Transcendent Activism
and the
Sholom Rubashkin Sentencing
by Gregory Johnson

On 8 April 2010, I posted an article about the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville and the Sholom Rubashkin Sentencing. Since I am a vegetarian animal welfare advocate and the article was not critical of Rubashkin or Agriprocessors, it was considered as offering an interesting perspective.

Within hours, the article was copied and posted to a half-dozen websites around the world. A flurry of discussion, debate, and speculation ensued. I was interviewed by producer and talk radio host Zev Brenner about the article.

Eventually my story came to the attention of the attorneys and federal judge involved in the Rubashkin sentencing that took place on April 28 and 29. The final ruling in the most recent Rubashkin case will be May 27. [source]

As you will read below, the points made in my article about Sholom Rubashkin were eventually echoed and supported by six former U.S. attorneys general (last week), 17 Justice Department veterans (last week), the U.S. Supreme Court (this week), the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, top specialists of the Orthodox Union, and over 38,000 signers of a petition requesting fair treatment of Sholom Rubashkin [source]. Though Rubashkin was at one time accused of about 100,000 labor violations, and tried for about 100 labor violations, on 7 June 2010 a court found him not guilty on all charges.

My apparent defense of Rubashkin and Agriprocessors (or my lack of hatred toward them) perplexed people who know of my long-time passionate advocacy for animal welfare, environmental justice, gun control, worker’s rights, food safety, fairness in politics, reductions in illegal drug use, ethics in business, and my support of Latino culture and community all dating back to the early 1980s.

According to various allegations (and some hearsay), Agriprocessors and Rubashkin (through his association with Agriprocessors) have possibly been in violation of laws impacting every single issue and cause that I’m most passionate about and have worked so hard to defend.

The allegations and charges against Rubashkin and Agriprocessors are severe and include 86 federal financial fraud charges [source], 83 misdemeanor state child-labor charges [source], illegal dumping of contaminated waste [source], over 9,300 counts of labor violations [source], and more than 90,000 additional labor violations [source]. In July 2007, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA demanded a recall of over 35,000 pounds of meat [source]. According to Stephen Bloom, “There was gun trafficking on the slaughterhouse floor. There was drug trafficking on the slaughterhouse floor. … there was an allegation that there was a methamphetamine lab in the plant.” [source] Total fines and penalties for all violations may exceed 10 million dollars and the federal prosecutors were originally asking for a lifetime sentence for Rubashkin.

Based on the mountain of charges against Rubashkin, why speak out in his defense?

Below are the reasons I’ve spoken out regarding Sholom Rubashkin. They are listed in alphabetical order.

