Thursday, September 1, 2011
Postville, Iowa’s Dirty Little Anti-Semitic Secret
In a disturbing story of religious bigotry in heartland America, city officials in Postville, Iowa, were accused in a federal lawsuit of driving a Jewish businessman to financial ruin after years of anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination. The case, with its potential for bringing disgrace to Postville’s elected officials, was kept out of the headlines by an out-of-court settlement finalized this week. Gabay Menachem, a religious Jew residing in Postville, alleged that three members of the Postville City Council, City Clerk Darcy Radloff, Virginia Medberry and Jeff Reinhardt, had routinely discriminated against him and his business, GAL Investments, because of his Jewish faith. The allegations were based on hostile, injurious comments and published statements, capped by a string of unlawful actions taken by the three defendants in their roles as agents of the City of Postville. The 22-count lawsuit brought by Menachem in September 2010 represented the culmination of years of alleged bigoted behavior, as well as abusive and discriminatory enforcement of various procedures governing the provision of municipal water by City Clerk Radloff. The lawsuit alleged that Radloff manipulated the rules governing the provision of municipal water in order to allow huge bills to amass at Menachem-owned properties. Menachem suffered financially, losing many of his lenders, as the artificial debts imposed by the city were turned into liens on his rental properties. His business eventually collapsed. Despite Menachem’s numerous pleas to city authorities for help over a three-year period, the city of Postville took no corrective action and failed to discipline the city clerk to halt further abuse of power, the lawsuit charged. Under the terms of the settlement reached this week, the City of Postville paid Menachem $450,000 and agreed to send the defendants to “diversity workshops” sponsored by Iowa State University to learn about the need to respect members of other cultures and faiths. In return, Gabay Menachem agreed to drop the federal and civil lawsuits against the city and city council officials that, in addition to disgracing local authorities, could have cost the city many millions of dollars in compensation and litigation. The settlement surprised many who had advised Menachem that it would be fruitless to fight. “People told me to walk away, “Menachem told the Yated in an interview. “They said that anti-Semitic elements in the city administration were entrenched in power and I would never win. They said the lawsuit would inflame public opinion and cause even more anti-Semitism.”
Trove Of Evidence
Menachem recalled the trouble he had finding a lawyer to take him seriously. “I would bring an entire portfolio of evidence, but they didn’t even read it,” Menachem recalled. “They said, ‘Tell it to me in short.’ And they looked at me in disbelief, as if I was some kind of nut to expect them to believe that elected officials could behave this way.” After being turned down by a series of lawyers, Menachem finally met up with one who was willing to look at the trove of documentation he had compiled. Civil rights attorney David Goldman of Des Moines, Iowa, leafed through documents uncovering a long-running pattern of harassment and discrimination, buttressed by an incriminating paper trail left behind by city council members. Some of the most revealing evidence included undercover video and audio that captured pejorative comments and racial slurs against Jews uttered by council members who were unaware that they were being taped. The slurs were made to an undercover detective posing as a real estate agent who had expressed interest in doing business with Menachem. One after another, the council members tried to steer the “real estate agent” to other non-Jewish property owners.
Echoing Anti-Jewish Stereotypes
Echoing traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, the council members called Menachem “a “shyster” and painted him as a dangerous person. “When he comes in here, we have our chief of police come down,” Radloff told the undercover detective. According to the lawsuit, Radloff and other council members were caught on tape voicing anti-Semitic slurs, such as, “We wish the Jews had never come here,” and, “I wish the Jews would leave Postville.” The video transcripts of these taped conversations capture the efforts of the three defendants to poison Menachem’s reputation to prospective customers. The documentation Goldman reviewed included a taped interview with the former mayor of Postville, who quoted Radloff as saying that she would “run GAL Investments [Menachem’s business] into the ground if it’s the last thing I do.” Other documentation consisted of copies of notices the city clerk had sent Menachem of fines and taxes amounting cumulatively to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The fines in many cases were levied for fictitious charges and were eventually incorporated into liens of Menachem’s properties. Goldman took two weeks to mull the case over. If Menachem’s allegations turned out to be founded, certain individuals on the Postville city council were operating with breathless disregard for the law. Barely concealing their contempt for Jews and other minorities, they appeared to have routinely abused the power of their office to financially harm individuals they disliked. In terms of career advancement, “fighting city hall” was not a wise move for a lawyer in this conservative region. But the case was too important to ignore. “[Goldman] called me and said he was willing to take it on, but wanted to bring in a second lawyer,” recalled Menachem. “I said I was ready to do whatever it takes.”
