This week we gathered around our seder tables to recall the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Everyone has favorite parts: for some it may be eating the charoset, for others singing Dayenu, and for the children, certainly, finding the afikomen. However, I wonder how many of us spent any time considering that the profound issue at the heart of this holiday is slavery, past and present. While we may have discussed the servitude of the Jews in Egypt and their plight under the heavy demands of Pharaoh, did any of us stop to ask about slavery in the world today?
According to iAbolish, an American anti-slavery group (www.iabolish.org), there are more than 27 million human beings today in 2010 that are slaves. Modern slavery takes several forms as is explained in a slavery fact sheet put out by iAbolish. It is worthy that during this holiday of Passover that we at least open our eyes to them
Chattel slavery is closest to the slavery that prevailed in early American history. Chattel slaves are considered their masters’ property – exchanged for things like trucks or money and expected to perform labor and sexual favors. Once of age, their children are expected to do the same.
Debt bondage, or bonded labor, is the most widely practiced form of slavery around the world. Staggering poverty forces many parents to offer themselves or their own children as collateral against a loan. Though they are promised they will work only until their debt is paid off, the reality is much grimmer. Thanks to inflated interest rates and fresh debts incurred while being fed and housed, the debt becomes impossible to pay off. As a result, the bonded laborer’s children often inherit the debt, perpetuating a vicious cycle that can claim several generations.
Sex slavery finds women and children forced into prostitution. Many are lured by false offers of a good job and then beaten and forced to work in brothels. In some cases, victims pay tens of thousands of dollars to get to another country and are then forced in to prostitution in pay off their own debts. In still others, women or girls are kidnapped from their home countries. An estimated 2 million women and children are sold into sex slavery around the world every year.
Forced labor often results when individuals are lured by the promise of a good job but instead find themselves subjected to slaving conditions – working without payment and enduring physical abuse, often in harsh and hazardous conditions. Victims include domestic workers, construction workers, and even human mine detectors. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, as their constant changes of location make the organized crime rings that traffic them difficult to bust.
After reading this fact sheet I paused to contemplate anew the injunction in the haggadah, “In each generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt.” We read this but how close can we really come to feeling like a slave? Since the experience of slavery is today so distant from us, we often think about the things we are enslaved to, such as technology, our overly booked schedule, our bad habits, etc. This pales, however, when we pause to consider the reality that there are slaves in our midst.
In fact, the Justice Department conservatively estimates that there are at least 60,000 people in America living as hidden slaves and that annually 14,500 to 17,000 individuals are trafficked into the United States. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel implored us to remember, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” As Jews who read in the Torah over and over that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, we should be talking about the issue of modern-day slavery at our holiday tables and in our synagogues this week in particular, and throughout the year.
One Jewish organization involved in raising our consciousness about modern slavery is Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (www.rhr-na.org), which has embarked on a campaign against slavery. Rabbi Joshua Levin Grater in his Pesach sermon for RHR-NA implores us to contact Luis CdeBaca, President Obama’s ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking to express your deep concern about this global problem.
At about this time in this eight-day holiday, people begin to complain that they just can’t bring themselves to eat one more piece of matzoh. They’ve had enough. The grumbling in their stomachs for chametz products has begun. This year, if you hear yourself begin to intone this familiar refrain, stop and consider the millions of slaves who would give anything to live a life of freedom, a life of choice, a life of opportunities.