Our role in the fight against human trafficking
Wikipedia is good for a lot of things – namely, wasting time. Many a night, I’ve been sucked into the never-ending loop of links, clicking through to the next page and the next page and the next page as I put off work or avoid going to bed at a reasonable hour.
Recently, though, Wikipedia led me to discover a new cause, one that I’d heard of before but rarely thought much about. As I clicked through to the Wikipedia page for Bethany Joy Galleoti, star of the CW’s long-running drama “One Tree Hill” (don’t laugh at me!), I learned that Galleoti is involved with a non-profit organization called Love146, whose mission is to help end child sex slavery and exploitation. I immediately read up on Love146 and made a donation to support its work.
Since then, I’ve been doing my research on human trafficking, and the information to be learned is horrifying – a tales of women and children lured into the United States under the pretenses of finding a better life and pursuing the Hollywood-depicted American dream, only to be forced into labor, servitude and prostitution.
Traffickers prey on hope, fraudulently promising their victims jobs, homes and easier lives once they cross the border into the U.S. – but upon their arrival, the reality is very much the opposite. In every sense of the word, these trafficked women and children become modern-day slaves, bound to their traffickers by fear, violence and lack of resources. Their possessions are taken and their passports hidden, these trafficked women and children make little to no money and are thus at their traffickers’ mercy for food and shelter, often suffering physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their captors. Because many of them enter the United States illegally, at the hands of their traffickers, they are at risk of imprisonment and deportation should they manage to find their way out of captivity; often, traffickers terrorize their victims with threats of violence against their families should they attempt to fight back or escape.
Behind drugs and arms, human trafficking the third largest criminal enterprise in the world. In 2004, the Department of Justice estimated that between 14,000 and 17,000 individuals are trafficked into the United States every year, though the statistic is constantly being revisited and revised, and some estimates place that range as high as 18,000 to 100,000. Trafficked men, women and children they are typically undereducated, illiterate and from lower to middle classes of society, often in rural areas of Asia, Africa and South America. The UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking reports that estimated global annual profits made from the forced labor of trafficked persons are $31.6 billion.
Flor, a young woman who was lured into the U.S. at the promise of a job as a seamstress, was trapped in a “job” at a workshop she was never allowed to leave. When she finally escaped with the help of a kind coworkers and an undercover FBI agent, she began telling her story far and wide, now acting as a spokeswoman about human trafficking and serving on California’s human trafficking task force. “What she have done to me is not right,” Flor told the Jewish Journal of the woman who trafficked her. “Because no human is created to be in slavery. I want to tell her and all traffickers around the world, is not nice because we are created equals, and we have the right to be free."
Perhaps surprisingly, Jews have a history with human trafficking – not as the trafficked, but as the traffickers. In the early 1900s, Jewish mafioso lured unmarried or widowed Jewish women using newspaper advertisements that promised jobs, immigration certificates and marriage proposals. Once these women took the bait, they were brought into Jewish prostitution rings in Eastern Europe and trafficked across the world to far-away places like Rio de Janeiro, Constantinople and New York. A few courageous Jewish women banded together to rally the community to oppose Jewish involvement in sex trafficking and to overcome the stigma of what was viewed as community-wide participation in this abhorrent practice.
The highest percentage of human trafficking within the U.S. happens in California, where Jewish organizations and congregations have come together in a notably concentrated effort to raise awareness around the issue and encourage social justice-minded Jews to take action to put an end to it. Moved by stories like Flor’s and the horror of billions of people worldwide forced into labor and sexual exploitation, rabbis and Jewish activists hold panels and information sessions to explain the dangers and realities of human trafficking – and to frame it as, indeed, a Jewish issue, not just historically but morally.
Exodus 23:9 reads, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Of course, we know what “strangers” means in this case – we were, of course, slaves in the land of Egypt. Using this passage as guidance, perhaps Jews have an obligation to view human trafficking as an intolerable assault against our values. Noted Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer once said, “Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. And above all, thou shalt never be a bystander.” Using his words as guidance, there’s no question that it is.