Austrian politician probed for publishing hook-nosed banker caricature

Prosecutors in Vienna are examining the recent posting of an allegedly anti-Semitic caricature on Austrian politician Heinz-Christian Strache’s Facebook page.

The page featured a caricature depicting an obese, hook-nosed banker wearing star-shaped cufflinks. Strache leads the rightist FPO, Austrian Freedom Party

“There is no decision yet to start a criminal investigation regarding the publication, but we are looking into it and will decide whether such an investigation should be opened,” Thomas Vecsey, a spokesperson for the Vienna Prosecutor’s Office, told JTA.

If initiated, the investigation would focus on suspicions of hate speech.

Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish community of Vienna, in a news release accused Strache of disseminating anti-Semitic, 1940s-style propaganda. The release described the star-shaped cufflinks on the banker’s sleeve as Stars of David.

In response, a posting on Strache’s Facebook page said the cufflinks were diamonds and that one needed to be “fairly paranoid to see a Star of David in that shape.” Interpreting the hook-shaped nose as Jewish “is in fact anti-Semitic, and we reject this,” the post read.

The caricature shows the obese banker eating food that a waiter labeled as “the government” puts before him. An emaciated third character labeled as “the people” sits beside the banker with just a bare bone on his plate.

Strache and other FPO lawmakers have frequently faced accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“The FPO and Strache are experts in deflecting accusations of anti-Semitism,” Ilja Sichrovsky, the Austria-born secretary general of the Muslim Jewish Conference, an interfaith organization, told JTA. “What is certain is that it was insensitive of Strache to place such a caricature in light of Austria’s history with the vilification of Jews in caricatures.”

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Dec. 16-24, 2010

THU | DEC 16

Iranian American comedians Maz Jobrani and Michael perform during “An Evening of Fun and Laughter” at Nessah Synagogue. Proceeds benefit the synagogue’s preschool and teen club. Beer, wine and refreshments served. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $95 (VIP), $65 (regular), $35 (students). Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400.

FRI | DEC 17

A university secretary is drawn into espionage and a love triangle when her Polish Security Service fiancé pressures her to become the lover of a well-known Jewish professor with suspected anti-communist ties in “Little Rose.” Set against the backdrop of an anti-Semitic campaign launched by Polish communists in 1967, co-writer and director Jan Kidawa-Blonski shows how a totalitarian regime can crush the human spirit in one’s own home just as surely as on the streets. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (seniors). Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 478-3836.

SAT | DEC 18

Shelley Adler, a former Jewish Journal production designer; producer Eve Brandstein; and mixed-media artist Michael Knight take part in an artists’ talk at The Artists’ Gallery in Santa Monica. After sharing their insights, you can peruse the artists’ exhibitions. Adler’s “New Work” transforms old snapshots into paintings, Brandstein’s “Word Forms” places poetic text around paintings of the human face and body, and Knight’s “Border Crossings” mixes hand drawings and monoprints to create “digiglyphs,” a term he coined. Sat. 3 p.m. Free. TAG Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., D-3, Santa Monica. (310) 829-9556.

SUN | DEC 19

Jeanie Buss — Lakers executive vice president, daughter of team owner Jerry Buss and longtime girlfriend of coach Phil Jackson — discusses and signs copies of her recently released memoir, “Laker Girl,” for Shomrei Torah Synagogue’s Men’s Club. New York Times best-selling co-author Steve Springer, a former Los Angeles Times sportswriter and Shomrei Torah congregant, will appear with Buss. Sun. 9:45-11:45 a.m. Free. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 348-5821.

The Jewish veterans featured in the documentary “About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of World War II” escaped Nazi Germany for the United States and Great Britain only to return to their former home to fight fascism in the European theater. Join filmmaker Steven Karras and executive producer Michael Berenbaum, director of American Jewish University’s Sigi Ziering Institute, for a screening of the film and a discussion about Karras’ book, “The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II.” Sun. 4 p.m. $10. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1548.

MON | DEC 20

Learn about the Shanghai Ghetto through the documents and photographs from one family who fled Austria for China during World War II. Charles Millett, who grew up in the Shanghai Ghetto, leads an in-depth exploration of his family’s collection. Mon. Noon-1 p.m. Free. Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 S. The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.

