Dr. Camayd-Freixas saw and heard as he translated for some of the nearly 400 undocumented workers who were seized by federal agents at the Agriprocessors kosher plant in Postville in May.
Under the old way of doing things, the workers, nearly all Guatemalans, would have been simply and swiftly deported. But in a twist of Dickensian cruelty, more than 260 were charged as serious criminals for using false Social Security numbers or residency papers, and most were sentenced to five months in prison.
What is worse, Dr. Camayd-Freixas wrote, is that the system was clearly rigged for the wholesale imposition of mass guilt. He said the court-appointed lawyers had little time in the raids’ hectic aftermath to meet with the workers, many of whom ended up waiving their rights and seemed not to understand the complicated charges against them.
Within the last week, however, attention has shifted to still another injustice. If the Guatemalans were now facing jail, that seemed to be just a small step downwards from what they had to endure in their prison-like workplace, in effect going from the frying pan into the fire. Yesterday’s Times reports on the horrible treatment meted out by the pious men running this torture chamber:
While federal prosecutors are primarily focusing on immigration charges, they may also be looking into labor violations. Search warrant documents filed in court before the raid, which was May 12, cited a report by an anonymous immigrant who was sent to work in the plant by immigration authorities as an undercover informant. The immigrant saw “a rabbi who was calling employees derogatory names and throwing meat at employees.” Jewish managers oversee the slaughtering and processing of meat at Agriprocessors to ensure kosher standards.
In another episode, the informant said a floor supervisor had blindfolded an immigrant with duct tape. “The floor supervisor then took one of the meat hooks and hit the Guatemalan with it,” the informant said, adding that the blow did not cause “serious injuries.”
Elmer L. said that he regularly worked 17 hours a day at the plant and was paid $7.25 an hour. He said he was not paid overtime consistently.
“My work was very hard, because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep,” he said. “They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.”
Elmer L. said that he was clearing cow innards from the slaughter floor last Aug. 26 when a supervisor he described as a rabbi began yelling at him, then kicked him from behind. The blow caused a freshly-sharpened knife to fly up and cut his elbow.
He was sent to a hospital where doctors closed the laceration with eight stitches. But he said that when he returned, his elbow still stinging, to ask for some time off, his supervisor ordered him back to work.
The next day, as he was lifting a cow’s tongue, the stitches ruptured, Elmer L. said, and the wound bled again. He said he was given a bandage at the plant and sent back to work. The incident is confirmed in a worker’s injury report filed on Aug. 31, 2007, by Agriprocessors with the Iowa labor department.
The Postville meatpacking plant has been owned and operated since 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin and his family, members of the Lubavitcher sect. The small Iowa town that is home to the plant has had an influx of Hasidic families who work at the plant in managerial capacities. In Stephen G. Bloom’s 1987 “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America”, a book I read a while back, you can find some fascinating background on the Lubavitcher Hasidim who allowed Bloom, a non-observant Jew like myself, to tell their story alongside that of their Christian neighbors and the mostly undocumented immigrants from the former Soviet Union who worked in the plant back then.
I strongly recommend Bloom’s book for anybody who is curious about one of Judaism’s most recognizable ultra-orthodox sects. Unlike their rivals in the Satmar sect, the Lubavitchers are rabid Zionists. I only know a bit about the Satmars from having one as a neighbor when I was working on my mother’s house upstate getting it ready for sale. The Satmars have plenty of skeletons in their closets as well, but at least don’t shill for Israel.
You can preview Bloom’s book at google/books.
Bloom was clearly put off by the chauvinism of the sect as I was by Judaism in general growing up. After Bloom begins to interview local Christians about their reaction to Lubavitcher plans to rezone the town so that they would not have to pay taxes, he is confronted by one of them:
“What are YOU doing here?” He paused. “What are you doing THERE?” Lazar shouted, pointing to Rosalyn Krambeer’s house.
“I came back to talk to more people.”
“Why would you talk to anybody else? You already talked to me.”
“Because somebody else might have something else to say.”
“I doubt it. I told you all you needed to know. Why waste your time?”
“I need other viewpoints.”
“From the goyim?” [Goyim is the Yiddish word for gentile.]
“From people who have a different viewpoint.”
