"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


Sholom Rubashkin Gets 27-Year Jail Sentence

Today it was announced that tomorrow, former AgriProcessors executive Sholom Rubashkin will be sentenced to 27 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $30 million in restitution. In November, Rubashkin was found guilty on 86 of 91 federal charges related to financial fraud. Although an appeal is likely and the trial of at least one more AgriProcessors defendant has yet to start, I'd like to think of this sentencing as at least a temporary end to a long-running scandal that has divided the Jewish community.

Formerly the world's largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse, AgriProcessors had previously been notorious for cruelty to animals, environmental devastation, and labor woes. But in May 2008, the company's absolute demise began when its primary slaughterhouse in Iowa was raided by more than a dozen government agencies. AgriProcessors later stopped production to a large extent, declared bankruptcy, and got bought by another company. Rubashkin faced 72 immigration-related charges in a separate trial that was supposed to follow the one that ended in November, but federal prosecutors dropped those charges, apparently because they were satisfied with the verdict in the first trial and didn't think there was much to gain from expending vast resources on a second. Rubashkin was also one of several defendants from AgriProcessors originally charged with 9,311 violations of Iowa child labor laws; many of those charges were later dropped or consolidated, and earlier this month, Rubashkin was found not guilty on all 67 state charges that he ultimately faced. That verdict does not exactly clear the company of any wrongdoing, though. As Failed Messiah reflected, "Rubashkin's defense team pointed their collective finger at Heshy Rubashkin, who like his brother Sholom was an Agriprocessors VP. Does it make you feel any better about Agriprocessors labor practices if the documented abuses are Heshy's fault rather than Sholom's?"

This saga has caused pain for so many. It has caused great hardship for the Rubashkin family, and by many accounts, Rubashkin was a great contributor to the Jewish community in his personal life. Animals were treated inhumanely in a manner that had already been uncovered and supposedly stopped. The community of Postville, Iowa, was economically devastated, and many former AgriProcessors employees and their families suffered tremendously. When the second federal trial was nixed, it meant that "workers, who for over a year have been prevented by the government from returning home, will not have the long-awaited opportunity to tell their story and seek justice through the trial on immigration charges of Sholom Rubashkin," as a letter from Iowa clergy put it. Their struggle was prolonged for naught.

The whole ordeal has galvanized numerous factions within the Jewish community. The publicity generated by the scandal helped pave the way for Magen Tzedek and Uri L'Tzedek to develop seals for ethical treatment of workers. Many Orthodox supporters of Rubashkin seemingly refused to consider the facts of the cases and insisted that prosecutors and critics were acting out of anti-Semitism and unfairly targeting Rubashkin and AgriProcessors. As just one example, at least 15,000 people reportedly "attended" a rally for Rubashkin either online or in person earlier this month. When the jury found Rubashkin not guilty in the state trial, some in the Orthodox community were outraged that Jewish groups had doubted Rubashkin's supposed innocence and demanded an apology, as though Rubashkin had been totally vindicated and there were no other parts of the story.

As I noted as part of my High Holidays reflection before Rubashkin's trials began, I struggled with this ordeal as a Jew. I loathed AgriProcessors for the alleged crimes that had been committed, but I also realized that hoping for a man's downfall and suffering was not a righteous position to take. In a heebnvegan post on September 19, I concluded, "I hope that Rubashkin receives justice, both from the U.S. court system and, ultimately, from Hashem—nothing more and nothing less."

Now that "the results are in," I leave the last word to Magen Tzedek, which issued the following statement in November:
The news out of Sioux Falls, SD, yesterday, that Sholom Rubashkin was convicted on 86 out of 91 counts ... delivers both justice and a heavy heart to those of us who champion the cause of ethical kashrut. . . .

There is neither joy nor a sense of schadenfreude in yesterday’s conviction. Those of us who toil in the field of tikkun olam are downright demoralized by this highly preventable outcome. This story could have ended very differently.
Failed Messiah was a secondary source for much of the information in this post and was a leading secondary source of information for anyone looking to keep a close watch on this developing story over the last few years.


Benefit Show for Punk Jews

Pesach Simcha plays drums for Torah hardcore band Moshiach Oi!
All photos courtesy of Jesse Zook Mann

Last night, the upcoming Punk Jews online documentary series hosted a concert and fundraising party at Sixth Street Community Synagogue in New York. There was a mixture of mostly Jews with different levels of adherence to punk ethos, punk punctuality (i.e., a very delayed start), an open bar, and raucous slamdancing. In other words, it was a successful event that brought the community of independent-minded Jews documented in different film clips together and introduced them to their likeminded peers in the flesh.

For me, the highlight was seeing two of my favorite Jewish bands, Golem and Moshiach Oi!, together for the first time. Golem, which plays klezmer-rock with a punk intensity, performed songs from their three most recent albums. Fiddle solos sounded somewhat off with someone filling in for longtime band member Alicia Jo Rabins, but Golem's highly danceable sound was the turning point that got the party rocking and got the audience enthused. Toward the end of Golem's set, multiple horas broke out in the middle of the pit. I have to admit that I enjoyed causing a bit of chaos when I tried to get a bunch of casually hora-dancing punks who'd been circling to the right to circle to the left instead. Somehow it all worked out.

