Chosenness Attack: Reflections on the Rubashkin Scandal

Jeff believes he has been chosen to redeem mankind through his deeds.

Some 2,000 women gathered in support of former Agriprocessors tycoon Sholom Rubashkin at the end of this past month.  In June of 2010 Rubashkin, once the CEO of America’s largest kosher meat-packing plant, was sentenced to 27 years in prison on 86 counts of financial fraud. The demise of Agriprocessors, and the Lubavitcher clan at its helm, has become one of the biggest American-Jewish scandals in recent memory. (Hats off to Bernard Madoff for having outdone them all.)

Storm clouds were already gathering in 2006 when The Forward published an award-winning exposé accusing Agriprocessors of criminally mistreating its workers.  The most disturbing insight that emerged though was not that Sholom Rubashkin, then the CEO, lacked the decency one would expect from a Jew, it was that he behaved indecently precisely because he was a Jew.  The Forward reported that while, “the rabbis have their own bathrooms and well-lit cafeterias…the separate facilities for the workers…were described to the paper as damp and dirty.”  Near the end of the article Mark Grey, director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, had this to say, “I’m continually surprised at how poorly they treat these people because they’re not Jews.”

U.S. Immigration raided an Agriprocessors plant in 2008, arresting nearly 400 illegal-immigrant workers. Six months later, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy.

Then, in another Forward article published in 2008, a similar sentiment was expressed, this time by a rabbi:

Yossi Jacobson, who moved to Iowa to represent Chabad and watched the Rubashkins settle in, said there was a lot of baggage to overcome.  ‘In Crown Heights or in Boro Park or in Flatbush, it’s always the goyim and the yidden. That’s how it is, you know? We don’t do nothing with the goyim. We don’t even go to their schools. We don’t wave to them, because we don’t even know them, and they don’t want to know us.’

Of course, much of this attitude can be easily chalked up to a long, harrowing history of anti-Semitism.  But I think there’s an element of tribalism endemic to the structure of Jewish identity.  If the Jewish nation is indeed a Chosen one, as the Hebrew Bible claims, then all other nations are well, not.  The big issue is not that Mr. Rubashkin treated his workers like second-class citizens; it’s that he may have been acting in “good faith,” insofar as non-Jews are second-class citizens.  This is not to say that Mr. Rubashkin represents the attitudes of all Jews.  Nor is it to say that there aren’t many elements of the Jewish tradition, both biblical and rabbinic, that advocate for a more universalist worldview.  But the issue remains: are there elements of Jewish Chosenness that would inevitably lead someone like Sholom Rubashkin to marginalize the concerns of those who are not Chosen?

Sholom Rubashkin is currently serving his sentence in Otisville, New York. Photo: AP

There are those who argue that the Jews were not simply Chosen but were Chosen for Something.  Chosenness indicates not ethnic superiority, but allegiance to a higher calling – the path of utmost righteousness.  But of course, this too can only have hierarchical implications.  If God has chosen the path of morality for Jews, does that mean it is a path closed to all others?  Even if Jews are merely meant to lead all others to this path why should they alone be fit for the task?  If it is because non-Jews are somehow less fit then Chosenness is a racist creed after all.  If it is for no reason that Jews have been chosen, then Chosenness is an utterly arbitrary distinction, a word without content.  It was for reasons like these that Reconstructionist thinker Mordechai Kaplan sought to eliminate Chosenness from the Jewish catechism.

Perhaps it was also for these reasons that in 2008, when Sholom’s older brother Moshe was arraigned for illegally housing hazardous chemical waste in an Allentown, Pennsylvania textiles plant, he responded by launching into an irrelevant “stream-of-consciousness oration…about the history of the Jewish community in Crown Heights.”  He did not, as The Village Voice reported, even touch on Allentown, though he was accused of having endangered it.  If Jews were chosen to uphold a higher standard, then both Rubashkins have abandoned this standard in the pursuit of it.  That, as I see it, is the crux of the issue.  When you’re Chosen, either you never let yourself forget it, or you never remember why.

– D. Schwartz

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