NEW YORK — People who do bad things should be punished. It is something we learn in our schools and teach in our synagogues.
But as Jews, we are often conflicted when one of our own commits a crime. While a sense of community may give some the urge to protect a community member, we are embarrassed that the crime has come from someone who carries a Jewish identity. And we are steadfast that those responsible must face the same punishment as everyone else. Advocating for or even anticipating anything less would send the wrong message about our community.
That is how we have behaved in recent years, taking the lead in criticizing the actions of Bernard Madoff, among others, responsible for high-profile financial malfeasance. And, likewise, many Jews have had little sympathy for Sholom Rubashkin, the executive at Agriprocessors, the kosher meat processor in Postville, Iowa, who was accused among other things, of employing illegal immigrants and who was convicted last year of 94 counts of bank fraud.
Yet at the same time, we must be careful not to allow our visceral anger over someone who has yet again embarrassed us to prevent us from seeing true injustice being done, or to be afraid to speak out when it happens.
The Jewish community has been too quiet in recent months as prosecutors and the government have treated Rubashkin in a manner inconsistent with how it has treated others convicted of comparable crimes. Now that prosecutors are seeking life in prison for Rubashkin’s bank fraud conviction (the immigration charges were dropped), we must truly pause to reflect whether the punishment fits the crime, and whether we need to speak out. (A sentence hearing was held in late April, in the U.S. District Court. Judge Linda Reade is expected to make her ruling on May 27.)
Rubashkin has been denied the most basic of humanitarian and religious accommodations and has repeatedly been targeted by prosecutors seeking to justify the way they woefully disrupted a community and the kosher meat industry through their heavy-handed tactics.
What Rubashkin did was wrong. He was convicted of inflating invoices and submitting them to his bank, in order to receive more money in loans to operate the business. But we must remember that Agriprocessors continuously paid interest on these loans, and the bank actually earned $21 million from the interest payments. The bank lost money only after Agriprocessors was forced into bankruptcy, after the government raided it with Blackhawk helicopters and 600 federal agents in May 2008.
Rubashkin deserves to be punished. And his punishment should be in line with that of those convicted of similar crimes and who have done comparable damage. For instance, Enron’s former CEO Jeffrey Skilling, whose crimes were arguably far more damaging, got 24 years in prison. And Mark Turkcan, the president of the St. Louis bank whose crime caused nearly $25 million in losses, was sentenced to just 366 days in jail.
But a sentence of life in prison is unbelievably outrageous, and inconsistent with others convicted of similar crimes, who have received probation or about a year in jail. Perhaps prosecutors are aiming high, with the goal the judge will sentence Rubashkin to “just” 20 years in prison.
It is just the latest example of him being treated inconsistently compared to others accused of similar crimes, and the Jewish community should be asking questions. This is the same prosecutor who convinced a judge that Rubashkin was a flight risk before trial because of Israel’s right of return. Under this condition, aren’t all Jews flight risks? The Jewish community, including the Anti-Defamation League, rightly spoke out against that injustice.
And even though the ruling was overturned on appeal, and Rubashkin complied with every criteria of his bail, he is locked up today before sentencing, scheduled for next week, once again deemed a “flight risk,” only this time without explanation. The court refused to allow Rubashkin to go home for Passover seders, even though the Iowa prison where he sits is ill-equipped to meet his religious needs.
We must put aside any personal dislike toward Rubashkin and Agriprocessors, see what is being done to him at this moment and ask, “Is it fair? Is it right? And isn’t it our duty as a community to stand up and speak out when injustice is done?” We have a proud history of speaking out when injustice is being done to those outside of our community. Why cannot we do the same when it is one of our own?
We have done this before. Jews have come to the aid and defense of Jonathan Pollard, not because they believe he did the right thing, but because we truly believe he has been treated unfairly by our justice system, and that the punishment did not fit the crime. Rubashkin is no Pollard, but the similarities in how they have both been treated unfairly are striking. Once again, we are looking at a Jewish man being treated in a way different from everyone else, and it is time for us as a community to ask for answers.
(Jeff Stier is chairman of the board of Jewish International Connections, NY, a community for Jewish internationals living in New York. This column previously appeared in The New York Jewish Week.)