Revisiting Magen Tzedek – Chilling Chapter in the Rubashkin Saga

Magen Tzedek grew out of the smear campaign waged against Agriprocessors and the Rubashkin family before and after the 2008 immigration raid. It became a rallying point for Conservative leaders to galvanize their struggling movement, and they enjoyed a burst of public acclaim from 2008 to 2010, before slowly fizzling out.

 

Lately, the nearly defunct organization has been in the news again, with advocates calling for its revival.

 

Vigorously promoted by the Conservative movement which hoped to use the initiative to win a market share in the lucrative kashrus certification, its social justice agenda catapulted its founder, Rabbi Morris Allen of Minnesota, to national prominence.

 

Reports in the secular Jewish press touted Magen Tzedek as the wave of the future. At last kashrus in America would no longer be the exclusive provenance of Orthodox rabbis. In addition, Conservative rabbis said, under the new hechsher, the meaning of kashrus would expand to address far more than the “nitpicky minutiae” of halacha. It would encompass fair and humane treatment of workers, animals, and the environment.

 

“The first kosher foods carrying the new [Magen Tzedek] seal should be on supermarket shelves before Rosh Hashanah,” a spokesman for the movement gushed in a March 2011 press release.

 

Yet the roll-out never happened. The “15 major companies” Allen professed to be negotiating with never came on board and the movement and its founder have since slid into obscurity.

 

With calls for its revival recently issued by voices in the secular Jewish camp, it is instructive to review the history of this movement, how it was born and why it now sits in the dust.

 

‘SYSTEMIC ABUSES’

 

At the height of its popularity, Magen Tzedek’s chief marketing pitch was its promise to resolve what it called the “systemic abuses” in the kosher slaughterhouse industry.

 

Its founder, Rabbi Morris Allen, continually referred to the “gross human rights violations” at Agriprocessors as evidence of the need for an ethics hechsher that would combine “social justice compliance” with kashrus laws.

 

To legitimize his new agency, Allen insisted those human rights violations were endemic at the Postville plant, and prevalent throughout the Jewish meat-packing industry. His incendiary rhetoric continued even after the 2010 labor trial exposed the falsity of these allegations about Agriprocessors, and cleared Sholom Rubashkin of all labor charges.

 

DEVIL’S HANDSHAKE

 

Allen had previously joined forces with the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) which worked hand in hand with the UFCW. These agencies, in the years preceding the Postville raid, had waged a bitter battle to coerce unionization of Agriprocessors.

 

The campaign against Agriprocessors began in 2005, when the UFCW attempted over many months, without success, to unionize the plant in traditional ways, such as enticing workers through promises of higher pay, better medical benefits, and so forth.

 

Acknowledging the failure of traditional methods, the union shifted gears and launched a “corporate campaign.” This is a strategy described in the union’s own literature to its members as a multi-pronged war of attrition waged against a given corporation, until the company either surrenders to unionization or is forced to shut down.

 

WAR OF ATTRITION

 

In the battle to unionize a plant, a key tool is lodging accusations and complaints against the company for violations of federal regulations. The company is then penalized and fined, with the union parlaying the NC’s (noncompliance citations) to the public as proof of dangerous or unscrupulous business practices.

 

The company may be forced to hire public relations consultants to counter the negative publicity, pouring its resources into damage control, often to the neglect of its business.

 

If the charges are fought in court, the company bleeds financially through formidable legal fees. Either way, the war of attrition eventually exacts a massive toll.

 

Regulation is so out of control in American that any businessman, at any given time, is almost certainly guilty of noncompliance with a number of federal regulations. It is beyond human ability to be familiar with the tens of thousands of OSHA, EPA, IRS and other regulations. “The unions realize this—indeed, they lobbied for many of the regulations in the first place,” notes the Wall Street Journal.

 

UNION-ALIGNED FORWARD TRASHES AGRIPROCESSORS

 

The UFCW’s war of attrition geared up after it witnessed the success of the Forward—a union-aligned newspaper—in trashing Agriprocessors in 2006 with a series of libelous articles.

 

Building on negative publicity generated by PETA’s prior assaults against the company, the Forward’s articles painted the meat-packing plant as a filthy, dangerous worksite where inhumane treatment of animals and workers abounded.

 

Magen Tzedek drew its life from this mudslinging. As one examines the record, it is hard to escape the evidence of lies, cruelty and deceit upon which the organization rested.