“Viewpoint? What does that mean? Viewpoint? Sounds like a goyishe word. I don’t know about this viewpoint business. You already heard the truth. Why do you want to confuse yourself? You don’t trust me, a fellow Jew?”
“I do my job, you do yours.”
“But what is this job of yours, Shlomo? You start snooping around, asking everyone questions, you’re liable to confuse things. You understand what I mean? Your job, as you call it, is plain and simple: to be a Jew.”
“If I need help with that, I’ll come to you.”
The Lubavitcher have had a long history of clashing with non-Jewish neighbors, not just in Postville. The most infamous incident involved a motorcade returning to Crown Heights from a visit to the burial site of the chief rabbi’s wife. A 7 year old Guyanan boy named Gavin Cato was killed by a car that failed to stop at an intersection. That enraged a community already aggravated by what was seen as preferential treatment toward the Hasidim who always seemed to have the inside track on apartments. Bloc voting by the Hasidim went a long way in ensuring that politicians paid heed, especially when since their rivals were Blacks discriminated against routinely.
Three days of rioting and the killing of a Hasidic divinity student named Yankel Rosenbaum led to widespread racist condemnation of Mayor David Dinkins, an African-American who was accused of favoring the rioters. The racist backlash certainly helped to elect Rudolph Giuliani in the next election. Giuliani ran a “law and order” campaign that persuaded not only reactionaries to vote for him, but many Manhattan yuppies who were tired of street crime. An objective reading of New York history in this period would reveal that street crime had already begun a steep decline under Dinkins, but racist attitudes and the truth are usually at odds with each other.
I want to conclude with a piece I wrote at least 10 years ago long before I (or anybody else) was blogging:
From ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ the audience gets no sense of the downside of the Jewish Reformation as it left its impress on Jewish life in the Pale in the nineteenth century.
The Jews had their Torah to comfort them, although women were rarely taught Hebrew so as to be able to read it. They had their Talmud to guide them, although only a small minority of males and no women had the privilege of Talmudic study. they had rabbis and zaddikim to turn to for inspiration and personal counseling, but frequently these leaders were indifferent to the miserable conditions of the ordinary Jewish men and women, and were more concerned with their own power and affluence than with the physical and moral needs of their followers. What you do not learn from Sholem Aleichem is the superstition and the ignorance and the general ambiance of cruelty and deprivation, of fatalism and magic, and of comatose squalor that characterized the culture of the shtetl.
–Norman Cantor, “The Sacred Chain: the History of the Jews”
In “Jewish History, Jewish Religion”, the late Israel Shahak, who was interned in Belsen as a youth, draws a distinction between the Nazi genocide and earlier persecution of the Jews such as occurred in Eastern Europe before the twentieth century.
He characterizes the Nazi policies as inspired, organized and carried out from above by state officials. But in the earlier periods, persecution of the Jews came from below, from popular movements. Jews were allied with the ruling elite in these earlier periods–with emperors, popes, kings, aristocrats and the upper clergy. Furthermore, the elites defended the Jews during these antisemitic outbursts, not out of considerations of humanity, but because the Jews were useful and profitable to them. The defense of the Jews was tied up with defense of “law and order”, hatred of the lower classes and fear that anti-Jewish riots might develop into general popular rebellion. This was true even of Tsarist Russia. During the time of Tsarism’s greatest strength, under Nicholas I or in the latter part of the reign of Alexander III, pogroms were not tolerated by the regime, even though legal discrimination was intensified.
Shahak’s comments on the 17th century Chmielnicki revolt in Ukraine illustrates these points:
Perhaps the most outstanding example is the great massacre of Jews during the Chmielnicki revolt in the Ukraine (1648), which started out as a mutiny of Cossack officers but soon turned into a widespread popular movement of the oppressed serfs: ‘The underpriviliged, the subjects, the Ukrainians, the Orthodox [persecuted by the Polish Catholic church] were rising against their Catholic Polish masters, particularly against their masters’ bailiffs, clergy and Jews.’ ( John Stoye, Europe Unfolding 1648-88 ) This typical peasant uprising against extreme oppression, an uprising accompanied not only by massacres committed by the rebels but also by even more horrible atrocities and ‘counter-terror’ of the Polish magnates’ private armies, has remained emblazoned in the consciousness of east-European Jews to this very day–not, however, as a peasant uprising, a revolt of the oppressed, of the real wretched of the earth, nor even as vengeance visited upon all the servants of the Polish nobility, but as an act of gratuitous antisemitism directed against Jews as such. In fact, the voting of the Ukrainian delegation at the UN and, more generally, Soviet policies on the Middle East, are often ‘explained’ in the Israeli press as ‘a heritage of Chmielnicki’ or his ‘descendants’.
