On Thursday, 29 April 2010, I testified in Federal Court as a witness in the case of the United States v. Rubashkin. When I say I was a witness, I hadn’t witnessed a crime. I had witnessed the absence of a crime. That’s what I was in court to testify about.
The case against Rubashkin had grown beyond imagination to the point that he was being accused of about 100,000 violations of various kinds and the prosecution was asking for a life sentence. Perhaps it was true that ‘mistakes were made’ but I felt compelled to testify about what I’d seen first hand. The court case and subsequent ruling was so disturbingly unfair and disproportionately severe that an unprecedented 107 former Justice officials demanded that Sholom be released from prison.
Eventually, on 20 December 2017, Sholom Rubashkin was released from prison after serving 8-years of a 27-year sentence. According to a White House statement, Rubashkin’s prison sentence was commuted by the President of the United States, and this became the President’s first commutation. A USA Today article published the same day provides an overview of the case. For further reading, see “How Trump came to commute an ex-meatpacking executive’s 27-year prison sentence.” (Wash. Post, 21 Dec 2017).
My timeline of interest and involvement in this story began back in 2001, and resurfaced over the years since then. An abbreviated retelling is offered here.
March 2001 – Learning of Postville
My awareness of the Rubashkin family began back in March of 2001 when I visited the town of Postville to see the Jewish market and Deli, antique shops, other attractions in the city. In 2000, a controversial and sensational book had been published about the community, and I was interested to see first hand what all the fuss was about. I was pleasantly surprised to have a positive personal encounter with people in the community. It was nothing like the stories conveyed in the book. I didn’t meet any of the Rubashkin family during that visit, at least not that I know of, but I had a chance to see how vibrant the community was and the impact of their influence in the community.
March 2006 – Smear Campaign
The Rubashkin family business, a Kosher meat packing plant, had been under attack by members of PETA who covertly infiltrated their business with hidden cameras as part of a smear campaign. PETA claimed that they were protesting because the Kosher process in use wasn’t Kosher enough. It seemed odd to me that PETA would make the case for better methods of killing animals. Of all the meat packing plants in the country, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would attack a small, locally owned and operated, family-run Jewish business in Iowa. Yet, the well funded attacks culminated in an international scandal. As I researched the story, something just didn’t add up.
As a vegetarian and animal welfare advocate, I wanted to see the Rubashkin facility first hand. In March of 2006, I had an opportunity to visit the plant. The experience was so impactful, that I wrote an article about it — “A Vegetarian Visits a Kosher Slaughter House.”
I was startled to find that the Rubashkin facility was nothing like the rumors and accusations that had circulated. The contrast between what I saw, and the accusations that had been leveled against the Rubashkins was shocking. It seemed that false or inflammatory accusations had been made about Rubashkin in the book mentioned above, and again with the PETA claims about the Rubashkin business. I don’t like to see sensationalized misrepresentations or exaggerated derogatory claims about any person, people, organization, or business. So, I wrote about my visit to the processing plant.
May 2008 – Postville Raid
During the time of Passover, and in the midst of celebratory Cinco de Mayo festivities in 2008, a massive surprise raid by Federal agents devastated the substantially Jewish/Latino community of Postville. The raid was conducted like a military invasion. People were herded like cattle and placed in cattle confinement areas. More than 20 percent of the town’s population was arrested. Massive numbers of people were detained for questioning. Children were separated from their parents. In the aftermath, months later, Postville looked like it had been hit by a natural disaster. The economy plummeted. The post-raid survival of Postville was the topic of the book, Postville, U.S.A.: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America by Aaron Goldsmith. Citizen’s groups protested the raid claiming human rights were violated and due process was not properly adhered to.
On the one year anniversary of the raid, in May of 2009, I wrote an article that appeared in the Iowa City Press Citizen and on my website: “The 2008 Postville Raid: Looking Back, What Have We Learned?”
On the two year anniversary of the raid, I wrote a follow-up article: “Reflections on the Prosecution of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and the Government Raid of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat Packing Plant in Postville, Iowa.”
April 2010 – Testifying in Federal Court
In April of 2010, I testified in federal court, sharing details about my visit to the Rubashkin facility. My testimony was unusual given that I’m a vegetarian and not Orthodox Jewish. I’d genuinely been impressed with the Rubashkin plant and how it was operated. I’d had a chance to meet Rubashkin and his family. I felt it was important to share the personal perspective of someone who was somewhat impartial to offer balance in a case that seemed so unfairly skewed. I concluded my testimony stating, “Had the Rubashkins been producing delicious garden veggie burgers instead of animal products, I might consider submitting a resume to work there.” I wrote an article in April 2010 sharing my thoughts at the time.
December 2016 – Public Support of Rubashkin
By December of 2016, there was a growing sentiment regarding Rubashkin’s case. Many people found the police-state nature of the raid to be alarming and disturbing. There was concern that Rubashkin was unfairly tried and excessively punished.
I wrote an article to join other voices calling for Rubashkin’s release from prison: “Why I agree with 107 former Justice officials that Sholom Rubashkin should be set free.”
Philip Heymann, former deputy attorney general of the United States, wrote a very persuasive article in the Washington Post: “107 former Justice officials think this case was handled unjustly. DOJ must act.”
In December of 2017, the White House released a 54-page document of letters and petitions from numerous former attorneys general, judges, law professors, and congress people all calling for the release of Sholom Rubashkin.
December 2017 – Rubashkin Set Free
Finally, after many years of numerous people speaking out, Rubashkin has been set free and returned to his wife and family of 10 children. The photo below conveys the enthusiasm of Sholom Rubashkin’s community who received him back with jubilation. That evening, there was dancing and singing in the streets of Crown Heights New York.
For my entire life I’ve been an advocate for worker justice, human rights, fair labor practices, ethical business practices, environmental defense, animal welfare, and promoting vegetarianism. So, my position regarding the Rubashkin case may seem like a complete contradiction to what I’ve spent my life working for. However, I’ve also worked for justice reform in our country.
Like many other people, I feel our rate of incarceration, the highest in the world, is out of control. The current justice system is excessively punitive without producing the positive transformational change we would hope to see. Our society is ill equipped for reentry of those who’ve spent time in the correctional system. As a result, we’re spending millions on an incarceration industrial complex, rather than investing in systems that would reduce crime, and the crisis just gets worse.
States that have invested in greater access to higher education programs, youth mentoring, and early parole programs for violators, have been able to close prisons and invest the money in socially beneficial initiatives. People who’ve made some mistakes in life are being given a chance to get back to their families and serve our local communities.
I wanted to share these closing words to provide some context for my thinking on the Rubashkin case. It’s not that I don’t care about worker justice or ethical business practices. I just believe that we can do better in how we deal with those who make ethical mistakes and poor choices in life. We can have a justice system that is punitive without being excessive.
We can protect, defend, and work to restore victims, while at the same time working to restore those who commit crimes. We can build systems of deterrence that don’t produce recidivism and corrosive outcomes. Our justice system should be able to achieve desired outcomes without simultaneously harming families, children, businesses, local economies, and communities.
There’s much we can do to make a better justice and corrections system. We need to create incentives for those who do the right thing in their life and business, and not just punish those who get caught doing wrong.
Thanks for taking time to read this story. I appreciate any comments, corrections, or feedback you may have to offer.