“Trafficking, Through a Jewish Lens” by Ruth Messinger and Jody Jacobson

Reference: Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility

Over the past few years, a growing number of Jewish social justice groups have developed a keen interest in the issue of human trafficking, an issue that has become more prominent due to increasing attention by the Bush Administration and the U.S. Congress, the media, international development and human rights groups, and other religiously affiliated groups, particularly evangelical Christians.

Human trafficking is in effect a modern form of slavery. The United Nations defines trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat, or use of force or other forms of coercion…[to achieve] control over another person for the purpose of exploitation.”*

Trafficking in persons takes many forms. The U.S. State Department, in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, defines nine “severe” forms of trafficking in persons, including forced and bonded labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude among migrant laborers, involuntary domestic servitude, sex trafficking, and various forms of exploitation of children for labor, soldiering, or commercial sex. Trafficking is different from (though in some circumstances it may be related to) “people smuggling,” which occurs when persons voluntarily pay others to ferry them across a border, such as in the case of the well-known “coyotes” that operate between Mexico and the U.S.
Individuals and communities are vulnerable to trafficking and subsequent enslavement because they already live in conditions of economic and social marginalization so desperate that they are subject to and willing to believe promises made by traffickers of a better life elsewhere, irrespective of the lack of evidence for these promises or the trustworthiness of their credentials.

Such examples include an impoverished Filipina, seeking to provide a better life for her family, who is convinced to travel to the Middle East on the promise of good pay, only to be trapped involuntarily as a domestic servant far away from home and with no one to secure her rights. Or a wife so conditioned by social mores of marital subservience that she is in effect trafficked into prostitution by her own husband. Or children sold into slavery by parents in India (or Thailand or Vietnam) desperate to feed their family through the sale of one girl or boy to a “businessman.” (These parents are given a false promise that s/he will be well-cared for and able to send money back home, when in reality that child is forced to work in factories under slavelike conditions.) Or, as in a story recounted by an AJWS grantee, a woman sold by her parents for a “temporary marriage” to an Arab Sheikh visiting India on business; she is taken as his wife to another city, then in a matter of weeks is abandoned, divorced by a man she never knew but unable to return to her original home.

Human trafficking is a “Jewish” issue because it resonates within the Jewish community, linking us to our own long history of enslavement and oppression, of being forced to act in accord with the wishes and intentions of persons with greater power. This issue is relevant both at home and abroad; trafficking plagues both the U.S. and Israel (see essay by Rahel Gershuni) as well as countries in the more “distant” developing world. Questions have been raised, for example, as to whether some of the workers embroiled in the recent controversy surrounding abusive labor practices at Iowa-based Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat processing plant in the U.S., are victims of trafficking, contradicting the very principle of kashrut.

We are linked to modern trafficking and slavery by our history of slavery and challenged — through the obligations of tikkun olam and pidyon shivuyim (freeing of slaves) — to act on behalf of others enslaved, whether they are “strangers” or members of our own community. The mandate to remember our slavery in Egypt, recounted in the Pesach story, teaches that there is little worse for human beings than being denied control over their own lives.  These obligations and the tenets of Jewish law and practice make trafficking an issue the Jewish community should not ignore.

As horrific as the realities of trafficking may be, there is no simple solution to this highly complex problem. Trafficking has become a politically charged issue; the definitions of trafficking and strategies to eradicate it are often highly contested, and some strategies are more clearly linked to other political agendas than to the real needs of trafficked persons.

How big is the problem? Data cited by the U.S. Department of State put the number of persons trafficked across national borders annually at 800,000 (a figure not including the millions trafficked within their own countries). These data, however, are highly contested. A 2006 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report criticized the Department of State’s methods of collecting data and questioned its conclusions, as have many independent researchers. In fact, conducting research on trafficking is challenging at best — definitions lack consistency, the lack of standardized data collection techniques are few, and accurate data collection and documentation of such underground criminal activity is difficult.

Data collection is also compromised when police and other government authorities are themselves complicit in trafficking and, for the right amount of “under the table” payment, look the other way. And in a political climate where an “illegal immigrant” is subject to summary deportation, victims of trafficking are more likely to hide than to reveal their situation, so reporting is difficult. Although it’s clear that those accused of trafficking in the U.S. should be prosecuted, it remains unclear whether trafficked persons have any rights in their country of residence. Do they receive health care and needed social services without retribution? Or are they deported irrespective of their wishes to desperate circumstances in their own countries?

Laws and policies based solely on “victimhood” and those that “blame the victim,” also make the problem harder to solve. Trafficked persons are victims of a crime, and they must be seen as individuals with basic human rights and with the agency to make decisions for themselves. In some settings, for example, and under current U.S. law, all commercial sex workers are defined as “victims of trafficking” irrespective of why or how they came to be engaged in sex work and whether or not they choose to leave sex work of their own volition. More globally, policies that identify all sex workers as victims of trafficking have justified “rescue and rehabilitation” strategies in countries such as India, Thailand, and Vietnam, even though human rights advocates report that some such rescue attempts effectively incarcerate women in rehabilitation camps, taking away their rights to freedom of movement, ties with their children and community, and any form of agency to make choices about their fate.

Because trafficking has its roots in economic and social deprivation, it is critical to understand and address both the symptoms and the root causes of the problem. Effective strategies require understanding vulnerability to trafficking in the same way we have come to understand other issues of global concern. Gender-based violence, for example, is at once a legal and a public health problem, but also one rooted in deeply-held social mores governing power relations and gender roles in society and in the economic disparities between women and men. Setting up shelters and legal clinics for victims of gender-based violence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for addressing this problem. We must go further. Likewise, creating legal frameworks and rescuing trafficking victims in tandem with human rights principles are necessary but not sufficient steps toward ending this problem.

The obligation to act on behalf of others who are enslaved is not in question. But how we, as Jews, act — based on which definition and evidence of the problem we are trying to solve and in whose name — is still unclear. Our obligation to tikkun olam requires us to challenge our assumptions and understand and address these issues in their totality in the historic struggle for freedom from slavery.

*United Nations, 2000, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.


Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (shma.com), Vol. 39, No. 653.