Agriprocessors: Presumed Innocence

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Last weekend’s Forward noted that Agriprocessors — the kosher slaughterhouse that was raided by federal agents last month — has hired a big-time PR company to handle allegations of major labor infractions.

This comes as some Jewish groups are calling for a boycott of the company, a move being championed by Uri L’Tzedek, a group run by Shmuly Yanklowitz, Ari Hart, and Aaron Finkelstein, rabbinical students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, as well as Tsufit Daniel.

But in a recent op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, rejected these communal condemnations of Agriprocessors.

Neither I nor Agudath Israel of America has any connection to Agriprocessors. And for all we know, it may yet be shown that the firm indeed knowingly hired illegal aliens. Or that it mistreated them, or that it was a front for a drug operation, a neo-Nazi group or a baby-cannibalizing cult. All under the eyes of the federal inspectors present at the plant at all times.

BUT UNLESS and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being – certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah’s clear admonition in such matters – has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.

While I’ve sympathized with the work that groups like Uri L’Tzedek have done on this issue, I found Rabbi Shafran’s article somewhat compelling — if only as a sort-of rhetorical defense attorney. In America, at least, we do believe it’s important to offer defense to even the most seemingly egregious of offenders.

But I also wanted to hear responses to Rabbi Shafran’s article, so I emailed Shmuly Yanklowitz of Uri L’Tzedek. Here are a few of his points:

- Agudas Yisrael is one of the quickest to urge that a hashgacha [kosher certification] get pulled from a product as soon as there is the smallest doubt of the kashrut of the product. Where is the presumption of innocence (kosher) in those cases where they ruin a business or a mashgiach? Is it not hypocritical to care only about the Torah’s ritual demands but not the Torah’s moral demands?

- All that Uri L’Tzedek has asked is that the company recommit itself to US and Jewish law and make their reforms transparent. Why is that so much to ask? As soon as they meet those demands, our work ends. But they are not complying.

- We don’t need to wait for a verdict. There are hundreds of interviews that have already happened exposing atrocities and past charges over many years that have not yet been addressed. Also, we are not a court of law. We are concerned consumers. We have lost faith. Faith of a consumer can not wait for verdicts. It must respond to the hundreds of pieces of evidence.

Shmuly’s first point gets at, perhaps, the heart of what Uri L’Tzedek is trying to do — raise the ethical bar in the Orthodox community. That being said, Rabbi Shafran may have halakhic legs to stand on. It could be that the presumption of guilt/innocence is different for halakhic and ethical concerns.

Which is why Shmuly’s final point is even more significant. Rabbi Shafran is assuming that guilt must be proven in a court of law for it to be Jewishly significant. But this is not necessarily so.

In fact, there shouldn’t be any necessary connection between guilt from a Jewish point of view and guilt from a secular, legal point of view.

For Uri L’Tzedek, Agriprocessors has already been proven guilty. And they are calling for reform based on this.

Posted on June 23, 2008

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