I've seen Moshiach Oi! four or five times, and the Punk Jews show will go down in history as the night they really came into their own. Frontman Yishai Romanoff sacrificed the intensity of a second guitar so that he could reign over the microphone and immerse himself in the pit. As he preached to the audience (which he repeatedly referred to as "Jewish people") and thrashed about, he was at one with the crowd and developed a strong rapport. It didn't hurt that the "Torah hardcore" band was playing to its largest audience to date and that the fans at a Punk Jews show were quite open to hardcore music with commentary on blessing G-d, Shabbat, Torah study, idol worship, Moshiach, and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. If people came to a Punk Jews show craving Jewish punk music, Moshiach Oi! made sure that everyone got what they wanted.

The event also included performances by Eden, Y-Love, and Blanket Statementstein (an eight-piece band that featured all four members of Moshiach Oi!) as well as artist installations from Elke Sudin, Rivka Karasik, and Ira Kaufman. Punk Jews is the brainchild of Emmy-winning director (and vegan) Jesse Zook Mann and co-producers Evan Kleinman and Saul Sudin. The documentary series recently hit its goal of raising $10,000, so last night was truly a celebration and profits from the event were icing on the cake. Punk Jews is featured on the front page of the current issue of The Jewish Week.

Yishai Romanoff of Moshiach Oi!

Aaron Diskin of Golem

Two circles of hora dancers in the middle of the pit toward the end of Golem's set

Jesse Zook Mann and Evan Kleinman


Do Fish Feel Pain?

For those of us who base our total or partial vegetarianism on the ethical principle of not inflicting suffering on animals who are capable of suffering, one question deserves to be asked but is frequently relegated to the realm of "ignorance is bliss": Do fish feel pain?

In April, Oxford University Press published Do Fish Feel Pain? by animal welfare scientist Victoria Braithwaite. Many people think the answer to that question is obvious, but depending on whom you ask, that "obvious" answer varies considerably. For once, we have a credible book that attempts to answer that question with science.

Braithwaite explains why it's only been in the last decade that scientists have made headway in answering the fish pain question. She distinguishes between nociception, which is the unconscious detection of adverse stimuli by the body, and pain, which is processed by the brain and felt as suffering at an emotional level. Braithwaite discusses fish consciousness, sentience, and brain anatomy, and while she is hesitant to declare a definitive answer, she concludes, "I believe the weight of evidence now shows fish do feel pain."

Braithwaite invites bioethicists to have this revelation inform their discussions, but she does not go so far as to call for an end to fish consumption, angling, or other uses of fish. Quite logically, though, she does put the matter into perspective:
The issues and the evidence are not always black and white, which makes pain in animals a difficult topic with tricky ethical and philosophical implications. However, if we already accept that mammals and birds are sentient creatures that have the capacity to experience positive and negative emotions--pleasure or suffering, we should conclude that there is now sufficient evidence to put fish alongside birds and mammals. Given all of this, I see no logical reason why we should not extend to fish the same welfare considerations that we currently extend to birds and mammals.
One of the highlights of the book is the compelling descriptions Braithwaite offers with regard to commercial fishing. In general I've found it hard to feel sympathy for fish, since they appear to be so different than other vertebrate animals. But if you truly accept the notion that fish are sentient creatures who feel pain, then it's hard not to be appalled by some commercial fishing practices that Braithwaite describes:
  • "Long-lining fishing catches species such as tuna, swordfish, and mahi mahi. Long-lining crews set up several hundred lengths of line that can be tens of metres long. The lines, rigged with floats and hundreds of baited hooks, are left for several hours at a specific depth in the water to attract hungry fish species. Once hooked, depending on the number of lines set, the fish may have up to 10 hours to wait before they are collected in. Many fish are exhausted from trying to escape, but they are still alive as they are hauled onto the deck of the fishing vessel and then left to suffocate in the air."
  • "As the trawl net [a massive net that captures all target fish and other marine animals in its path] moves up through the water column the rapid changes in pressure cause problems for the fish. ... Without time to adjust to the decreasing pressure [of being dragged toward the surface while stuck in the trawl net], the gas-filled swim bladder typically becomes overinflated, causing huge distention inside the fish. Sometimes the pressure is so great their stomach and intestines are pushed out of their mouth and anus. Eyes can also become distorted and bulge out."
Frankly, that kind of suffering seems worse than just about any other in industrialized animal agriculture. If people eat fish and otherwise follow a vegetarian diet for ethical reasons, they might wish to consider the evidence in Do Fish Feel Pain? and take their admirable ethical position to its logical conclusion. If people eat "wild-caught" fish and think that they're sparing fish and the environment from any perils, they might want to take a closer look at the situation. I concede that my decision not to eat fish has at times been based more on routine, consistency, and idealism than on certainty in my convictions, but now it's hard to imagine ever eating fish again.