Comedian Sarah Silverman, author of the best-selling memoir “The Bedwetter,” hosts an evening of stand-up comedy with Dax Shepard, Chelsea Paretti, Jeffrey Ross and a special musical guest. Mon. 9 p.m. $25. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350.

THU | DEC 23

“One of the biggest challenges facing a parent and a grandparent today is the uncertainty whether our children will continue to follow in the ways of Judaism, in the Derech Hashem,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, Orthodox Union’s West Coast director. The 20th annual Orthodox Union West Coast Torah Convention, “Keeping Our Values for the Next Generation,” features a variety of distinguished speakers addressing values — as they relate to daily life in schools, homes, shuls and the community — at numerous local synagogues during the four-day regional event. On Thursday, a plenary discussion at Beth Jacob Congregation focuses on “Keeping Our Kids and Grandkids on the Derech.” OU President Stephen J. Savitsky speaks Friday night as part of a panel, “Defining Our Values – The Effect of Polarization in the Jewish Community,” at Congregation Mogen David. On Sunday, a closing session at Young Israel of Century City features Savitsky with Rabbi Shaul Robinson and Journal senior writer Julie Gruenbaum Fax addressing “The Future of Orthodoxy.”  Thu. Through Dec. 26. Various times and locations. (310) 229-9000, ext. 200.

Party like a rock star with more than 1,200 young Jewish professionals during The Ball 2010 at The Colony, which raises money for The Guardians. Thu. 8 p.m.-2 a.m. $30 (advance), $40 (door). The Colony, 1743 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles.

FRI | DEC 24

Make a love connection amid the old Tinseltown glamour of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel as JDate and Stu and Lew Productions brings you the 17th annual Schmooz-a-Palooza. The Erev Christmas event also features an earlier three-course kosher-style Shabbat dinner at the hotel’s Public Kitchen and Bar (separate admission). Fri. 8 p.m.-2 a.m. $30 (general), $100 (VIP), $125 (VIP with table/bottle service). Dinner: 6:30 p.m. $45. Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.

Orthodox rabbis: Agriprocessors Iowa kosher plant passes muster

NEW YORK (JTA)—Organizers of a delegation of Orthodox rabbis say the Iowa meat-packing plant raided by federal immigration authorities in May bears no resemblance to its image as a place where safety lapses are routine and workers allegedly are abused and underpaid.

Some 25 rabbis went to Postville, Iowa, last week on a visit paid for by Agriprocessors, the slaughterhouse’s owner, and coordinated through the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue association.

In the course of their one-day visit, the rabbis toured the plant and met with its recently hired compliance officer, the mayor of Postville and a Presbyterian minister.

Some of the rabbis also met with representatives of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which has taken the lead in ministering to families affected by the raid.

“At this point I don’t see any reason why someone should not buy things from Agriprocessors,” Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Illinois and the president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, told JTA.

“They run a very impressive operation. They’re very dedicated to making sure that everything is being done in the most appropriate way possible.”

The visit is the latest effort by Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States, to reassure kosher consumers and revive its public image. Its image has taken a drubbing since authorities arrested some 400 illegal workers May 12 in what the government describes as the single largest immigration raid in American history.

In the raid’s aftermath, employees have unleashed a flood of allegations against their former employer, charging that they were subjected to harsh working conditions and sexual abuse, among other complaints. The company has denied the charges.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Labor Commissioner announced that he was turning over the results of a months-long investigation of child labor allegations at Agriprocessors to the Iowa attorney general for prosecution. The commissioner, Dave Neil, described the alleged violations as “egregious” and urged the state to prosecute the violations “to the fullest extent of the law.”

Agriprocessors responded by saying it was “at a loss to understand” the labor commissioner’s referral. It noted that the company cooperated with the investigation and claimed the government denied requests to identify underage workers so they could be terminated.

“The government’s press release does not state that the company knowingly hired underage workers,” the statement said. “The company asks the public to keep an open mind and wait for the evidence before making any judgments about these, or any other, allegations.”

To date, no senior managers have been charged with a crime, though a grand jury investigation is ongoing. Two supervisors have pleaded guilty to assisting illegal immigrants in the procurement of false employment documents and a warrant is outstanding for a third.

While the visiting rabbis were careful to point out that they have no personal knowledge of what transpired before their arrival, they expressed confidence that current conditions at the plant contrast with its checkered reputation.

