A Second Chance

Several people in Israel asked why we traveled there. We simply replied that we were curious. One of the driving forces for me was the need to see whether God’s “Chosen People” were any different from the ultra-Orthodox community of Hasidic Jews living in Postville, Iowa. I was hopeful because the u-O community in Postville gave me a negative first impression. I wanted to give them another chance.

A town of just over 2,200 people, Postville was known for Agriprocessors, the largest Kosher meat packing plant in the US. The plant, managed by an u-O Jew, has an ugly story. Agriprocessors was repeatedly charged with illegal practices, involving: violations of environmental, food safety, and child labor laws; animal abuse; and the recruitment of undocumented immigrants to be paid illegal wages to work in hazardous work conditions that often violated human rights. It did not shed a positive light on the u- O Jewish community. The plant was all over the news in May 2008 when ICE (U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement) conducted its largest immigration raid in history, arresting around 400 undocumented workers. These workers (mainly Guatemalans and Mexicans) were either deported or detained. This traumatizing event threw the Postville Community into a state of emergency.

Through Camp EWALU, a teaching practicum, and my senior research project, I have spent some time in Postville. I’m interested and invested in this unique small town, and continue to wonder how the diverse community will ever overcome the tension and heartache. My bitterness toward the u-O community in Postville came to a head when I attended the one-year anniversary of the ICE raid. At that point, there were still several Guatemalan men who were being detained to take part in trials. There were also several Guatemalan women being treated as criminals, forced to wear the electronic ankle bracelet that served as a GPS tracker to make sure they didn’t escape. At the memorial service, a Jewish rabbi stood before the hundreds of gathered souls and apologized for the atrocities that had occurred under a Jewish man’s watch. The problem was…. when I looked around the room, there was not a SINGLE u-O Jew present (You can spot one by what they wear) and this detail spoke volumes to me.

I will be frank: I was judgmental and felt the u-O Jews had let a critical moment to show some compassion slip away. I believed their lack of presence demonstrated that they were not sorry for what had happened and that they were clearly not interested in standing in solidarity with those whose lives had been ripped apart. That somehow, as God’s “Chosen Ones”, they were superior beings who were above the law and that they viewed immigrants as dispensable workers who could be exploited for their benefit.

So to Jerusalem we went in hopes of finding a different reality. Turns out the u-O are not very popular in the Holy Land either. While traveling around Israel, people would ask us what we thought of Jerusalem (where most u-O live). They expressed their negative views of the u-O, explaining how they didn’t care for their conservative ways, especially their oppressive treatment towards women, including calling for stricter gender segregation. One Jewish man in Tel Aviv even said that he HATED Jerusalem. Other points of contention are that the u-O Jews are not required to serve in the military like the rest of Israelis and that the government provides them with welfare subsidies so the men can study the Torah instead of work (the u-O average eight children/ family; perhaps welfare is the government’s way of guaranteeing the Jewish population grows and doesn’t get outnumbered – by Arabs, cough, cough – in the future).

While we were there, the Israel president was calling for Israelis to rally against u-O extremism. The BBC posted stories about u-O violence aimed at secular Jews near Jerusalem. We were appalled to hear that u-O men have made it a habit to line up outside of a secular Jewish school to harass and throw rubbish at school children and their parents as they walk home from school – because the children do not dress conservatively enough (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16335603 ). As this community continues to grow at an alarming rate, we were left wondering what it means for Israel’s future. How long will the u-O get to maintain these privileges before there’s a greater outcry? This country already operates as if the world is out to get them; what will happen if tension within drives them apart? Perhaps they need to build another wall…

Comments are closed.