Why is slavery still thriving?

Recently at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue we held a panel discussion about the continued existence of slavery and human trafficking in the world and, specifically, the UK. We were joined by Anthony Steen of The Human Trafficking Foundation, Professor Geraldine Van Beuren of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Brian Pomeroy CBE. I was asked to give the closing words, but due to time constraints I did not get to speak. I remember being struck by Anthony Steen’s comment that more people are trafficked today than in all the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Odd then that we pay so little attention to the issue?

Then today a story broke on the BBC about child sex trafficking and I was finally propelled to put up my short piece that I prepared for the evening last week. It follows in a few lines, but since then my colleague Rabbi Anna Gerrard also wrote about the issue  in a brilliant through for the week on Parashat Vayikra.

Other organisations that I would like to direct you towards include:

Here is my piece:

Friends, it falls to me to bring this formal component of this evening’s panel debate to an end with a few words. I’ve been asked to reflect not on ‘Why is Slavery Still Thriving?’ which has been so eloquently, passionately and disturbingly explained by our speakers this evening. Rather, ‘What we can do about it?’ In typically rabbinic fashion I want to respond with a text from a collection of Jewish teachings from around 1000 years ago. The text offers a tragic and yet comic perspective on the experience of the Egyptians of enslaving the Israelites. Behind the comedy lies a serious message that I think will be immediately obvious.

שמח מצרים בצאתם. אמר ר’ ברכיה משל לבעל בשר שרוכב על החמור חמרא מסכיה אימת יחות לי’ מיניה, ואיהו מסכיה אימת ניחות מן חמרא, כיון דנחית לי’ חדי גברא וחדי חמרא, ולית אנא ידע מאן חדי טפי, הוי אומר חמרא חדי טפי, כך ישראל במצרים, היו המכות באות על המצריים, והיו מקוים המצריים אימתי יצאו ישראל, וישראל מקוים אימתי יגאלם הקב”ה, כיון שיצאו ונגאלו, היו אלו שמחים ואלו שמחים, ואין אנו יודעין מי שמח ביותר, עד שבא דוד ואמר שמח מצרים בצאתם, אנו יודעים שמצרים שמחו ביותר.

“Egypt was glad when they departed” (Psalm 105:38).  Rabbi Berekhiah told a parable of a fat man who rode upon an ass.  The ass kept wondering, “When will this fellow get off me?”  And the man kept wondering, “When can I get off this ass?”  When he did get off, the man was glad and the ass was glad.  And we do not know which one was more glad, though you might think the ass was more glad!  Similarly with Israel in Egypt.  When the plagues came down on Egypt, the Egyptians wondered when Israel would leave and Israel wondered when God would redeem them.  When they left and were redeemed they were both happy.  We do not know who was happiest until David said, “Egypt was glad when they departed” (Psalm 105:38).  Then we knew Egypt was most happy.
(MIDRASH PSALMS 105:11) 

Let us, for a moment, reflect on some of the meaning of this midrash – which seeks to establish why a psalm in the Hebrew Bible should reflect concern for the experience or happiness of the Egyptians. We know that the Egyptians were glad to see the back of the Israelites, since the plagues were an unbearable burden, but more happy than the Israelites? You might think that the Israelites, like the ass, would have been most happy once they had been redeemed. However, shockingly the midrash suggests that it turns out that Egypt was most happy, just like our fat man.

What could this possibly mean? We cannot imagine that every Egyptian was involved in the business of managing slaves. However, the sages with remarkable insight into the life of the ‘other’, where the other is even your oppressor, imagine the harm done to individual Egyptians who are living in a society that permits, perhaps encourages, the enslavement of others. We learn that it does not matter if we aren’t the slave owner, the slave master, or slave driver. All of the population are injured – we might even say the plagues were only the visible manifestations of harm to life and society. The injury was to such an extent, dare we say in the words of the midrash, the happiness experienced in releasing Israelite slaves from their servitude is MORE positive than happiness experienced by the Israelites celebrating the redemption from slavery itself.

We are all damaged by the fact that our society and our world has a massive problem with slavery. As if principled altruism was not persuasive enough therefore, we must view our responsibility to ourselves as part of the motivation to finding a solution.

It is estimated that more than 12 million people in the world are subjected to slavery today, in spite of laws against slavery. It is estimated that up to 5000 people are trafficked in the UK at any one time. Industries affected include: domestic work, hospitality business, construction business, temporary labour and the sex trade. In other words, pretty much every aspect of day to day life leads us to be potentially supporting the keeping of slaves or coming into contact with slavery. So what can you do?

Here are some things you can do taken from the website of Rene Cassin and Antislavery International:

  • Sign Antislavery International’s Slavery-Free London 2012 Pledge and encourage your friends and family to do the same.
  • Measure your slavery footprint on the Rene Cassin website and support companies who subscribe to ethical guidelines
  • At work, encourage your company to adopt a responsible business practices policy.
  • Donate to relevant charities or organisations.
  • Offer to mentor people who have been the victim of human trafficking and need help rebuilding their lives and accessing the right support.
  • Join the campaign to regulate pay-day loan lenders.

If you:

  • Celebrate Passover, you can also read Rene Cassin’s Haggadah Companion around your seder table this year.  It will inform you and the other participants at your seder about the facts and give you a greater insight into our slavery and human trafficking campaign.
  • Ask questions when you shop. Does your local retailer stock fair trade products? Use your consumer power to show you care – for example buy fair trade marked products and other similar ‘kite marked’ products.
  • For retail chains or companies for which you are a shareholder or with whom you pension is invested, write a letter to the company headquarters asking what measures the company is taking to identify, prevent and end the use of forced labour and slavery in their supply chain.
  • When you use the hospitality industry or other industries in which enslavement is common, ask questions before you accept or pay for the services. If the person you ask does not know, then ask higher up.

I know I could live in blissful ignorance to the plight of slaves because they are people who I do not see, they do not appear in a stereotyped guise of a slave in chains. They are often invisible workers who provide all aspects of the comfortable living to which we’ve become accustomed and plenty of the less savoury parts of labour that we may never come into contact with too. But it would be outrageous to ignore the reality, I hope, as a result of this evening, you feel the same.  For in the words of the Hagadah mentioned at the start of the evening by Rabbi Wright, from which the impulse to know what it means to be enslaved and to be freed:

‘In each and every generation, the individual must see themselves as if they were the ones who actually went out of Egypt’.

Now is the time to do something about it.

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