This Week In Torah
More emancipation to be done
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Thanks to the thirteenth amendment, our country, like every other country in the world, legally cast down the barbaric practice of slavery. Our ancestors had to endure this hardship for generations in ancient Egypt, only to finally be emancipated in this week’s parshah, Bo. What required human endurance and help from G-d in ancient times, we along with numerous other nations brought to fruition through activism and outreach which culminated in legislation. We like to believe that we have left our abominable past behind, but a global problem persists.
Today, there are an estimated 12 to 29 million people worldwide who are wrongfully enslaved. According to the 2013 Global Slavery Index, 10 countries contain 76% of the total enslaved population; India (14 million), China (2.9 million), Pakistan (2.1 million), Nigeria (701,000), Ethiopia (651,000), Russia (516,000), Thailand (473,000), Congo (462,000), Myanmar (384,000), and Bangladesh (343,000). We consider someone in slavery if she/he is:
- forced to work;
- owned or controlled by an “employer,” typically through mental abuse, physical abuse or the threat of abuse;
- bought, sold or traded as property rather than being treated as a person;
- unable to leave, either by having restrictions placed on their freedom of movement or by being physically constrained.
The terms used to describe these people’s condition may have changed, but the underlying situation has not. In places like India and Pakistan, millions are trapped by debt bondage, which happens when a person needs to take out a huge “loan”, which is designed to have the person work to pay it off. Of course, the loan is also constructed to make it impossible to do so. In India and China, women who are unable to support themselves can be bought as brides, commonly by older men. These women are made to serve their husbands, which often breeds sexual, verbal and physical abuse. In West Africa, Mauritania is renowned for having the largest percentage of its population (4%) enslaved due to the old caste system that is in place, despite the government denying this. The system in place is highly similar to what was in the United States prior to the Civil War. In wealthy countries like the U.S. people are brought over as prostitutes, or convinced to migrate with promises of wealth, only to have their documents taken and forced to work under the threat of violence to them or their families.
The previous situations tend to affect adults, both younger and older, but children are not exempt from enslavement. I remember walking the streets of Ourossogui and Matam in northeastern Senegal, and saw many young boys going from person to person with their colorful pails, begging for money. These children, called talibe, were sent to study at a daraa (Koranic school) and are made to beg to sustain themselves and their teachers. Often, a talibe is beaten by his master if he is unable to meet his quota. Because of their schooling and forced begging, talibe are ill equipped to contribute to society once they are out of school. By our definition, talibe are suffering from child slavery.
We as Jews are all too familiar with the pains of slavery. While it is in our distant past, we retell our tale of liberation from the bondage of slavery every year at our seder table. Even though it was thousands of years ago, we continue to retell the Exodus story because of the importance of freedom and human dignity that it embodies. Because of our shared history, we have a responsibility to do our part to eliminate slavery so that everyone may live their lives with dignity.
This begs the question, what can we do? From harvesting raw materials like cocoa, fishing and cotton farming, to the manufacturing stage like with our cell phones and t-shirts, to the final stage when products reach the market, there is evidence that slave labor can be a part of most any section of the supply chain. Since our goods are the results of a huge number of producers, distributors and retailers, it is very hard to figure out if a particular product was produced through slavery. As such, a boycott on certain items isn’t effective, and could have the opposite effect by increasing the poverty in affected areas, thereby increasing the likelihood of slave labor.
Instead, we can join Pope Francis in speaking out against modern slavery and participating in organizations that focus on this issue. For more information on how to help, visit one or all of these three resources.
- “Free the Slaves” – https://www.freetheslaves.net/ Focused on world-wide slavery, this website has lots of information on slavery and efforts we can take to abolish it.
- “Anti-slavery International” – http://www.antislavery.org/english/ For 175, years, Anti-Slavery International has been fighting slavery across the world. It’s inexpensive to become a member, and they provide multiple opportunities to get involved regardless of membership.
- “National Human Trafficking Resource Center” (NHTRC) – www.traffickingresourcecenter.org As the name implies, the NHTRC is focused on human trafficking in the United States. Their mission is “to provide human trafficking victims and survivors with access to critical support and services to get help and stay safe, and to equip the anti-trafficking community with the tools to effectively combat all forms of human trafficking.”
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה
lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libatel mimena
“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”
Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:16
Cantor Rick Lawrence
 13th amendment. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiii
 Forced labour, human trafficking and slavery. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2015, from http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm
 Millions in modern-day slavery, half in India: Survey. (2013, October 17). The Hindu. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/world/millions-in-modernday-slavery-half-in-india-survey/article5243964.ece
 What is Modern Slavery? (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2015, from http://www.antislavery.org/english/slavery_today/what_is_modern_slavery.aspx
 (“Millions in modern-day slavery, half in India: Survey”, 2013)
 Dhaliwal, S. (2003, August 18). Bride-buying an old practice in north India. Tribute India. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.tribuneindia.com/2003/20030818/main8.htm
 Hodal, K., Kelley, C., & Lawrence, F. (2014, June 10). Revealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UK. The Guardian. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jun/10/supermarket-prawns-thailand-produced-slave-labour
 Slavery and what we buy. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.antislavery.org/english/slavery_today/slavery_and_what_we_buy/default.aspx
 Krever, M. (2014, December 2). Pope Francis: Modern slavery is ‘becoming worse and worse every day’ CNN. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/02/world/europe/pope-modern-day-slavery/
 Quotation take from website