Naomi Graetz, the biblical scholar and author of groundbreaking books on the sources for coping with discomfiting Jewish topics like wife-beating, will talk about slavery and trafficking at the Rabbis for Human Rights North America Conference from Dec. 5 to 7 in New York. Graetz, who lives in Omer, a Beersheva suburb, was in Teaneck this week, preparing her presentation, scheduled for Monday afternoon.
Graetz explains that slavery and trafficking resonate from biblical times. Poverty and circumstance have always forced some women into the trade – where they are dehumanized. And while there are those who say prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, Graetz notes that pimps came first, and it is a very lucrative trade, indeed. According to the U.S. State Department, 12.3 million people are in slavery and forced prostitution around the world – most of them women and children. “The practice of closing one’s eyes to a social phenomenon with distressing overtones creates denial – and that prevents the establishment from responding effectively to trafficking,” she said.
Graetz’s latest work is a chapter on Jewish sources in “Global Perspectives on Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: Africa, Asia, Middle East, and Oceania,” due out from Lexington Books early next year and edited by Rochelle L. Dalla, Lynda M. Baker, and Celia Williamson. Her chapter offers a biblical, rabbinic, and contemporary overview.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that each year roughly 200,000 U.S. citizens – mainly women and children – are at high risk of being trafficked for sex. According to the United Nations, human trafficking is the world’s most organized lucrative crime, after drugs and arms-dealing. There’s also a strong link between domestic violence and human trafficking.
Said Graetz, “It is not a leap from wife-battering to trafficking, because in both cases males perceive women as objects.
“The Torah places limits on the ability of the powerful to trample on individual freedoms. It is aware of the danger of using humans as a commodity but places limits on abuse rather than totally abolishing it. Most sources condemn trafficking; some blame the poor character of the ‘fallen woman,’ the moral laxity of society, and adverse economic conditions as causes. There are also those who introduce an ethnic or cultural twist and are lax about Jewish men frequenting non-Jewish prostitutes.”
When Graetz looked at the sources she discovered good news and bad news – depending on your perspective. She told The Jewish Standard that “Jewish sources are not monolithic. Anyone who says that ‘Judaism stands for…’ is ignorant of our dialectic tradition, which began in biblical times and certainly continued through the age of the Mishna and Talmud. Still, from the human rights point of view, the sources all make it clear that there is no justification for human trafficking or slavery.”
Though the Bible doesn’t ban slavery, Graetz points out that many rabbinic sources are uncomfortable with it, as is the Bible. “That’s why we are always reminded that we were once slaves.”
But the discomfort with slavery in the sources is usually with Hebrew slaves, and not with Canaanites. “This creates discomfort for our generation,” she said. “And if you add the gender aspect, then it becomes complicated for women. An example is the case of the beautiful captive in Deuteronomy 21: 10-14, which can be read two ways – yet either way, she is treated as an object,” said Graetz.
The modern Jewish community is not interested in denials and apologetics, in her view. “It’s very important,” she says, “for us to know the roots of the tradition for good and bad because ultimately that’s where we come from, and if we try to sweep things that embarrass us under the rug, we will exacerbate these problems.”