Such was the human face of the social wreckage visited upon Postville by its would-be savior, an Orthodox Jewish executive and rabbi named Sholom Rubashkin. This same man, who was convicted of a $27 million fraud, sentenced to 27 years in prison and ordered to pay $18.5 million in restitution, this week had his term commuted by President Trump.
Besides pandering once more to the Orthodox Jewish portion of his base, Trump acted as a result of a high-powered lobbying effort that included everyone from celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to former attorney general Michael Mukasey.
There is an argument to be made that Rubashkin received an unduly severe sentence, two years longer than the prosecutor had sought and lengthier than the one meted out to Jeffrey K. Skilling, former Enron chief executive. But at a moral level, the level that can fairly be applied in a case drenched in the supposed adherence to religious practice, never has so much bipartisan and interfaith influence been invested in such an undeserving individual. In the Hasidic, Yiddish-speaking milieu where Rubashkin was reared, there is a blunt term for such a man: gonif, crook.
One of the tragedies of Rubashkin’s fall and his unmerited rescue is that he could legitimately have played the hero. When his father, Aaron, first bought the former Hygrade meat-processing plant in Postville 30 years ago, the Rubashkin family had the opportunity to restore reliable, unionized, good-paying jobs to a portion of the hollowed-out heartland that direly needed them.
Instead, when the Rubashkins reopened the Hygrade plant under kosher auspices as Agriprocessors, they attracted and exploited a labor force of immigrants from the former Soviet empire, as Stephen G. Bloom recounts in his masterful book “Postville.” When those workers earned enough or wised up enough to leave, the Rubashkins began hiring hundreds of Mexican and Guatemalan workers, many of them undocumented. In all respects, conditions worsened.
Rabbi Morris Allen, of the Conservative Jewish synagogue Beth Jacob in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, recalled recently in the Forward what he saw on investigative visits to Postville:
“How well I remember the working conditions at Agriprocessors, where underage kids were working on the killing floor; where the local school bus made a stop at the plant to drop off young students who worked after the school day ended — often until 11 p.m.; where pregnant women were not allowed a bathroom break or time to visit their doctor; where safety equipment was lacking and where nearly the entire work force were undocumented workers easily exploited as they lived in fear of being turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
…The Torah exhorts faithful Jews to love and help the stranger 36 times, more than any other commandment. Yet too many Jews have one set of ethics for their own kind and another for gentiles. Sholom Rubashkin ran his company on that principle, and his champions and enablers in the presidential commutation did the same.