Participants told JTA there were no restrictions placed on where they could go in the plant and with whom they could speak. Several conducted their own interviews with employees, who reported that they were treated well and were provided with ample safety training.

“I was shocked when I walked into that plant because I was expecting a lot worse,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the executive vice president of National Council, told JTA. In a statement, Lerner referred to the plant as a “Cadillac.”

In the eyes of the company’s critics, and even some Orthodox rabbis, the fact that Agriprocessors paid for the trip renders the whole enterprise more than a little suspect. Lerner was outraged by the suggestion that the rabbis’ impartiality might be compromised.

“Give me a break,” Lerner said. “To impugn the integrity of 25 people is out of line.”

But Maury Kelman, a lawyer and Orthodox rabbi who has led congregations in Israel and New York, said that Jewish law insists that rabbis involved in such matters do everything to avoid even the perception that their judgment could be compromised.

Neither of the council’s two news releases regarding the trip disclosed that Agriprocessors had footed the bill for the rabbis, though it was reported in the media.

“If they’re going and being paid by Rubashkin, then that should be forthrightly disclosed—not that if somebody asks them, they should only acknowledge it then,” Kelman said.

“It’s very important if rabbis are going that things look totally above board, and that it’s 100 percent clear that the desire is to do the right thing and not just the expedient thing. If somebody’s being paid, you’re beholden to them. Halacha is very clear about this.”

The rabbis were criticized as well for not meeting directly with former workers, who have lodged the harshest complaints against the company, though they did meet with one of their advocates, Paul Rael, the director of Hispanic Ministries at St. Bridget’s.

Lerner said his group was expecting to speak with the workers and was surprised to see that none were present for the meeting.

The rabbinic delegation, which dwindled to four for the late-afternoon meeting with Rael, sought to establish itself as a conduit between the church and Agriprocessors to discuss outstanding issues.

Rael told JTA he was “absolutely” ready to open a dialogue with the company, while Chaim Abrahams, an Agriprocessors representative, said the company was “considering” the suggestion “in a positive light.”

Regarding past allegations, Lerner said he had asked that a file be prepared of worker complaints and that he would take up the issue with Agriprocessors. But Lerner stressed that the main issue now should be how to move forward.

Rael said he won’t be ready for that until various issues, like employee back pay, are worked out.

“The minute that I got through giving my little dialogue, they said, ‘That’s the past,’ ” Rael recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, but the past is what created the problem.’ If their intent is to move forward, I can’t move forward until this issue is totally, totally done.”

Agriprocessors tries to clean up its act

POSTVILLE, Iowa (JTA)—It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Monday and about 60 people are milling around outside Jacobson Staffing, the national employment firm contracted by Agriprocessors to replace hundreds of workers lost in a May 12 federal immigration raid.

They are hoping for jobs at the nation’s largest kosher meat-packing plant.

One woman chats in Russian on her cell phone. Thirty Somalis, the women in traditional dress, huddle under a shady tree. A group of young white men, most of them locals, sit apart from half a dozen African Americans who arrived the day before on a temp agency bus from Indianapolis.

Agriprocessors is hurting. According to Chaim Abrahams, an executive acting as company spokesman, the plant lost the majority of its workers after the raid. Nearly half of the plant’s 800 employees were arrested for working without documentation, and many others “disappeared in fear,” he said.

The company, which until May supplied the bulk of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of its kosher poultry, has been trying desperately to replace those lost workers, offering higher wages and working through employment agencies across the United States in an attempt to return badly damaged production levels to normal.

The tour revealed many empty workstations inside the plant, and more than a few beards and side curls on the assembly line, belonging to rabbis pressed into emergency service.

“To the media, this looks like a for-profit company on one side, and on the other side, individuals who are hurting and suffering,” said Abrahams, as he conducted a two-hour tour of the plant for a reporter. “But the company is also hurting and suffering. We are not able to keep up production levels and reach out to our customers.”

Nearly three months after the raid and six weeks before the busy High Holidays season, kosher butchers and restaurant owners in the United States still report higher prices and irregular supplies of meat and poultry. Some critics charge that these reports are being exaggerated to increase sympathy for the company among kosher consumers worried about their dinner tables.

Agriprocessors is under fire for a litany of complaints ranging from labor violations, including underage employees, to workers’ claims of physical and financial abuse. The plant had been cited for state and federal labor violations before the raid, including inadequate safety precautions.