Internal conditions within the Jewish community moved in a similar course. In the period 1500-1795, one of the most superstition-ridden in the history of Judaism, Polish Jewry was the most superstitious and fanatic of all Jewish communities. The considerable power of the Jewish autonomy was used increasingly to stifle all original or innovative thought, to promote the most shameless exploitation of the Jewish poor by the Jewish rich in alliance with the rabbis, and to justify the Jews’ role in the oppression of the peasants in the service of the nobles. Here, too, there was no way out except liberation from the outside. Pre-1795 Poland, where the social role of the Jews was more important than any in other classical Diaspora, illustrates better than any other country the bankruptcy of classical Judaism.
Shahak goes on to examine the Halakhah, the legal system of classical Judaism, practised by virtually all Jews from the 9th century to the end of the 18th century, is based primarily on the Babylonian Talmud. Here is one of the strictures of the Halakhah: a Gentile murderer who happens to be under Jewish jurisdiction must be executed whether the victim was Jewish or not. However, if the victim was Gentile and the murderer converts to Judaism, he is not punished.
The Halakhah influenced the following passage in a booklet published by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army, which includes the West Bank.
When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed … Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized … In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good.
In a letter to Rabbi Shim’on Weiser, an Israeli soldier asked, “In one of the discussions in our group, there was a debate about the ‘purity of weapons’ and we discussed whether it was permissible to kill unarmed men — or women and children?” The Rabbi replied:
The non-Jewish nations have a custom according to which war has its own rules, like those of a game, like the rules of football or basketball. But according to the sayings of our sages, of blessed memory, … war for us is not a game but a vital necessity, and only by this standard must we decide how to wage it. On the one hand … we seem to learn that if a Jew murders a Gentile, he is regarded as a murderer and, except for the fact that no court has the right to punish him, the gravity of the deed is like that of any other murder. But we find in the very same authorities in another place … that Rabbi Shim’on used to say: ‘The best of Gentiles — kill him; the best of snakes — dash out its brains.’
The Halakhah declares that sexual intercourse between a married Jewish woman and any man other than her husband is a capital offense for both parties, and one of the most heinous sins. The Halakhah views all Gentiles as promiscuous and declares that the verse “whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue [semen] is like the issue of horses” accurately describes them.
The Halakhah, which of course predates the formation of the state of Israel, had laws which fit neatly into the exclusionary policies of the Jewish state. It states:
When the Jews are more powerful than the Gentiles we are forbidden to let an idolator among us; even a temporary resident or itinerant trader shall not be allowed to pass through our land unless he accepts the seven Noahide precepts, for it is written: they shall not dwell in thy land, that is, even temporarily.
Jewish ideology is not emancipatory. It is shot through with strictures such as the ones above. When Jews were poor and powerless living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Halakhah had little impact on the conduct of their daily lives of Gentiles. In Israel today, the Jewish state has a modern army and air force and is backed to the hilt by US imperialism and can put the poisonous strictures of the Halakhah into practice.
The ideology of the Halakhah influences Israeli policy in a myriad of ways. The recent assassination of the head of state by a right-wing zealot who received permission from an orthodox Rabbi based on the Halakhah is just but one indication.
The inhumanity of this one assassination is simply a case of the “chickens coming home to roost”, as Malcolm X observed. On this evening’s news, it was reported that a Palestinian activist was blown up by a bomb placed in his cellular phone, undoubtedly placed there by Israeli agents.
This is the reality of Jewish religion and Jewish politics, not “liberation Seders” on the upper west side of Manhattan. American Jewry, no matter what percentage of it votes for liberal Democratic candidates, has been complicit with Israeli state terrorism for the last 45 years. Palestinians are the true counterparts today of captive Jewry in the time of Exodus. Nobody reads the Haggadah for the emancipation of the Palestinians, however. It is much easier to toast the freedom of members of your own race in legendary times.