Jews and Catholics Agree: Something Is Not Kosher In Iowa

Sometimes the most Jewish thing a person can do is to send a donation to a Catholic church.

I’ve been following the Agriprocessors scandals since they first broke. The largest kosher meatpacker in the United States in Postville, Iowa first made the news in 2000 with Steven Bloom’s book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. More recently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent undercover inspectors–observant Jews–into the plant to monitor their treatment of animals. Though there is a general Jewish legal prohibition against causing suffering to animals, the PETA documentary makers found many instances of ill-treatment.

At the beginning of May, the Postville plant was the target of the largest United State Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid ever. ICE arrested hundreds of people for violating immigration laws. The Jewish community has reacted, some by boycotting the meat. Several organizations, both Orthodox and Conservative, have spoken out–as one Orthodox rabbi explained, “kosher to eat is not the same as kosher to buy.” The owners of the plant have acquitted themselves disgracefully; they hired a PR firm that apparently impersonated the rabbis who had criticized them on the internet.

Jews and Catholics have allied to help the immigrant families in Postville. Immigration reform advocates from Jewish and Catholic groups plan a rally on immigration policy in Des Moines on July 27. A Jewish charity called The Good People Fund organized a huge food and humanitarian relief donation to a food pantry in Postville. The Jewschool blog helped organize Jews to donate $40,000  to St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church in Postville, where dedicated church staff and clergy have been helping the families of those arrested.

As news has continued to unfold, one of the ICE interpreters came forward to speak out against the raids. (You can see him in a video interview here.) Here’s a quote that describes the desperate situation of the undocumented workers:

That first interview, though, took three hours. The client, a Guatemalan peasant afraid for his family, spent most of that time weeping at our table, in a corner of the crowded jailhouse visiting room. How did he come here from Guatemala? “I walked.” What? “I walked for a month and ten days until I crossed the river.” We understood immediately how desperate his family’s situation was. He crossed alone, met other immigrants, and hitched a truck ride to Dallas, then Postville, where he heard there was sure work. He slept in an apartment hallway with other immigrants until employed. He had scarcely been working a couple of months when he was arrested. Maybe he was lucky: another man who began that Monday had only been working for 20 minutes. “I just wanted to work a year or two, save, and then go back to my family, but it was not to be.” His case and that of a million others could simply be solved by a temporary work permit as part of our much overdue immigration reform. “The Good Lord knows I was just working and not doing anyone any harm.” This man, like many others, was in fact not guilty. “Knowingly” and “intent” are necessary elements of the charges, but most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served. This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English.

Is this plant worse than other meatpackers in the United States? If we believe the investigative reporting of people like Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, no, it’s really about the same as other slaughterhouses. That is, underpaid and exploited workers have the unpleasant job of killing animals in factory conditions, which are inherently inhumane.

Sorry, I’m a vegetarian, and I can’t sugar-coat this for you. I don’t particularly want to describe it, either.

I’m also a Jew, and I was raised to believe that kosher slaughter was more humane than other methods. I thought the purpose of a sharpened knife with no nicks was to minimize animals’ suffering. If slaughter makes animals suffer, is it still kosher? I thought that the Torah supported the rights of workers–to fair treatment and to organize. To me the worst thing about this is all the observant Jewish people who bought this meat thinking they were getting these values on their plates. They certainly weren’t expecting reports of methamphetamine labs in the plant, accusations of sexual harassment, or underage workers.

I’m also an American, and I cannot bear that the United States has an immigration policy that punishes the most vulnerable people in this equation. That is definitely not kosher.

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2 thoughts on “Jews and Catholics Agree: Something Is Not Kosher In Iowa

  1. God gave laws in the Old Testament teaching us that God wants animals (who belong to God) to be treated with kindness and mercy. God created us to have a plant-based diet, but we have strayed from that ideal. In the new earth all will live in harmony as described in Isaiah 11. Someday we will be held accountable for every creature as Hebrews 4:13 says.
    We are to “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” Psalm 150:6

    Jan Fredericks, LPC, MA
    Catholic Concern for Animals-USA

  2. 1/ I don’t not know about Catholic teachings but Jewish teachings have nothing against being a carnivore. And how could a Seder plate be complete without evidence of this?

    2/ Obviously what Agri-Processors did there was in full accordance with Halacha or they would have lost their hechser.

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