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Jewish women and the fight against sex trafficking

The New York Times Magazine is tackling sex trafficking and other despicable abuses against women in their "Saving the World's Women" issue.  Lately I have observed a steadily rising cultural awareness of sex trafficking, and thank goodness.  Sex trafficking is an uncomfortable issue, and historically, many have chosen to ignore it rather than face the unpleasantness of dealing with it. But it seems that things are changing, and thanks to the efforts of high-profile people like Hillary Clinton, Americans are gearing up to tackle this global issue. I think the Jewish community needs to join this campaign. Think sex trafficking isn't a Jewish issue? Think again. 

You might be surprised (I was) to learn that Jews, at one point, engaged in the business of sex trafficking.  You might not be surprised, however, to hear that strong Jewish women were the ones who were able to overcome the shame and stigma associated with the issue, and initiate effective rescue and prevention work.

I have heard many Jews brag about the history of the "Jewish mafia" because it's "cool" and helps to break down the image of Jews as victims.  But the reality of the Jewish underworld is not something to be proud of.  In the second half of the 19th century in Eastern Europe, Jewish criminals joined the sex trafficking business, preying upon the poor Jewish women of their own communities.  They often used newspaper ads for jobs, promises of immigration certificates, or marriage proposals to lure and kidnap young women. 

What's worse was the response of the larger Jewish community during this period. At a time when anti-semitism was increasing throughout the world, reports of Jewish sex trafficking was not "good for the Jews."  Jewish communities ignored this embarrassing problem until newspaper reports forced them to acknowledge it.

Who finally spoke up against sex trafficking?  A few brave Jewesses, that's who!  Women like Constance Lady Battersea Rothschild of Great Britain, Bertha Pappenheim of Germany, and Sadie American of the United States, influenced Jewish women in other countries to join the struggle against trafficking in the Jewish world, despite opposition from community leaders who were "repelled" by the subject. This is especially impressive considering that during this period women had few political rights and their ability to influence was confined to volunteer work and women’s organizations.  However, the cooperation of women’s organizations in Great Britain, Germany and the United States regarding sex trafficking contributed to the establishment of international Jewish women’s organizations active in Łódź, Cracow, Riga, Latvia, Hungary, Warsaw, and most places where women were at risk. Thanks to the efforts of these women, thousands of young Jewish women were saved from prostitution.

This is a moment for Jewish women to follow in our fore-mothers' footsteps. Once again, we must take up the fight against sex trafficking.

To learn more about the history of sex trafficking in the Jewish community, click here.

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1 Comment

Unfortunately, sex trafficking is "Jewish problem" not only historically but also today in Israel. The UN Refugee Agency calls Israel a "destination country" for women and men who are brought in for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. I think sex trafficking should be an issue for Jews no matter where it takes place and whether Jews are involved, but it's a particularly pressing responsibility for Jews when it's taking place in Israel.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Jewish women and the fight against sex trafficking." 21 August 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 16, 2018) <>.


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