Last week, Orthodox social justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek, ended their official boycott of Agriprocessors’ meat and poultry products, a little less than one month after it began. Their decision was met with some skepticism from many kosher and non-kosher keeping consumers who felt that they were just getting started. One reader of this blog commented:
“I also think calling off the boycott is premature, and I’m not ending my personal boycott, which has been going on for over 6 months. Agriprocessor’s has consistently shown they only respond to pressure, not good intentions. Now is not the time to let up on the pressure.”
I interviewed co-director, Ari Hart, to find out why Uri L’Tzedek made the decision to end the boycott, and where the kosher meat industry might go from here.
Read the full interview below the jump.
Did you (meaning Uri L’Tzedek) expect to end the boycott so quickly, or was that a surprise?
The boycott was a tool that had a very specific goal – to put consumer pressure on the company to make specific changes in the working conditions at its Postville plant.
Through the hiring of a third party capable of creating a compliance department, we believed the people currently working at Agriprocessors’ would be guaranteed the basic safety, rights, and pay required by US law. With the hiring of Jim Martin, procedures are being put in place to ensure that the employees working at Agriprocessors today are working in better conditions than in May.
We committed ourselves to hold on until a reputable third party able to create reforms was put into place, however long that would take.
In your own words, why do you feel comfortable eating meat from Agriprocessors again (assuming you do – if not, why not)?
Given everything that has happened at Agriprocessors, I personally doubt the holiness of the intentions of the owners of Agriprocessors, and I doubt their ability to produce the kosher meat that I would feel comfortable eating at my personal Shabbat table. Because of these issues, in addition to the recent deceptive, mean spirited, and divisive PR campaign recently run by Agriprocessors’ PR team where they impersonated a rabbi, bought up Uri L’Tzedek domain names, and used other nasty tactics, I am not comfortable supporting the company.
Regarding the Uri L’Tzedek boycott, the company has begun to address the reforms demanded in our letter, so in our quest to be responsible activists and to be future agents for change, we felt it was the right thing to do to suspend the boycott. We also recognize that Agriprocessors provides a critical service to the industry in supplying kosher meat to far-flung locations where there would normally be no other options.
“I personally doubt the holiness of the intentions of the owners of Agriprocessors.”
There are bigger, more systemic questions to ask are around industrial-beef in general. Is it possible for industrial beef processing companies like Agriprocessors to produce the kind of meat that is fitting to be an offering to God, with the environmental degradation, injustice, and cruelty to workers and animals they often produce? What other kinds of models for kosher-meat production are there? How we can we as a community organize and respond? This is one of the questions the Jewish people, and the whole world, will have to deal with in the very near future.
There have been rumblings across the blogosphere which suggest that Uri L’Tzedek was too quick to go back on its boycott. What is your response to that?
I understand the rumblings, and I believe most of them are coming from a good place – from a deep desire to see our community hold itself to the high standards of justice, ethics, and compassion demanded by the Torah.
Our role as an organization is to bring awareness and develop leadership in our community so we can more effectively bring justice to the world. This episode has shown us how much work lies in the road ahead. By connecting and developing the community of leaders and activists around the world such as Rabbi Riskin, Rabbi Dov Linzer, Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Danny Nevins, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the hundreds of other rabbis, educators, and Jewish professionals, and the hundreds of concerned consumers, all of whom want to see change and make this better, we believe that pieces are being put into place to make long-term, sustainable change.
Was there consensus among Uri L’Tzedek’s leadership to stop the boycott? Was there any dissent?
Yes, there was consensus among the leadership. Our one struggle as a leadership team was that since the end of May, we’ve had to shift almost all our organizational energies into this project at the expense of the other issues we’ve engaged with this year, such as the rights of domestic workers, health care, racism, and others.
Was Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) influential in the boycott at all – either in beginning or ending it?
YCT as an institution was not at all influential in the decision to start or end of the boycott. The YCT community has been a tremendous source of inspiration and courage to us, and many members of the YCT community are important partners in our work.
What sort of ongoing work/monitoring does Uri L’Tzedek have planned for Agriproccessors?
We believe that James Martin is the best possible source of change within the company, which is why we will continue to stay in relationship with him and monitor his work. In order to insure Martin’s new policies are effective, we also call for random investigations to be permitted within the plant.
State and media reports have shown that Agriprocessor’s officials have in the past turned away random OSHA visits, forcing them to go obtain a court warrant and reducing the efficacy of their visits. One of the most important things right now is that Orthodoxy establish a monitoring capability to ensure these kind of things don’t happen again.
Is there a chance that Uri L’Tzedek would decide to reinstate the boycott? Under what circumstances?
Of course. The reputation of James Martin’s firm rests on his trustworthiness and his ability to bring reform to companies that need it.
Can we keep the highest standards of kashrut as well as yashrut (moral uprightness) in the production of our food?
Should he cease his relationship with Agriprocessors, or should it become clear that his recommendations are not being followed, we would lose faith in the sincerity of the company’s efforts to provide a safe, healthy and fair workplace and would again reinstate the boycott.
Do you think the Agriprocessors situation will have any long-last impact on the kosher keeping community?
Yes. Before I address that though, it is important to remember that in spite of whatever challenges we have faced as a community because of these events, the real aftermath has happened in the town of Postville and to the hundreds of men, women and children who have suffered as a result of their experiences at Agriprocessors and at the hands of the federal government.
Whatever one’s personal beliefs on immigration, to me it is undeniable that our system is seriously broken. One of the defenses I’ve heard of Agriprocessors hiring of undocumented workers and the working conditions at its plant has been “everyone does it.” While I find that to be a very irresponsible defense, it sadly seems to be the case. Significant immigration reform is needed in our country to make sure something like this does not happen again, at Agriprocessors or anywhere else.
Now, regarding the kosher keeping community. I think this episode raises some fundamental questions about what it means to keep kosher. Can we keep the highest standards of kashrut as well as yashrut (moral uprightness) in the production of our food? Do we have a direct responsibility to the people who produce the products that sustain us? Can conducting business be informed by spiritual sensitivities? Can American Jewry lead the way in ethical business practices? Do we have what it takes to truly be an am kadosh (holy people)? Avraham was commanded to make sure that he and his household “keep the way of Hashem to do charity and justice.” We as a community must rise to meet that challenge.