  • Animal Rights, Vegetarianism, and the Environment. I first became outspoken about the Agriprocessors plant after visiting the plant with a small group in March 2006. I felt that the PETA covert video campaign against the plant was excessive, counter productive, and a misrepresentation, so I wrote an article about it at that time: I was not the only person to tour the plant and conclude that it was similar to other slaughterhouses. The Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Patty Judge, also toured the plant and stated, “What I saw today was humane.” [source] Numerous other specialists and professionals arrived at the same conclusion including an international veterinary expert on Kosher slaughter [source] and the Orthodox Union specialists on Kosher slaughter [source]. According to the Orthodox Union, “Rabbi Menachem Genack, Rabbinic Administrator of the OU Kashrut Division, and Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, one of its distinguished poskim (rabbinic decisors), traveled to Postville, Iowa, to review the procedures at the AgriProcessors plant. They found that these procedures meet all OU standards to the highest degree, and that the shochtim (rabbinic slaughterers) are all highly proficient, skilled and knowledgeable.” [source] The real problem with the meat industry is that there is no entirely kind way to kill and eat animals. Even the USDA guidelines stipulate that it’s reasonable for 5% of animals to suffer during slaughter from not being killed in the first attempt. [source] Of the 10 billion animals killed every year in America alone [source], it’s expected that 500 million of them per year are suffering at the time of slaughter. A video created at any slaughterhouse in America could easily show 50 animals out of every 1000 suffering at the time of slaughter. All a person needs to do, is get video footage of several thousand kills (the daily average for one of the 5,700 slaughterhouses in America) and you could put together a relatively long video showing suffering animals. Anyone can do this in any slaughterhouse. Representing that a strategically edited 3-minute video depicts normal events in any given slaughterhouse is slanderous and a diversion from the real issue. The case for animal rights and vegetarianism or veganism does not need the assistance of quasi-terrorist groups or edited videos. Furthermore, the excessive graphic presentation of animal suffering in the news, movies, and in activist “shock and awe” videos has the reverse effect in society. It eventually numbs people to the pain of animal suffering. Many of the campaigns conducted by groups like PETA and the Animal Liberation Front do more harm than good for the advancement of animal rights. Similar groups, like Earth First, advocate action such as SUV arson [source]. It only takes a few violent extremists to turn our society against animal welfare advocates and those working for environmental protection. Years of progress can be lost and reversed in a day. The benefits of using non-animal foods and products are obvious: better land usage, lower negative environmental impact, more nutritious food, and no animal suffering. One doesn’t need to resort to extremist acts to make a case for vegetarianism and compassion toward animals. For a balanced and rational presentation about the benefits of vegetarianism and better environmental stewardship, watch the video Diet for a New America.
  • Civic Duty. When a person witnesses an automobile accident, it is customary to stay at the scene of the accident and provide an eye witness report to the police who write up an accident report. This is part of our civic duty. As a witness we don’t take sides, but simply relate objectively what we saw. In the case of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse, considering the claims that others were making, I felt it was my duty to speak up about what I’d seen there.
  • Dubious Claims. I personally find it difficult to believe that Sholom Rubashkin (or Agriprocessors) could be guilty of the almost 100,000 violations some are claiming. Was Rubashkin personally responsible for all the violations he’s accused of? For example, Stephen Bloom states, “There was gun trafficking on the slaughterhouse floor. There was drug trafficking on the slaughterhouse floor. … there was an allegation that there was a methamphetamine lab in the plant.” [source] Were these claims to be true, one would think that the federal agents who raided the facility would have mentioned finding guns or drugs to help justify the extreme measures taken in the raid. However, in the same way that weapons of mass destruction never materialized in Iraq, the guns, drugs, and methamphetamine lab in the slaughterhouse never materialized. At the time of this writing, it seems that about 99,800 of the various charges and accusations were dropped and less than 200 remain.
  • Fairness. My call for judicial restraint and fairness to be extended to Sholom Rubashkin was misunderstood by some and was met with harsh criticism. However, on 26 April 2010, a few days before the final sentencing was to take place, six former U.S. attorneys general and 17 other Justice Department veterans signed a lengthy appeal letter that made similar requests for fairness as those in my article. [source] Their letter is now publicly available. [source PDF]
  • Judaism. Tel Aviv University recently conducted a study on anti-Semitism and discovered a 100 percent increase in worldwide anti-Semitic violence from 2008 to 2009 [source PDF]. Nobody is suggesting that Sholom Rubashkin is on trial because of his religion. However, Stephen Bloom’s book on Postville (first published in 2000) describes a backdrop of anti-semitism in the community of Postville as far back as 10 years ago. Given the world climate and local sentiments, it would be completely naive to assume that anti-Semitism played no role at all in the numerous unsubstantiated accusations about Rubashkin. Indeed, some of the most vocal opponents to my article were predisposed to being antagonistic toward Rubashkin simply because he is a member of Chabad-Lubavitcher Judaism. As a minority within a minority, adherents to Lubavitcher Judaism are sometimes fighting battles from without and within the larger Jewish community. Although I’m not Jewish, having been raised in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I appreciate and draw from various religious traditions including Judaism. To the extent that anti-Semitism was a factor in the Rubashkin case, I felt it was necessary to defend the Jewish community against false accusations by speaking the truth about my first-hand eye-witness experiences.
  • Justice Reform. In May of 2009, I wrote an article reflecting on the federal raid of Agriprocessors in which I suggested that the federal raid and treatment of employees was too harsh: On 15 May 2009 the article was published by a local newspaper and posted to their website. [source] I received immense criticism. However, two days ago, on 4 May 2010, now approximately two years after the raid, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that errors were made during the raid, and confirmed much of what I said in my article. [source]
  • National Security. We are currently facing unprecedented threats to our local and national security. In my town alone, tornados and floods have caused millions of dollars in damage in recent years. We’ve not fully recovered nor have we fully prepared ourselves for the next wave of natural disasters. Until we do, lives are at stake. Yet, funding is limited. Cybercrime and cyber attacks are a real threat to Iowa and the nation. Last week, Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stated that the next “Pearl Harbor” is likely to be an attack on United States’ power, financial, military, and other Internet systems [source]. This week we learned that two generals who were former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now stating that obesity is a threat to national security [source]. Given the significant threats to national security, and our substantial shortage of funding, it doesn’t seem prudent to invest so much time, energy, and money in prosecuting and incarcerating someone who, according to six former U.S. attorneys general and 17 other Justice Department veterans is not a serious threat to society. [news sourcesource PDF]
  • Transcendent Activism. I’ve written at length of the topic of effective activism. There is an aspect of effective activism I call transcendent activism which I can explain with a story. I was once attending an environmentalist meeting in Iowa. Excited to be with like minded people, I began talking to the people at my table. I soon discovered they were all hunters! For a brief moment, I struggled thinking to myself, “as an animal welfare advocate, how could I sit and chat with these people?!” Yet, I soon realized that despite our differences regarding compassion toward wildlife, we were all passionate about the importance of wilderness preservation and environmental protection. They wanted wilderness as a place to kill animals. I wanted wilderness as a place for animals to live. Yet, we both wanted to preserve our Iowa wilderness. That was a transcendent moment for me as an activist. There are numerous social issues, causes, and challenges we face. Despite our differing views on some issues, we must come together and work together to solve the common problems we face as a society. Transcendence in activism involves being honest, fair, and compassionate even if it means reaching out to someone we may disagree with. In the case of Sholom Rubashkin, it is my belief that he and his business were wrongly and excessively slandered and misrepresented by an animal rights campaign gone bad. The campaign did as much harm to him as it did to the cause of animal rights. Someone from the animal rights community needed to stand up and say something about it. I didn’t see anyone else volunteering, so I spoke out. In the future, as animal rights activists, we may need to work collaboratively on an issue with people who are in the business of animal slaughtering. It’s short sighted to burn bridges and alienate people unnecessarily. Someone who read my article wrote me this response, “Greg thanks for your article on the meat packing plant. I have family in Iowa and friends in Indiana that are employed in the meat packing. I hate it when they are protrayed as animal absuers, when all they are trying to do is make their living.” Rather than alienating the industry we are trying to reform, it’s better to befriend them and work toward a better future.

This document is currently posted for review. If you are not reading this on the website, you are probably reading a reprint of this document posted to another website or via a newsfeed reader. If so, the original and most current version is here:

Thanks for taking time to read this report. Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions for improving this document.


Gregory Johnson

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About the Photo. The photo above was taken in 2008 during a trip I took to India. In the picture, I am feeding prasad (blessed food) to one of the local cows that roam freely in neighborhood streets. I chose that particular photo to include with this article because it conveys my sentiments regarding kindness toward and reverence of all beings.

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