Although two supervisors have been indicted, the plant’s owners and top management have not been charged.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Labor Commissioner announced that he was turning over the results of a months-long investigation of child labor allegations at Agriprocessors to the Iowa attorney general for prosecution. The commissioner, Dave Neil, described the alleged violations as “egregious” and urged the state to prosecute the violations “to the fullest extent of the law.”

The company maintains its innocence. The owners—the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn, N.Y.—have been instructed not to speak about the case.

The tour makes it clear the company is trying to clean up its act. New workers are vetted through E-Verification, a federal system that checks work eligibility and legal status. Signs to that effect are displayed prominently throughout the plant, and those showing up for work are quick to tell reporters they have all their documents in order.

The plant is immaculate, with no discernible smell other than chlorine. Health and safety measures, including yellow chains separating raw food from ready-to-eat products, are conspicuously in place.

Agriprocessors is pouring money into new equipment, including an automatically timed salting and soaking process that went online a couple of months ago. New workers say they are receiving their overtime pay, in contrast to workers before the raid who say their pay stubs were doctored.

Some new workers, however, tell reporters their paychecks show unexpected deductions; several of those workers have since quit.

“Did you see a dilapidated, old plant?” asked Agriprocessors founder Aaron Rubashkin, who called to follow up after the tour.

“Did you see rabbis abusing anyone with a meat hook?” he continued, referring to one of the more egregious allegations of worker abuse from before the raid.

The employment campaign is bearing fruit. Hopeful workers are pouring into town, from Somalia and Krygystan, from Chicago and elsewhere in Iowa, all lured by the $10-an-hour wages, plus time and a half after 40 hours and raises for experienced workers. That’s significantly more than the $7 to $7.50 hourly wages paid before the raid and more than these workers say they can make at home.

“My buddy started last week, and he’s already making 16 bucks an hour,” said one young man from a neighboring town.

A Chicago man, who answered an online ad placed by a temp agency in Indianapolis, signed up for a 60-hour workweek and is looking forward to the overtime.

“I just had my interview, and I told them I’ll chase ‘em, I’ll cut ‘em up, whatever they want,” he said.

Like some other new workers this man, who declined to give his name after Jacobson representatives told employees not to speak to the media, said the temp agency made certain promises that have not panned out.

“They told me I’d pay $100 the first week for housing, and $60 a week after that, but the company told me today I have to pay $100 every week,” he said.

His pay is deposited directly into a bank account, and he is charged $5 for each withdrawal, according to a withdrawal slip he presented for inspection. He says he was told he must withdraw that $100 every week and pay it back to his temp agency in cash.

Rubashkin dismissed the man’s complaint, suggesting that he “is free to take a bus home, no one is forcing him.”

But the man is eager to work and has no intention of leaving. Although he “feels bad” about the Mexicans and Guatemalans he has displaced, the man said, “business is business”—a comment with which Rubashkin himself might agree.

Some locals say the arrival of this new group of outsiders has disturbed the delicate social balance finally negotiated in this small town of 2,500 residents, which before the raid included about 1,000 Hispanics, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, and 500 Chasidic Jews from Israel and New York. The plant is by far the town’s largest employer.

That fragile modus vivendi “was blown apart” by the May 12 raid, said Jeff Abbas of KPVL-FM, the town’s feisty independent radio station. And locals are holding their breath at the sight of so many new foreigners in town, hoping early reports of increased crime will settle down.

The organized Jewish community mostly has stayed away from Postville. The only Jewish aid that has come to the hundreds of former employees and their families was a truckload of food and about $20,000 raised by a handful of Jewish social justice groups. Agriprocessors itself handed out boxes of meat and poultry to some of the affected families.

Many of the arrested workers, who never met a Jew before coming to Postville, blame all Jews for what has happened to them.

“They abused me, I didn’t like them,” said one Mexican woman, a former worker at the plant who was arrested in the raid and now wears a GPS monitoring bracelet on her right ankle, unable to work or leave town as she awaits her Oct. 14 court date.

But she and others interviewed were happy to see more than 400 Jews come to town from Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul for a July 27 interfaith service, march and rally on their behalf. She listened to the pledges of support rabbis and leaders of the sponsoring Jewish groups made that day, and she takes their words seriously.

