When my wife told me about the release of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, my first response was, “Fake news!”
There had been no indications I was aware of that the former owner and CEO of what had been the largest kosher meat processing plant in the country was on his way to tasting freedom. Even more, the big news of the day was the passage of the $1.5 trillion tax cut bill.
But it was indeed true: President Donald Trump, whose campaign and early actions in office have taken a decidedly tough-on-immigration stance, commuted the sentence of a man who — following the largest immigration raid in American history — was accused of falsifying paperwork to shield his largely illegal immigrant workforce.
Those weren’t the crimes that Rubashkin was convicted of, though. He had received a 27-year sentence for multiple counts of bank fraud and other financial misdeeds. It was draconian by any standard, and by virtue of questionable dealings of the prosecutor and judge, viewed by a bipartisan chorus of former Justice Department officials, attorneys and legislators as supremely unfair.
To put the whole sordid affair in context, Rubashkin’s sentence was several years longer than that meted out to Jeffrey Skilling, the disgraced Enron corporate titan.
I was overjoyed that Rubashkin, a father of 10 and a noted philanthropist in the Chabad-Lubavitch world, walked out of prison after serving eight years. Back in 2009, I had participated in the campaign to ask the judge for leniency, not because I felt that Rubashkin was innocent — I don’t — but because I believe that overzealous prosecution distorts the real meaning of justice.
As a rabbi, I also believe in tempering justice with mercy, which led me to campaign for Martin Edward Grossman, a Jewish death-row inmate in Florida whose appeals for clemency were denied. (He was put to death in 2010, after reciting the Shema.) So I am happy that Rubashkin has returned to his family and, by all accounts, is working toward making amends and adhering to the terms of his remaining sentence, which includes restitution.
Trump deserves a thank you from our community.
But many in the Jewish world have gone overboard in the wake of this commutation. I worry that in the Orthodox circles that celebrated Rubashkin’s release, the many who lionized him have indirectly taught our children that fraud is to be rewarded.
And it pains me to see fellow Jews — in the face of evidence that the Justice Department manipulated the sale of Agriprocessors, Rubashkin’s business in Postville, Iowa, in order to increase the severity of the underlying crime for which he was convicted — decry the commutation as a distortion of justice.
Rubashkin deserved punishment, and the crimes for which he was sentenced make clear he was no saint. Some have argued that what he did is along the lines of falsifying your income in order to secure credit. But that is also wrong to do.
And the case against Rubashkin was much worse: Among other things, he was convicted of falsifying invoices to perpetrate a massive $35 million bank fraud.
Rubashkin is no killer. But our tradition values truth in financial affairs just as much, if not more than, righteousness in our interpersonal relationships. In the Torah, the laws surrounding proper weights and measures refer to the one who consciously deceives as hated and equates him with a judge who purposely distorts justice.
So what message are we sending when we hoist a white-collar criminal on our shoulders? If it’s anything other than every human being is deserving of mercy, then we should be ashamed of ourselves.
Conversely, even dating to the original raid, there were those in our community who called for the book to be thrown at Rubashkin, whether because of his treatment of immigrants or his company’s treatment of the animals it slaughtered. Their argument tends to be of the “prosecute religious individuals harsher, because they should know better” variety, a grotesque double standard when considering that a man’s life and those of his children lie in the balance.
More often than not, we let the wheels of our justice system turn, rarely amassing the level of support needed to commute a sentence or lead to a grant of clemency. And that’s how it should be. But when a defendant is treated differently from other similarly situated defendants, the injustice must be fought with the same vehemence as those condemning the crimes themselves.
Fundamentally, justice is about making society whole. That may or may not have been accomplished with Rubashkin’s release, but it was a good step. Consigning him, a visibly religious Jew, to spend the rest of his life in prison when similarly-situated felons were receiving shorter terms was a stain that deserved removing.
Let’s hope that the injustices that occur daily to the immigrants who live among us in the shadows receive even more attention.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.