The former CEO of the Agriprocessors kosher meat company in Postville, Iowa, is slated to be sentenced next week for bank fraud and other charges, and federal prosecutors are apparently seeking a life sentence.
The May 2008 raid by federal immigration officials on the Iowa plant blew the top off what many in the Jewish community saw as unethical and inhumane practices at the nation's largest kosher plant. The case sparked widespread soul-searching and helped launch a national movement toward more comprehensive ethical standards surrounding the practice of kashrut.
Hundreds were arrested; the company was effectively destroyed; and Rubashkin was accused of a host of improprieties, including the hiring of illegal workers, abusive practices, and drug- and gun-running operations. But ultimately, Rubashkin was prosecuted for none of those alleged crimes. Instead, a South Dakota jury convicted him in November of 86 federal charges, including bank, mail and wire fraud; money-laundering; and failing to pay livestock providers in the time required by law.
His most ardent supporters, particularly those in the Chabad Lubavitch world from which he comes, have launched an intense media and online campaign for leniency. Some are suggesting that seeking a life sentence for the 51-year-old father of 10 smacks of anti-Semitism.
Some Jewish organizations and religious freedom advocates worry that such a harsh penalty — ostensibly required by federal sentencing guidelines for the counts of fraud involved — would make Rubashkin ineligible for a correctional facility that can accommodate the religious needs of observant Jews.
But the real question is whether a life sentence would be grossly disproportionate, a punishment that doesn't fit the crime.
The situation calls to mind the case of Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. navy analyst who was sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel. While his actions were widely reviled in the Jewish community, a consensus has long since emerged that Pollard's life sentence was unique and excessive, and the time for a pardon is long overdue. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the Orthodox talk-show host and author, summed up a widespread sentiment regarding Rubashkin when he wrote this week: "Obviously, the Rubashkin story has been an enormous embarrassment to the American Jewish community in general and Orthodoxy in particular.
"Rubashkin is no hero. Whatever the nobility of his intentions (he was widely known for his philanthropy), he is a poor example to religious youth. His behavior must and should be condemned. He has been found guilty of a crime and he must do the time.
"But the time Rubashkin serves must be fair and just."
Let's hope that's the case.