Enslavement: In Noah’s time and ours

Enslavement: In Noah’s time and ours

Consultant, Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission, Conservative

No sooner have we read the majestic opening chapter of Bereshit, and the more complex story of the  Adam and Eve family, than we hear God’s resolve to “bring ruin upon… all the earth.” The reason for this drastic response: “Now the earth had gone to ruin before God, the earth was filled with wrongdoing. God saw the earth, and here: it had gone to ruin, for all flesh had ruined its way upon the earth.”

Our medieval commentators identify this ruining of the proper way as sexual immorality or idolatry. But these terrible crimes against God were not sufficient, according to the Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108a. What sealed the fate of the generation of the flood was the ‘wrongdoing’ (hamas). Rashi, following the Aramaic Targum, identifies this as robbery (gezel). The characteristic of this kind of stealing is taking by force. Rabbi Yohanan points out that this shows the terrible power of robbery, that it brought about the destruction of all life.

If robbery is so great a crime, it would seem that there would be no greater crime than robbery of one’s own person. Today, in every country in the world, people are stolen by force, compelled to do someone else’s work. This crime is slavery. It is also known as human trafficking. It is a crime on par with that of the generation of the flood. It cries out for us to take action.

Yet how can it be that this crime, which imprisons some 27 million human beings today, is all but invisible to us? Where is it hiding?

It is really all around us. Occasionally an occurrence is picked up by the media. On October 16 the FBI freed a 16-year-old girl from White Plains, N.Y. who had been trafficked since she was 13. Eighty two children in all were rescued, and 239 traffickers and their associates were arrested. In Canada, authorities recovered 16 children, while in Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines, 25 children, including a 2-year-old girl, were recovered.

This is the daily reality for millions, especially women and children.

Even less well known is that the majority of trafficking in persons is labor trafficking. Men, women, and children are forced, often sold, into working in inhuman conditions, for less than subsistence wages that will never enable them to escape their situation. The best known industries employing slave labor are coffee and chocolate. But many others use the same methods. Fishing is another industry that is prone to abuse.

The total income to traffickers worldwide is estimated to be $150 billion per year.

With such a huge payout, what can individuals hope to do to combat this staggering crime, which deprives people of all but their very humanity?

The first important thing to do is to learn about human trafficking today. One of the most respected organizations is Polaris (polarisproject.org) which works to rescue trafficked people and gathers information on trafficking in the U.S. and worldwide. It also operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-3737-888). There is also a great deal of information, including relevant sources from a variety of religions, and a full curriculum based on Jewish sources curated by Rabbi Debra Orenstein, at www.freetheslaves.org.

One of the populations most at-risk for trafficking is runaways. It is estimated that between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away from their homes each year in this country. November is National Runaway Prevention Month. There is a toolkit available at the National Runaway Safeline (www.1800runaway.org) and support is available there at 1-800-RUNAWAY.

The federal government issues an annual report about human trafficking around the world, including many powerful personal accounts by survivors (http://www.state.gov/j/tip/).

We can also learn about our own “slavery footprint.” This refers to the number of enslaved human beings whose labor sustains our lifestyle. It is uncomfortable to realize that the cheap prices for food and all manufactured items that we all desire are affordable because, down the production line, someone is sorely underpaid. You can get an idea of what it takes to provide your quality of life at www.slaveryfootprint.org.

There are also actions we can take. One is to purchase food and products that are certified as Fair Trade. This is particularly important in buying chocolate and coffee products. Look for the Fair Trade seal on the package. Fair Trade Judaica (www.fairtradejudaica.org) is the place for kosher (including Kosher for Pesach) Fair Trade products and educational material.

There is also important legislation that can directly affect the lives of trafficked people and survivors. You can support laws that remove punishment for trafficked people arrested for prostitution and related offenses. For a state-by-state rundown on legislation for trafficked people go to http://www.vsconfronts.org/state-guide/.

In Noah’s world, the only solution to the depravity of widespread robbery was nothing less than the ruination, the destruction, of almost all life. If we multiply that theft by millions of innocents, who themselves are stolen, robbed of their youth, their independence, and far too often, their lives, we can barely imagine what might be in store for our world, if we fail to act. There will always be those who oppress the vulnerable. We have the opportunity to be like Noah, righteous, or at least righteous enough. We can act now to learn about this most pernicious crime, and to take steps to help free and support those who are most vulnerable or have already been ensnared by exploiters and abusers. Let ours be the generation that puts an end to the ruinous crime of human enslavement.

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