Discrimination Began Discreetly, Then Escalated
According to the lawsuit, the campaign of discrimination had begun discreetly. City council members allegedly had first attempted to steer business away from Gabay Menachem through negative comments and slurs. The badmouthing escalated to an overt abuse of power, with the city clerk imposing unlawful fines, taxes and liens for “unpaid water bills” and other fictitious charges. The escalation of harassment followed in the wake of the 2008 ICE raid that all but destroyed Postville and the region’s economy. The government’s allegations of misconduct by Jewish owners of the plant inflamed public opinion against the Jewish residents. The formerly genteel anti-Semitism of council members morphed into something more destructive, the lawsuit charged, and Menachem became targeted in far more brazen ways. The most diabolical part of the scheme to destroy GAL Investments, Menachem’s business, revolved around the city clerk’s failure to order the disconnect water service from vacated apartments, or from apartments where tenants consistently failed to pay their water bill. According to the brief, the city clerk’s refusal to shut off water service after repeated requests to do so led to the amassing of huge bills on Menachem’s account. In a number of cases, requests to disconnect water service went unheeded for up to six months, running up tens of thousands of dollars in bills and fines. The lawsuit charged that city officials had abused their power over water service in another way - by extorting money from Menachem over the contested water bills. They refused to grant water service to Menachem’s tenants until Menachem made payments for the wildly inflated bills and then often failed to credit those payments. The campaign of harassment included targeting Menachem’s properties for unwanted snow removal services and charging staggering amounts of money for the work. A city ordinance requires a landlord to remove snow within 48 hours of the snowfall. In the case of Menachem’s properties, the lawsuit stated, city officials would rush to order the removal of snow before the required time frame. They would then bill him for the service, even though Menachem protested that they were violating the 48-hour ordinance, that he had his own snow removal equipment and had no need for the city’s services. His protests went unheard. In one case, he was charged $700 for snow removal of a single sidewalk. When he challenged the amount, he was told that the city lacked a plow and the work had to be done manually, with a shovel, which took over four hours. When Menachem refused to pay the bills, the amounts were turned into liens on his properties. Included in the lawsuit’s documentation are excerpts from published articles in which two of the council members, Jeff Reinhardt and Ginger Medberry, give voice to hostile sentiments toward the Jewish residents of Postville. In a 2003 article in the Chicago Tribune on diversity in a small town, Medberry is quoted as “bemoaning the alleged lack of civility” of the Jewish townspeople. “…In this part of the country, they are seen as rude,’” Medberry said. “They shun people and are always in a hurry. The give you the impression that they are too important to wait in line or to stop at stop signs.” “
They Dress Differently, Have a Different Sabbath…
” Councilman Reinhardt went even further. In an opinion piece in the Postville Herald-Leader, Reinhardt told readers that “diversity of values” in Postville threatened the non-Jewish population. He cast aspersions on the Jewish community for their different faith and customs, suggesting that they, along with “African-American people,” created upheavals in American cities and caused “urban blight.” “This group wants to isolate itself, by dressing differently, keeping their children out of our schools, and wanting a different day for the Sabbath. They will not eat in our establishments,” Reinhardt complained. “This diversity is a clash of values and you have choices,” he told readers, urging voters to put him in office so as not to “let other people’s customs and traditions override yours.” Medberry, Reinhardt and Radloff generated an atmosphere of hostility in which anti-Semitic discrimination was approved and legitimized, the lawsuit charged. Efforts To Resolve Issue Rebuffed The brief said that Menachem pleaded with city authorities to help him resolve his differences with the city clerk, but he was rebuffed. In desperation, he even agreed to pay thousands of dollars in bills he felt were unjust in order to keep his tenants supplied with water and his business viable. All these efforts were unavailing. City officials refused to acknowledge the continuing campaign of harassment, failed to cancel the artificial bills, ordered water service disconnected from vacant apartments, and failed to halt Radloff’s allegedly extortionist actions. As Menachem tells it, these actions eventually led to the collapse of his business, leaving him penniless and in debt. “These were people who would not yield an inch,” he told the Yated. “After years of exhausting efforts to work things out with them, they just shut down communication. They refused to take my calls. The bills, fines and liens kept growing. With the liens threatening their investments, my lenders abandoned me. I was put out of business. The city won.” Menachem and his family had moved to Postville in 2006, after a serious accident left him with a permanent leg injury. They settled in Postville, drawn by the warm and vibrant Jewish community and promising opportunities for a business entrepreneur.
Encounter With Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin
In a lengthy interview with the Yated, Menachem recalls that painful time. “I was penniless, overwhelmed by medical bills, with no one to turn to. Someone told me about a generous person in Postville, Iowa, Sholom Rubashkin, who might be able to lend me some money. “I called him and tried to explain my plight. He was in a terrible hurry and barely gave me two minutes. I hung up deflated. The next day, I received a shock. A FedEx letter arrived with a check from Sholom and Leah Rubashkin and best wishes for a refuah shelaimah. The checks kept coming - not loans, but gifts - every other week for a long time, long enough to get me back on my feet.” Eventually, with Sholom Mordechai’s encouragement, Menachem and his wife relocated to Monsey and a warm relationship with the Rubashkins developed. With funds Menachem received from insurance after the accident, he launched a real estate business. The couple had been married for a number of years but had not yet been blessed with children. They sought medical help but could not afford the expensive treatments that doctors advised them were necessary. “Sholom Rubashkin paid for those, too,” Menachem said. “His generosity was unlimited. We can never, ever repay him.” Shortly after the treatments, to their joy and that of their new neighbors in Postville, the Menachems were blessed with twins. Menachem believes that Sholom Mordechai was dealt a terrible injustice that was rooted in an anti-Semitic city council. “They helped poison public opinion against him. The fact that the city agreed in the settlement to send Reinhardt, Medberry and Radloff to ‘diversity workshops’ that promote respect for other faiths shows what this story is about at bottom,” he said. “This was a severe case of anti-Semitic discrimination that in a just courtroom would have been easy to prove,” he says. “The whole mess would have been blown open and the dirty secret that’s been whispered about for so long would be out in the open.” He was advised instead to agree to a settlement, “rather than take the case to Iowa district court, where Judge Linda Reade would have presided. After what she did to Sholom Mordechai, and the lack of any outcry in Iowa over it, who would be foolish enough to expect justice in her courtroom?”