Area Chabad and Young Israel synagogues are encouraging their members to sign a petition imploring the U.S. Justice Department to show evenhandedness with Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of the Agriprocessors plant in Iowa that was the site of a massive immigration raid two years ago.
The petition, hosted at www.justiceforsholom.org and addressed to U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose in the Northern District of Iowa, states that “Sholom Rubashkin has been treated harshly and vindictively in a prosecution that is likely to go down in history as a shameful permanent stain on American Justice. You have an opportunity today to correct the course that this case has taken by directing that Mr. Rubashkin be treated no differently in the Northern District of Iowa than similar defendants have been treated in other federal jurisdictions.”
The petition had garnered more than 24,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
Rubashkin was convicted in November on 86 out of 91 fraud charges and awaits sentencing. The petition, organized by a committee including members of Rubashkin’s family, alleges that Rubashkin has been singled out for unfair treatment that includes the denial of bail while awaiting sentencing and a harsher sentencing request from the prosecution than for those convicted of similar crimes.
Prosecutors have asked for a life sentence, according to Nathan Lewin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer representing Rubashkin who is not connected to the petition. Agreeing with the petition’s claim, Lewin said his client is being treated differently from any other defendant in these circumstances.
“The prosecutors in Iowa see this as a high-profile case and they can make a career out of it,” Lewin said.
The petition has drawn support from a number of Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Rabbinical Council of America, and Chabad.
Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, forwarded an e-mail to his membership during Pesach, shortly after receiving a request from Chabad’s main office in Brooklyn. Despite some misconceptions, Simon said, the petition does not argue Rubashkin’s innocence or plead for leniency or to have his conviction overturned.
“It’s saying he should be punished according to the law of the land,” Simon said. “Let him be punished but let him be punished the same as others have been punished.”
That Rubashkin has been denied bail because he’s considered a flight risk to Israel is disconcerting, according to Simon.
“To say that somebody should deserve a different standard of justice because he is a Jew is something we should be concerned about,” he said.
Rabbi Michel Gurkov of Chabad of Wayne said that his members’ response to the petition has been generally positive. A number of people are upset about the circumstances surrounding the case, he said.
“It’s beyond our understanding why the prosecution is demanding such stringent punishment,” he said.
Gurkov also expressed worry that this case could set a precedent for other high-profile Jewish individuals facing criminal charges.
“The thought itself is very disconcerting,” he said.
Repeated calls to the Justice Department’s Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison – which the petition directs people to call to voice their concern – were met with either a busy signal or a recording that the office is receiving a high volume of calls.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, cited a handful of immigration raids at Swift & Company meatpacking sites in Colorado that rounded up more than 1,300 illegal immigrants as evidence of the disparity in Rubashkin’s treatment. The leadership of Swift was not treated as harshly as Rubashkin, according to Lerner. None of the company’s leaders was charged and the one union representative convicted of harboring illegal immigrants received a sentence of one year and a day.
“The bottom line is something doesn’t make sense here,” Lerner said. “He committed a crime, we accept that. The issue is the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”
Federal authorities launched investigations into the Agriprocessors plant after a May 2008 immigration raid. After a month-long trial, a jury convicted Rubashkin last year on a range of fraud charges, money laundering, and failing to pay his suppliers. A week later, federal prosecutors dismissed all 72 immigration charges against Rubashkin because he had already been convicted of the more serious fraud charges.
“This is not a Madoff story. It’s not somebody who lined his pockets for wealth,” said Rabbi Neil Winkler of Young Israel of Fort Lee, who has not yet distributed the petition among his congregants but plans to speak about it soon. “It’s proper for every Jew to seek equal justice for Sholom Rubashkin, which is what we’re asking for.”