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Pesach, modern slavery, and freedom in Israel

Thousands of prostitutes will remain trapped in a modern form of enslavement until buying sex is criminalized

Spring has officially arrived: flowers are in bloom, coffees are best served iced and outside, and the annual scramble to prepare for Pesach is in full swing. While everyone has their own way of celebrating the holiday, most Jews will dedicate at least one night to retelling the story of Pesach and remembering when we were slaves in Egypt.

Since its founding, Judaism has insisted that Jews not only practice its traditions but engage with them as well. This is particularly evident during Pesach when Jews go to great lengths to relive their history – eating bitter herbs to remember the pain and sadness of slavery and lounging on cushioned chairs to revel in freedom. Yet, despite these helpful traditions relating to the experience of slavery is difficult for many.

Most people tend to think of slavery in a historical context and as something far removed, but slavery persists among us. The United Nations estimates that 27 million people are enslaved worldwide, meaning that now there are more people living in slavery than at any other point in human history. Although slavery has been outlawed in every country, there isn’t a country in the world free of it – including Israel.

According to an estimate by Physicians for Human Rights, Israel is home to 7,000 victims of human trafficking who have been kidnapped and held in Sinai torture camps. They are tortured until a ransom of $20,000 to $30,000 is paid, at which point they are released on Israel’s border. Once they arrive in Israel they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because they are heavily in debt and lack legal status. There are also several hundred foreign workers, who though they migrated to Israel legally, are working in Israel under slave conditions. Finally, there are 15,000 people, mostly Israelis, enslaved in Israel’s sex trade.

Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s Israel was a major destination country for sex trafficking. During this period an estimated 3,000 women a year were trafficked into Israel and sold into prostitution. Traffickers took advantage of poor women from poor countries, and promised them jobs as au pairs, waitresses, and medical masseuses. However, upon arriving these women were stripped, inspected, sold to the highest bidder, and locked in apartments until they had serviced enough sex-buyers to pay back “their debt.” Thankfully, Israel has nearly eradicated this form of sexual slavery.

Where Israel has fallen short is in addressing sex slavery that does not involve trafficking. Similar to sex trafficking victims, prostituted persons are members of marginalized populations and are targeted because of their vulnerability. Many are homeless adolescents and people from backgrounds of sexual, physical and emotional trauma. Oppressors employ a combination of abuse and false promises for stability, security, and love to draw them into the sex trade. Moreover, women and children in prostitution, regardless of whether they have been trafficked or not, are exposed to extreme physical and emotional violence, regular sexual assaults, and sexually transmitted diseases. This results in depression, disassociation, and a rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as high as that of combat veterans.

Currently in Israel there are an estimated 15,000-prostituted persons, 5,000 of whom are minors, and the average age of entrance into prostitution is between twelve and fourteen. Even more troubling is that prostitution is legal, meaning that Israel has failed to recognize it as a form of modern slavery.

Pesach is a particularly appropriate time to consider questions of slavery, and indeed people are thinking deeply about Israel’s prostitution laws. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) has been urging the Knesset to adopt legislation criminalizing the demand of sexual services and decriminalizing the seller since 2008. This May she will be reintroducing the legislation. The legislation is based on the Nordic Model, which strives to eradicate prostitution by targeting the demand for it. Countries that have adopted the Nordic Model have seen a significant decrease in all forms of prostitution.

This Pesach Israel is on the verge of adopting the Nordic Model and becoming an international leader in the fight against sexual slavery. Hopefully the Knesset will take time during the holiday to reflect not only on the Jewish history of slavery of oppression, but to think about the bondage that thousands of Israeli women and children are living in. Pesach is the celebration of the freedom that the Jewish people were granted, and advocating for the freedom of others is the best possible way to rejoice and observe this holiday.

Click here to check out The Task Force’s guide to discussing and addressing modern slavery this Pesach!

About the Author
Rebecca Hughes is a project assistant for the Task Force on Human Trafficking of ATZUM - Justice Works
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