- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster,
Today marks 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which would liberate more than 3 million black slaves in the United States. In the Proclamation, he wrote “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” In freeing slaves in the rebelling states, Lincoln invoked moral authority that went beyond American laws to divine authority. To invoke God was no small matter—at that point in history, religious leaders (both Christians and Jews) fell on both sides of the debates over slavery. The Bible permits slavery—and also uses the Jewish experience of slavery as the basis for justice and compassion for the most marginalized members of society. By claiming divine authority for freeing the slaves as an “act of justice,” Lincoln left no doubt about what he felt was the correct interpretation of biblical intention.
While legal slavery not longer exists in the United States, forced labor is still a fact of life. Cases of human trafficking have been found in cities across the United States, both among migrant workers and American citizens, in industries ranging from domestic labor to farm work to forced sex work. Workers are held through debt to their employers, coercion and fraud, and threats of violence to themselves or their loved ones. Many of the people I meet assume that slavery is a crime committed by others, but the reality is that forced labor is found in the supply chains of products we buy every day (such as tomatoes, cotton, or chocolate), making each of us complicit in the system. Jewish tradition holds the buyers of goods known to be stolen to be as culpable as the thieves, since the buyers provided a market for the thieves, and today that translates into our own personal responsibility for the slave-made goods we buy. After all, someone must be paying a price for the cheap costs of every day goods—but we choose to swipe our credit cards and not ask any questions.
It should not be this way. For the Jewish community, the Jewish journey to freedom from slavery—our story of emancipation that we tell every year at Passover—is the foundation of Jewish empathy for the plight of those in the most vulnerable situations. We cannot be silent in a world where 21-27 million people find themselves held in forced labor, more than any other point in human history.
One successful campaign to end forced labor is right in our own backyards in Florida, where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has helped law enforcement prosecute seven human trafficking cases, involving over 1,000 workers, since 1997. Slavery in the Florida tomato industry is the extreme end of a violence-filled, exploitative workplace. Indeed, one federal prosecutor called Florida’s agricultural sector “ground zero” for human trafficking in the United States. The CIW’s groundbreaking campaign, initiated and organized by the farmworkers themselves, is to end the conditions that create slavery, targeting growers to institute a human rights code of conduct in the fields (which includes zero tolerance for forced labor) and targeting the corporate buyers of tomatoes to only buy from growers with a code of conduct and to pay a higher wage directly for workers. The CIW is making a difference, and can serve as a model for bringing together workers, corporations, and consumers to act for justice.
Right now, the Jewish community is in the midst of the High Holiday season, where we repent for our actions in the past year and commit to acting more righteously and compassionately in the year ahead. Our tradition teaches that repentance, prayer, and acts of justice can affect our fates. When we commit to justice, we commit to breaking the cruelty that exists within the world, transforming it into compassion. But true justice can be hard to achieve, especially on an issue like slavery and trafficking, where we often feel powerless.
We are not powerless. We can make a difference. In the fight against slavery, the focus is often on education and awareness, but this is not enough. We must raise our voices and let our politicians know that the United States must recommit to putting resources into ending trafficking. On October 11, 2011, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) expired in Congress.
The TVPRA is the cornerstone of all U.S. efforts to combat modern-day slavery, including protecting survivors, and prosecuting traffickers. Every few years the law needs to be reauthorized, allowing innovations and improvements to be added to the original law.
Why is this law so critical? Here is just one example: in 2010, a woman had been enslaved for 18 years as a domestic servant in Saudi Arabia where she endured beatings and sexual abuse. Her traffickers brought her with them on vacation to the United States on a B-2 visa. When she received this visa, the U.S. consulate provided her with a pamphlet about human trafficking with a number to call for help. She was freed three days after she arrived in Los Angeles because she called the number in the pamphlet and was connected to a local service provider, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). This pamphlet was the direct result of the TVPRA.
The failure of Congress to reauthorize the TVPRA threatens U.S. global leadership in the fight against modern-day slavery and jeopardizes the progress made over the last decade. There is still a chance that the Senate will take up the TVPRA before this session of Congress ends. Visit http://www.passtvpranow.org and find out how to take action. Take 30 seconds to call your Senator and ask them to support the TVPRA.
As we celebrate 150 years of Lincoln’s act of justice, we should each commit to one of our own to fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is Director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.