“I believe they will help us,” she said.

Conservatives release guidelines for ethical kashrut certification

NEW YORK (JTA)—The Conservative movement released a

Synagogues ‘On Guard’ for Holidays

Sinai Temple in Westwood has spent at least $365,000 annually on increased security since Sept. 11.

"That’s just for my manpower, to have bodies here when the building is open," said Howard Lesner, the Conservative synagogue’s executive director, who gleans the extra security budget from a post-Sept. 11, $36-per-student fee at Sinai’s day school and another $200-per-family temple fee.

With 1,500-plus families and 5,000 people expected there for the High Holidays, Sinai joins other local Jewish institutions with expanded security following early August’s heightened terror alert and reports of increased Al-Qaeda activity, including surveillance of prominent buildings in New York and Washington, D.C.

"Anxiety is in the air," said Jane Zuckerman, executive director of the 900-family Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, which Zuckerman seeks to make not a bunker but just "a secure facility but still be welcoming to those who wish to pray."

Balancing security and Jewish communal life will see synagogue executive directors, pulpit rabbis and other Jewish institutional leaders meet Aug. 30 to discuss High Holiday security.

"I don’t expect my rabbis to be concerned about the [nuts and bolts], said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis referring to the nuts and bolts. "But it is critically important that our rabbis and agency executives be acquainted with the highest levels of law enforcement."

Southern California’s Jewish institutions remain on a continual security footing. At the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said the high-profile organization’s "same vigilant security" continues regardless of terror alert levels. The University of Judaism regularly works on security with both the nearby Stephen S. Wise Temple and the Casiano Bel-Air Homeowners Association.

But the terror alerts have what Sinai’s Lesner calls a, "yo-yo effect" of expanding security staff because no single terror alert has, "lasted for more than two weeks."

Zuckerman said one problem with widely publicized terror alerts is that, "we have information overshare; years ago, there might have been threats, but we didn’t know about it."

Synagogues also find metal detectors impractical.

"It would slow things down so tremendously," said Lesner, whose shul has new digital, color security cameras.

The Board of Rabbis is co-hosting the invitation-only Aug. 30 meeting with the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Expected to attend are Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

"Obviously the point is to allay fears as best we can," said AJC L.A. office executive director Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who wants more support for the AJC’s new security program SCAN (Secure Community Alert Network), an electronic notification system for Jewish institutions. "It’s not local yet, but it’s going to be introduced over the next couple of months."

At both Sinai Temple and Temple Israel, security means there is one sidewalk and one car entrance; with the exception of its popular "Friday Night Live" singles events, Sinai requires all bar mitzvah and wedding guests to be on a list. Security also is integral to the design of Jewish buildings — The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters has huge, potted sidewalk trees that act as both decor and security barriers — and at outreach events to the non-Jewish community. When 20 L.A.-based diplomats this spring took the AJC’s six-hour trip through Jewish Los Angeles, the diplomats’ tour bus was shadowed by an unmarked police car.

Terror alerts aside, it is not foreign terrorists but homegrown fanatics who may attack a shul.

"Al Qaeda is not interested, I don’t think, in Sinai Temple or other synagogues," Lesner said.

Aug. 10 was the fifth anniversary of Aryan Nations member Buford Furrow’s shooting rampage, which in 1999 left a Filipino American postal worker dead and five people injured at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills.

Federal agents learned that Furrow, now serving life in prison without parole, targeted the center only after he studied the Simon Wiesenthal Center and deemed it too hard to attack.

"His first, intended goal was to attack us," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, adding that dozens of law enforcement personnel are at the center and its Museum of Tolerance every day for tolerance education. "We’re not a soft target."

Diamond said Jewish institutional security requires prudence to avoid spreading hysteria.

Said Temple Israel’s Zuckerman, "We can do what’s reasonable. For some people, we can’t do enough security. I see that older people, feeling vulnerable in general, would like to see more security. And then also parents with small children, who are in general just terrified by what’s going on."

But with ongoing anti-Semitism — such as the desecration of Jewish graves this summer in New Zealand’s historically tranquil capital of Wellington — Cooper said, "there’s no need to be paranoid because the threats are serious."

"Take the basic, serious measures; know who’s coming into your building," said Cooper, whose advice to worshippers at shul is, "They should close their eyes at prayer, and keep them open on their way in and out."