 

Rabbi Allen and his Conservative colleagues assert that Magen Tzedek was created as a response to unethical treatment of workers in Agriprocessors. But the paper and media trail they left behind them in the company’s wreckage tells a far different narrative.

 

An in-depth look at the record exposes the roots of Allen’s social-justice program as mired in the slander he himself spread about the Postville plant and the Rubashkin family.

 

Allen had carefully crafted a social justice agenda that, once it was paired up with a hechsher, would assure him of a profitable niche in kashrus certification. But a solution without a real-life problem to hang itself on is a non-starter. With the attacks on Agriprocessors by the animal-rights people and the Forward, Allen had a ready-made scandal to build on. All he had to do was continue to fuel it, turning the alleged worker abuse at Agriprocessors into “systemic abuses” throughout the kosher food industry.

 

When the “worker-abuse” bubble burst at Rubashkin’s state trial, with all labor charges unanimously thrown out by the jury, Magen Tzedek was in danger of losing its raison d’etre. Allen kept his organization alive by continuing his tirades against Agri and Sholom Rubashkin, as if the trial had never happened.

 

In one of the worst excesses of slander, he appeared on an installment of the American Greed series with Jewish labor activist Avram Lyon, pitching the movie’s message to thousands of viewers that Sholom Rubashkin was a greedy corporate boss, under whose tenure terrible abuses were perpetrated against the immigrant workers.

 

Lyon and Allen knew the truth. The paper trail they left in the form of correspondence with Sholom Rubashkin in 2006, after a fact-finding tour at Agriprocessors, opens a window into what they really witnessed at the plant. It shines a light on their later fabrications about that encounter.

 

‘LURID CRIMES’?

 

Allen first became involved with Agriprocessors in the summer of 2006, some months after a series of articles appeared in the Forward newspaper attacking the plant for inhumane treatment of immigrant workers, and for “breeding fear, injury and short pay” among them.

 

An article by Nathaniel Popper accused Agriprocessors of forcing its immigrant workforce to live in squalor and fear, too intimidated to protest their exploitation and ill-treatment by their employers. The article offered no evidence or official documentation to back its allegations. None of its quotes from supposedly live interviews with Agri employees identified the speakers by name.

 

The libel generated a firestorm, prompting immediate fact-finding tours by Rabbi Asher Zeilingold of Minneapolis together with the Spanish-speaking Dr. Carlos Carbonera (who later testified about his findings at Sholom Rubashkin’s Sentencing Hearing in April, 2009).

 

Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU and a group of Orthodox rabbis and laymen toured the plant as well. These groups published reports that not only refuted the Forward’s rabid allegations but noted Agriprocessors’ high ratings for safety and lower rates of worker accident and injury.

 

Morris Allen, too, conducted his tour as part of a five-member team, including labor activist Vic Rosenthal, and Avram Lyon, [who posed as a friend of Allen who was merely curious about how the kosher plant operated]. While in Postville, Allen teamed up clandestinely with union reps. His collaboration with the union was exposed when their secret meeting was unexpectedly discovered.

 

Allen’s group had been previously welcomed and personally given a tour by Sholom Rubashkin at the request of Rabbi Zeilingold. The commission agreed that the tour would be for the sole purpose of checking out the Forward’s allegations. After his secret meetings with the union came to light, the Rubashkin management grew wary of his motives. Few realized at the time how deep his involvement with the union ran, and that they had unwittingly let the fox into the chicken coop.

 

TESTIMONY FROZEN IN TIME

 

The fateful tour of Agri went well. Much later it would be used deceptively by Allen as a tool to bludgeon Sholom Mordechai for his mistreatment of immigrant workers. But immediately following the visit, Allen penned a letter of warm appreciation to him, with an enthusiastic, even congratulatory message.

 

“I want to thank you for the time you and your staff spent with us last week. All of us were impressed with the consideration shown us,” Allen wrote, going on to praise the Rubashkin family and the Agriprocessors workforce. “You have much to be proud of as regards the production of Kosher meat.”

 

Allen went on to say the commission’s members “were impressed by the Rubashkins’ contributions to Postville and encouraged by their commitment to making Agri a plant where the values displayed on your website are able to be lived out fully.” [Morris Allen letter to Sholom Rubashkin, August 2006]

 

And in a subsequent lengthy letter dated December 2006, Allen praised Sholom Rubashkin for being accessible and approachable to his workers.

 

“We spoke with many people when we were in Postville…. A recurrent theme we heard was that when there is a chance to speak with you directly, concerns are heard.”

