What President Donald Trump did in granting commutation of an obscenely long sentence was an act of mercy and of justice.
On Dec. 20, Trump commuted the 27-year prison sentence of Shalom Rubashkin, former executive of Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking.
A Lubavitch man from Brooklyn, Rubashkin moved to Iowa and built Agriprocessors into the country’s largest kosher meat-processing company. An undercover investigation by reporters from a Jewish animal rights group revealed cruel animal practices that were, from the standpoint of kosher law, questionable at best. The report was published in The Forward. Federal agents raided the plant in 2008, and Rubashkin was arrested. But the charges filed had nothing to do with the plant’s processing practices; rather, Rubashkin was prosecuted for financial fraud.
He was convicted for misstating his profits and losses on an application for a mortgage to run his plant; the sentence was 10 times more than the average for similar crimes. Rubashkin was guilty — and the commutation means the felony conviction sticks — but he has already served eight years in jail and lost his business and his reputation.
There is no doubt Agriprocessors took liberties. When federal agents raided the plant, they arrested 389 illegal immigrants working for the company. It was clear Agriprocessors did not do even a cursory exploration as to whether the employees were American citizens or foreign nationals eligible to work. It soon became evident that prosecutors would have a difficult time proving Rubashkin personally authorized or was aware of the hiring practices used by company executives; federal agents didn’t even try.
Instead, the U.S. attorney ignored a disturbing video that brought Rubashkin under scrutiny in the first place and built a financial case against the company. The company had engaged in creative accounting that was clearly improper. The zeitgeist of the day made someone scoring extra money through fudging finances an easy target.
So where does Judaism fit into this? On the one hand, the very definition of kosher is “proper for use.” If a company is fudging its finances and treating its animals in a less than stringent manner, can it be kosher? Perhaps not. But on the other hand, does that mean that companies that purport to being kosher sacrifice their right to equal protection under American law? Does a company that is questionable under halachic practice sacrifice its right to defend itself under the Constitution and statutory laws? Of course not. While that might apply to whether kosher consumers could or should consume Rubashkin products, it should not have any bearing on whether justice was served by trying Rubashkin and convicting him of financial crimes that led to his 27-year sentence.
Kosher should mean being held to a higher standard, but Rubashkin was not convicted of being a bad Jew. He was convicted of filing a financial document that his company’s profits were higher than they actually were. I suspect that if everyone who fudged a financial statement were convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to 27 years behind bars, we might have to triple the number of prisons in this country.
It was widely reported that some religious Jews were dancing in the streets at the news of Rubashkin’s new freedom, calling it “a Chanukah miracle.” If it is a miracle, then Jewish standards have reached a new low. No one should celebrate, but Jews should thank Trump for, ironically enough, his subtle partitioning of the crime from the pursuit of justice.
Rubashkin is guilty of the crime he committed but the sentence was outlandish. That Trump recognized that calls not for rejoicing, but rather muted relief.
A Lubavitch Jew in an Iowa court already sticks out, and the operation of meatpacking plants is a murky business. Whether Rubashkin acted out of greed or naivete is open to debate, but it is clear that his practice of hiring illegal immigrants was (and remains) a norm in the food manufacturing and servicing industry.
Rubashkin was an easy target. He was arrested in the wake of the mortgage meltdown in 2008. Almost no one on Wall Street was arrested or served any time for their role in the true banking scandal that brought down some of the biggest companies in the financial industry. Frauds were committed that made Rubashkin’s acts look like a rounding error. He was an unfortunate symbol of white-collar greed who made an easy target in America’s heartland — and he paid.
The then-newly elected president, Barack Obama, had to prove his bonafides as a leader who was tough on illegal immigration and on financial irregularities. Rubashkin made for a convenient, facile, and susceptible target. Prosecutors in Iowa got their pound of flesh.
Trump has repeatedly been portrayed as awful and sinister. We have been told he is a bigot and even an anti-Semite. Yet, over and over, he shows that despite his ruthless and wanton communications, he actually has a streak of mercy in him. Trump’s action in this matter is not only good for the Jews, it is good for humanity. Even more remarkably, he did it without much publicity.