Robert Festenstein

Slavery is not a matter of history

Passover is the time of year when Jews remember how they were slaves to the Pharaoh in Egypt and how through God’s efforts, they escaped from slavery to the promised land.  The story of Passover is told in a book called the Haggadah.  I remember when I was a child I had an American Haggadah which dated from the 1960’s and spoke of when a Jew saw someone being persecuted, they went to their aid, since all good Jews remembered what it was like when they had been enslaved.

That message resonated with me. It was to be reflected in the Jewish contribution to the civil rights movement in the USA and also the anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa.  When the Black Lives Matter protests got underway in the USA and here in the UK The British Board of Deputies, the country’s leading Jewish representative body announced a commission on racial inclusivity in the Jewish Community. It went on to propose a programme to deal with unconscious bias.

Worthy though these initiatives are, they are both missing the ugly contemporary truth, it seems to me, that in the same way, the statue wreckers are also culpable when they demand the re-writing of history so as to apply modern attitudes to a 17thCentury world.

That truth is that today, slavery is alive and well. In all the demands I have seen for history to be re-written, nowhere have I seen anything about combatting the grim reality that permeates through Africa and across the world.  In an article in the Guardian Newspaper in February 2019 it was reported that the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation estimated that over 40 million people are still enslaved to a greater or lesser extent. This includes an enforced work regime, sex work, forced marriage or wholesale slavery where someone is bought and sold.  The figures are unreliable because of the difficulty in collating figures in conflict areas or where data is hard to establish such as the Gulf States.

Instead of acting now., we are at risk of being swept along with the current agenda which is to concentrate on past conduct and re-write history, Action now means the Jewish Community as part of its ethos including the eradication of modern slavery.  This requires facing some harsh truths starting with the fact that slavery is not the preserve of the white man as currently presented.  Inter-tribal conflicts in Africa and around the world mean sadly that slavery is colour blind. We need to flight it on that basis.

If our experience in the land of Egypt has taught us anything, it is that release from bondage needs an outside force, whether it be heavenly or human.  The response of the Jewish Community needs to be outward facing, not introspective. This is the direction that should lead the way in campaigning for the eradication of the horror that has not gone away.

About the Author
Robert Festenstein is a solicitor based in Manchester with considerable experience in Court actions. He is active in fighting the increase in anti-Semitism in the UK and is President of the Zionist Central Council, an organisation devoted to promoting and defending the democratic State of Israel.