 

One examines the letters in vain for the slightest hint of disturbing findings about terrible working conditions, oppressive company policies or inhumane treatment of employees as alleged in the Forward articles. Not a word about any of these allegations appears in these letters, or any other correspondence from Allen to Sholom Rubashkin.

 

RUBASHKIN-BASHING BEGINS

 

Months later, Allen did an about face. He began to publicly malign the meat-packing plant for “inadequate or non-existent worker safety training,”’ for “concern about unsafe chemical use”’ and “unclean and unsafe lunchroom conditions.” (Forward, Dec. 2006)

 

Allen’s slandering of the kosher slaughterhouse in interviews with the media went hand in hand with actively pumping up the need for Magen Tzedek as an ethics watchdog for kosher food companies. (New York Times, July 2007, Rabbi Morris Allen Blog, Oct. 2007).

 

There were awkward moments when his innovations hit a snag. One such moment happened in an interview with a NY Times reporter when Allen was asked if he had been able to validate the Forward’s allegations.  

 

“We were not able to verify everything,” he hedged, “but we found things that were equally painful…”

 

He went on to air his dissatisfaction over low starting wages and the need for more safety training in Spanish. But when pressed as to whether he could corroborate the tales of squalor, forced labor, rampant injuries, dirty facilities and lack of safety training that he came to investigate, Allen artfully circumvented the subject.

 

SURPRISE IN ST. PAUL

 

In an interview with Yated in 2011, former Postville Council member Aaron Goldsmith noted that at some point in Allen’s dealings with Agriprocessors, it became obvious that he was working in close cooperation with labor and union activists.

 

Goldsmith had accompanied Sholom Mordechai to St. Paul, Minn., to what had been billed as a private meeting with Allen. He recalled his surprise upon discovering two others sitting with Allen in the social hall where the meeting took place.

 

“We walked into the room and there are two men connected with labor organizations whom Sholom had met during their previous visit to Agri as part of the Conservative commission – Avi Lyon and Victor Rosenthal! We were taken aback. A meeting with Rabbi Allen had become a forum for labor activists. They put their agenda right on the table.”

 

The meeting focused on a bid by Allen and Lyon to have input into upper management decisions regarding some of the company’s policies. “To gain leverage with Sholom, they had pledged to use their media contacts to rehabilitate Agri’s reputation. That image had been badly tarnished by the Forward’s attacks, the earlier PETA campaign and union harassment,” Goldsmith recalled.

 

Allen eventually began to press Sholom hard for concessions, relaying demands by the labor activists in his own name. A December 2006 letter from Allen to Sholom Mordechai shows Allen arrogantly issuing instructions and demanding to be kept in the inner loop where top management decisions were discussed.

 

“Sholom found himself entangled in manipulation by these people whom he had allowed into the plant for one purpose alone – to verify the truth of the Forward’s allegations,” commented a source close to Sholom Rubashkin. “That now appeared to have been a pretext to gain entry to the plant and to assert control.”

 

But the plan imploded. In January 2007, Sholom Mordechai thanked Allen for his interest and suggestions but politely made it clear that senior management would not be sharing internal affairs and decisions with him.

 

ALLEN SHOWN THE DOOR

 

Sholom Mordechai’s move was bolstered by a letter from Rabbi Zeilingold (shared with Yated by a Rubashkin family member), asking him not to “allow Rabbi Morris Allen and members of his Conservative commission onkashrut any further access to your facilities or records. From this day forward, no inspections are to be made by this group.”

 

“In the entire matter of Rabbi Allen and the commission’s visits to Iowa, Rabbi Allen’s dealings with me and with you have been dishonest and underhanded. Therefore, he is not to be trusted.”

 

“Rabbi Allen gained entrance into your Postville plant through my auspices. At my specific request, you graciously extended to him every courtesy.”

 

In his letter, Zeilingold explained why he felt used. Allen had insisted his visit to Agriprocessors was for the purpose of investigating the Forward’s charges. Instead, he had carried out a different agenda and was badmouthing the meat-packing plant over issues that had nothing to do with the purpose of his visit. (Zeilingold letter to Rabbi Allen, January 2007)

 

Zeilingold said he believed that the commission discovered that the Forward article was a falsehood and all of their subsequent “findings” were a result of their collaboration with the labor union. In other words, they had already written their agenda before they visited the plant.

 

“After the break-off of talks, Allen turned on Agriprocessors with a vengeance,” a former senior management officer at the plant testified.

