Jewish Year In Review: 2008

A year marked by big changes and bigger scandals.

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MyJewishLearning called 2007 "The Year That Might Have Mattered" for its distinct lack of transformational events.

Well, 2008 could not have been more different. There was nothing minor or understated about the major news events of ’08, from a savage election season that lasted ten months, to corruption scandals at the highest echelons of government. What we eat and where it comes from changed, while the economy took a nosedive, leaving millions unemployed, and many charities scraping for cash to keep their doors open.

Everything mattered this year, as we learned how interconnected we are–financially, psychologically, and ethically. This may be just the beginning of more transformations to come in 2009, but for now, let’s look back at a year of seismic changes. 

Agriprocessors: Where’s the Beef?

On May 12th, federal agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, arresting 389 illegal immigrants. Agriprocessors is owned by the Rubashkin family of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and until the raid, supplied about 60% of America’s kosher meat and 40% of its kosher poultry.

Immediately after the raid, many parts of the country suffered from kosher meat shortages as Agriprocessors struggled to get back on its feet amid a constant stream of allegations and lawsuits, from child endangerment, to worker safety, sexual harassment, and pollution violations.

On May 23rd, Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, wrote an open letter to Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin expressing deep anguish over the worker mistreatment at the Postville plant, and calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors meat. The letter was published and passed around the Internet, eventually garnering support from rabbis and communities across denominations.

Meanwhile, the fledgling Hekhsher Tzedek, an initiative of the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to certify ethically produced food, was gaining momentum. Though it was officially launched well before the Agriprocessors raid, it now gained significant support. But the Hekhsher Tzedek had its critics too, including some who believed it would dilute the true meaning of kashrut.

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MyJewishLearning called 2007 "The Year That Might Have Mattered" for its distinct lack of transformational events.

Well, 2008 could not have been more different. There was nothing minor or understated about the major news events of ’08, from a savage election season that lasted ten months, to corruption scandals at the highest echelons of government. What we eat and where it comes from changed, while the economy took a nosedive, leaving millions unemployed, and many charities scraping for cash to keep their doors open.

Everything mattered this year, as we learned how interconnected we are–financially, psychologically, and ethically. This may be just the beginning of more transformations to come in 2009, but for now, let’s look back at a year of seismic changes. 

Agriprocessors: Where’s the Beef?

On May 12th, federal agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, arresting 389 illegal immigrants. Agriprocessors is owned by the Rubashkin family of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and until the raid, supplied about 60% of America’s kosher meat and 40% of its kosher poultry.

Immediately after the raid, many parts of the country suffered from kosher meat shortages as Agriprocessors struggled to get back on its feet amid a constant stream of allegations and lawsuits, from child endangerment, to worker safety, sexual harassment, and pollution violations.

On May 23rd, Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, wrote an open letter to Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin expressing deep anguish over the worker mistreatment at the Postville plant, and calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors meat. The letter was published and passed around the Internet, eventually garnering support from rabbis and communities across denominations.

Meanwhile, the fledgling Hekhsher Tzedek, an initiative of the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to certify ethically produced food, was gaining momentum. Though it was officially launched well before the Agriprocessors raid, it now gained significant support. But the Hekhsher Tzedek had its critics too, including some who believed it would dilute the true meaning of kashrut.

There were also some who believed that the Rubashkin family had been unfairly targeted or, at least, prematurely judged as guilty. In addition to creating a petition of support for the Rubashkins, a group of those loyal to the Rubashkins raised money for the family.

In early September, the Iowa attorney general charged Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three human resources employees with more than 9,000 violations of Iowa’s Child Labor law, and the company was fined $10 million. Almost a month and a half later, on October 30th, Sholom Rubashkin was arrested and charged with knowingly conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants at Agriprocessors. A week after that, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy.

Corruption in Israel

Israeli national leaders are no strangers to scandal. In the 1970s, Yitzhak Rabin‘s first term as prime minister ended after it was revealed that his wife held a then-problematic American bank account, and Moshe Katsav’s term as president ended in 2007 amid allegations of sexual abuse. Yet Israel’s leadership problems reached new heights (or lows) in 2008 with the arraignment of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on six different charges of bribery and corruption.

Among other things, Olmert was accused of double-billing charities and the Israeli government for the same trips and allegedly collecting $85,000 from charitable organizations to fund private travel for himself and his family.

After steadfastly refusing to resign as prime minister, Olmert finally conceded that he would not run in the 2009 election. In September 2008, he stepped down as leader of his party, Kadima, the largest political party in the government.

In Kadima’s election to replace him, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was widely regarded as the popular favorite. However, she won by only a few hundred votes. Upon assuming her new position, Livni failed to build a coalition between other political parties.

The Olmert scandal cast an unfortunate shadow on Israel’s 60th birthday celebrations, which included a major conference of worldwide government and business leaders sponsored by Israeli president Shimon Peres.

Obamania

Israel’s issues took a back seat to the major domestic story of the year: the 2008 United States presidential election. The Jewish angle of the story tended to focus on the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, and his relationship with Jews and Israel.

Indeed, there was fear in the Jewish community, especially (but not exclusively) among religious and older Jews that Obama would not be supportive of Israel. Emails circulated citing Obama’s connection to policy advisers perceived to be anti-Israel, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Malley, which the candidate’s campaign dismissed. Speeches by Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, were also cited as proof that Obama had a secret pro-Palestinian agenda.

With Florida again seen as a swing state, an effort called The Great Schlep was organized, encouraging young Jews to visit their grandparents in Florida to convince them to vote Democrat. The Great Schlep was launched with a viral video starring crass comedienne, Sarah Silverman. The impact of the Schlep itself was likely minimal, but the video’s message was taken in by millions.

In the end, the prediction of a rightward shift in the Jewish vote proved premature. Obama picked up 78% of the Jewish vote in his victory over John McCain. This number was even higher than John Kerry’s percentage in 2004. Still, many of the anti-Obama emails and sentiments seemed tinged with racism, which prompted some open communal introspection following the election.

"It’s the economy, stupid."

Arguably the most crucial issue in the election was the economic crisis. Crashing stock prices, escalating unemployment, countless foreclosures, and industry-wide bailouts were all indicators of America’s dire financial conditions. The Jewish community was hit particularly hard.

Across the spectrum, Jewish non-profits expressed concern about continuing to provide services in 2009. Some organizations took more immediate hits. Unsure if it would receive a $20 million pledge from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Birthright Israel cut its budget by $35 million. The American Joint Distribution Committee, facing a $60 million budget deficit, laid off 60 employees, and United Jewish Communities cut 32 jobs earlier in the year.

To make matters worse, Jewish foundations and agencies were rocked by investor Bernard Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme, which totaled nearly $50 billion. Madoff was a significant player in the Jewish philanthropic world, holding investments from major Jewish organizations and foundations. Within days of the story breaking, Yeshiva University, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and Hadassah announced major losses, and two Jewish foundations shut their doors.

Even cautious estimates put the amount of money lost to Jewish agencies in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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