I have one quibble with Rabbi Avi Shafran’s essay. He seems to equate getting the results from a government investigation with getting the facts. I wonder why a government investigation is more intrinsically likely to get the facts than a journalistic one (such as one conducted by the Forward)? Well, the government can subpoena people which journalists can not. They are not as vulnerable as journalists to keeping sources happy (I constantly pull my punches on my blog to keep sources happy and this results in my presenting a distorted view of many stories in exchange for my getting scoops). So there are powerful arguments for the superiority of a government investigation over a journalistic one.
Like an amusement park barker inviting passers-by to step right up and throw balls at some unfortunate’s head sticking through a hole, The New York Times editorial page seems to have been calling on any and all to pitch print projectiles at a mark of its own: the kosher-meat producer Agriprocessors.
An editorial in that newspaper on August 1 was entitled “’The Jungle’ Again” – a reference, of course, to Upton Sinclair’s famous novel depicting the horrors of the meatpacking industry in early 20th century Chicago. That book depicts a world of unsanitary, cruel and unsafe conditions, with human fingers mixed into ground meat, gross mistreatment of workers, corruption, venality and filth. Having set the tone with its title, The Times’ editorial begins by referring to “a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa” with “an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers,” and goes on to cite “reports of dirty, dangerous conditions” there.
While the editorial’s thrust was aimed at the government’s treatment of illegal immigrants arrested at the facility, the imagery of the “kosher meatpacking plant” [emphasis – or at least the italics – mine] and the “abusive practices” of which “once-silent workers now tell” was firmly embedded in minds’ eyes before they likely glazed over as the editorial went on with a predictable lambasting of the government for enforcing immigration laws.
A cynic, or perhaps just a savvy observer, might note that many of the alleged abuses have been denied and none confirmed, and that federal inspectors were a constant presence at the plant.
He might further note the involvement of an activist labor union in the Agriprocessors controversy. And further still, that a possible reason why “once-silent” workers only began telling tales of mistreatment after their arrests and facing deportation may have to do with something called a “U visa” – a special permit to remain in the United States available to noncitizens who have been abused by employers and might be helpful to a prosecution of that crime.
One didn’t have to be either cynical or savvy, though, to have been unimpressed by a letter to the editor of the same paper several days earlier from Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, in which she draws a parallel between “routine animal abuse” at Agriprocessors (that would be a post-slaughter practice that was discontinued after objections to it were raised) and the “human suffering” of the company’s employees. “It should come as no surprise.” she wrote, “that a facility that profits from tormenting and killing animals would also oppress and abuse humans.”
One wonders what the PETA president might make of the principled vegetarianism of human abusers like Charles Manson, Pol Pot and Adolph Hitler. One needn’t even wonder, unfortunately, about her reaction to a recent murder, the stabbing to death, dismemberment and cannibalism of an innocent passenger on a bus near Manitoba, Canada. Ms. Newkirk attempted to place an ad in a local newspaper describing how “his cries are ignored… the man with the knife shows no emotion… the victim is slaughtered… and his flesh is eaten” – before informing readers that the description was – surprise! – of an animal in a slaughterhouse. The paper chose to reject the ad, perhaps seeing it as abusive in its own way. She should have tried The Times.
But the crowning outrage came on August 6, in a superficially high-minded but innately ugly op-ed piece deemed fit to print by The Times. Written by the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., the piece’s “hook” was the imminence of the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, which is preceded by eight days when the eating of meat is eschewed by observant Jews. Therefrom, the writer – following The Times’ and Ms. Newkirk’s lead and taking accusations as facts – decries the “abusive practices” at Agriprocessors (described, he explains, in “government documents” – i.e. affidavits of illegal immigrant workers’ claims).
Although he takes the necessary pains to avoid a libel lawsuit, throwing in the requisite qualifiers, the rabbi marches proudly in step with the editorial page’s drumbeat, nobly slapping his fist against the collective Jewish breast in penance for the unproven sins of others.
I do not know if Agriprocessors knowingly hired illegal aliens, or mistreated workers or was a front for a drug operation, as statements in the “government documents” allege. But neither do The New York Times, PETA or the rabbi. And so, until the facts are known, none of us has any moral right to act as if we know what we cannot.
Which is why some readers, like this one, felt that the rabbi’s Tisha B’Av hook was indeed most appropriate for his op-ed. Although not quite in the way the rabbi intended.
For Tisha B’Av, according to Jewish tradition, has its roots in the failure of character of those Jews in the Sinai desert who, the Torah tells, spoke ill of the land promised them by G-d.
“If speaking ill of trees and stones is [so sinful],” comments the Talmud (Arachin 15a), “all the more so is speaking ill of one’s fellow.” And so Tisha B’Av is a mournful moment in Jewish time because of the grave sin of slander.