 

By mid-2008, aided by Morris Allen’s smear campaign; by a media geared up for a feeding frenzy; powerful friends such as Labor Commissioner Dave Neil; and congressmen hungry for union support in an election year, the union had set the stage for the final knockout blow against Agriprocessors – the infamous ICE raid.

 

THE BOYCOTT

 

By September 2008, three months after the raid, Allen and other Conservative rabbis were calling for a ban on Agriprocessors products.

 

The Wall Street Journal in an article that month disclosed that “Rabbi Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi from Mendota Heights, Minnesota, has called on consumers to avoid the company’s products…. The Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, issued a statement [to the same effect.] It quoted Deuteronomy: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.”

 

“Reaction has been swift,” the WSJ went on to report. “Synagogues and blogs are rallying in support of the ban. And this week the Conservative movement is set to release guidelines for an initiative called Hechsher Tzedek [later renamed Magen Tzedek]. “

 

Rubashkin-bashing became a steady staple of Allen’s interviews and media appearances. In one of his worst excesses, Allen appeared in a documentary about the Postville raid, leading a demonstration against Agriprocessors, denouncing Sholom Rubashkin for “deplorable” labor practices.

 

Residents had gathered on the first anniversary of the raid to protest the government operation that had crushed the town. Allen and Conservative colleagues turned the event into an anti-Rubashkin demonstration, busing in hundreds of people. After a ceremony in the Postville church, Allen led demonstrators down the street to the entrance of Agriprocessors, where he lamented the abuses and “terrible exploitation” that took place at the plant.

 

Casting himself as the immigrants’ protector, Rabbi Allen preached humanity and compassion toward those less fortunate, all the while slinging arrows at a beleaguered fellow Jew struggling to save his company and family from destruction.

 

On several subsequent Shabbosim at Twin Cities’ Conservative synagogues, the rabbis distributed pamphlets telling of their recent trip to Postville where they had interviewed Agriprocessors’ workers at the labor union offices. They spread appalling stories of abuse – including physical abuse, harassment, and exploitation of workers.

 

Here is Allen in 2009, speaking at a HIAS immigration rally, painting Agriprocessors as a virtual house of horrors:

 

“From my own knowledge of what was happening in Postville, I can tell you that the plant should have been infiltrated not by the immigration folks but by the labor department, the Health and Human Services department, by OSHA! They would have been able to protest what the migrant workers were incapable of raising their voices against: the extortion, the forced labor, unsafe conditions, long hours and the intimidation and exploitation and endless types of abuse that went on here!”

 

PITILESS ATTACKS AT A PERILOUS TIME

 

Immediately following Sholom Mordechai’s federal trial, Allen, preening himself as an expert on the case, reminded the public that “as the founders of Magen Tzedek, we were on the ground in Postville from the virtual start… bearing witness to the terrible worker conditions at [Agriprocessors.]

 

He castigated “the Rubashkin family’s f lagrant disregard for the law and ethical behavior.” Allen warned the public to brace itself for shocking disclosures in the upcoming state labor trial. “The heartbreaking stories that will emerge in the course of this trial will be as cringe-worthy as they are criminal,” he advised.

 

–Statement From the Hechsher Tzedek Commission Regarding The Conviction of Sholom Rubashkin, Rabbi Morris Allen, 2009

 

These remarks were written about Sholom Mordechai moments after his federal trial concluded with a guilty verdict, and he was hauled off to prison and denied bail. Across the world, people following the case, strangers as well as the thousands whose lives had been touched by his kindness, wept at the outcome of the trial.

 

Sholom Mordechai still faced sentencing by judicial authorities who would take into account evidence of good character and decency when weighing his sentence. At such a vulnerable time, Allen’s merciless assault was akin to throwing a lighted match on gas-soaked material.

 

Publicity is a double-edged sword. As Magen Tzedek’s advocates call for its revival, they must anticipate scrutiny of its sordid origins. Rabbi Zeilingold of Minnesota, in a past letter to the editor of Jewish Week, briefly summed up how he viewed those origins:

 

“Magen Tzedek is built on fraud, on the anguish of an innocent Jew. In my opinion, it is nothing more than a symbol of the most unethical and contemptible standard of human behavior.”

 

“They can call it Tzedek. I call it falsehood and deceit.”

 

With Allen’s movement struggling to climb back into the limelight, a hard look is in order at what lies behind its humanitarian facade.