in this issue
In this Issue
where to buy us
wingate literary prize
contact us

Alefs in Wonderland
UK Jewish Film Festival
Jewish Book Council
Nextbook: A gateway to Jewish culture, literature and ideas
Institute for Jewish Policy Research
Jewish Community Centre for London
All About Jewish Theatre
Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and culture
European Association for Jewish Culture


Tikkun Olam

Healing the world through social action

Various  |  Spring 2008  -  Number 209


A Jewish View of Slavery

Traditional Judaism does not believe in absolute human freedom. The exodus from Egypt was not an end in itself; rather, the purpose of being released from slavery was the freedom to worship God. In biblical Hebrew, the word for worship has the same grammatical root — a-v-d — as that for a slave. The Israelites went from being Avadim b’Mitzrayim (slaves in Egypt) to Avdei HaShem (servers of God), and through this identical etymology, the Bible is intentionally contrasting subjugation to Man with subjugation to God; the first is cruel and immoral, while the second is lauded as the religious ideal.

Subjugation by man and subjugation by God are distinguished by the essential quality of the authority. God is the source of all creation and the arbiter of justice so it is appropriate to submit to his will. Human power and dominion, on the other hand, is always relative, so there is no justification for slavery; no human has the right to enslave another for none has absolute authority.

It is interesting that the Torah did not ban slavery. Within a just few months of leaving Egypt, the Israelites are at Sinai and learn God’s laws regarding the ownership of slaves (Exodus 21:1-11). Why is this not outrageous? Avoiding apologetics, the fact remains that these laws describe something very different from slavery as we know it. They refer to a kind of indentured servitude in which both parties have rights and responsibilities. A deeper appreciation of this model could help to address the global problem of corporations whose abusive treatment of their employees has the hallmarks of enslavement.

Dr Raphael Zarum, Chief Executive and Senior Lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies (

Sex Slavery in Israel

In 2006, the United Nations named Israel as one of the main destinations in the world for trafficked women. During the last two decades, an estimated 3,000 women a year were trafficked into Israel to work in the sex trade, mainly from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Until 2000, there was no legislation to prevent this; it was easier to smuggle people than arms and drugs. The first anti-slavery laws introduced were hard to enforce, and it was only as a result of external pressure that Israel was forced to address the issue. Israel has consistently been identified as an offender in the annual US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. Although only one woman was found to have been trafficked from the FSU in 2007, last year’s Report stated that while Israel was making ‘significant efforts’ to eliminate trafficking, it still did not ‘fully comply with the minimum standards to do so’.

There remains an active sex industry in Israel, with the female workers enslaved within it often the victims of very harsh treatment — methodically stripped, examined and sold. Recently, sex workers have been trafficked from China and there are cases of Israeli women being trafficked internally between cities, as well as Israeli women exported out of Israel to Canada and Ireland. Many of the women trafficked into Israel are smuggled over the border from Egypt by Bedouins, along the same routes used to smuggle drugs and arms, and have their passports confiscated by those in charge Although foreign women who land on Israeli shores are able to access support networks, those that are trafficked internally — often Israeli women with drug addictions — are unable to receive the same level of assistance. Today, there are more Jewish prostitutes than non-Jewish.

Although prostitution is legal in Israel, pimping and brothels are not. There are as many as twenty people in the chain from recruitment to sale. There are no statistics to suggest that certain communities in Israel are more likely clients of prostitutes than others. In religious areas there are more religious users of brothels and in south Tel Aviv, around the Yaffo area, there is a higher percentage of Arab users.

With thanks to Nomi Levenkron, Migrant Worker’s Helpline, Israel

Why slavery exists

It is estimated by the U.S. government that somewhere in the region of 800,000 people — approximately 80% of whom are female and up to 50% are minors — are trafficked across international borders each year, with many more sold inside their own countries. They are then coerced into indentured service or bonded labour.

Responsibility for the existence of slavery rests with state bodies. This is the result of inadequate legislation, limited institutional capacity or corruption — all of which prevent the proper enforcement of anti-slavery laws. In other cases, the state may be unable to protect its citizens due to armed conflict or because it wields insufficient power at local level.

Globally, the main sectors of employment using forced labour are agriculture, construction, domestic work and hospitality, and there are also a significant number of child soldiers. Human trafficking is possible because complex immigration and labour regulations mean workers are often unaware of their rights. Without the relevant language skills, even those entitled to work are unable to demand their rights.

Legislation has not kept pace with economics, and the demand for cheap labour has dictated migration unprotected by legal infrastructure. 

British immigration services employ quotas for the deportation of certain nationalities, which means that criminal investigations into trafficking are jeopardised; vital witnesses and linkmen have been sent home before  organisations are uncovered. Despite the EU demanding that all member states harmonise their domestic criminal legislation on trafficking by 2004, implementation of this directive has yet to become uniform. In the UK, the implementation of anti-trafficking legislation is targeted mainly at combating sex trading, and does not deal adequately with forced labour. Since legislation was introduced, approximately 70 people have been convicted, all of them for sex trafficking offences and none for forced labour. .

With thanks to Mike Kaye from Anti Slavery International

Slavery in your Seder

Each year at Pesach, Jews recount the story of their enslavement in Egypt and give thanks for their freedom. The ritual of the Seder requires that participants put themselves in the shoes of their ancestors, remembering the exodus as if they participated in it personally: ‘This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people’. With such a high level of empathy expected for something that happened so long ago, our senses should be equally alert to the experiences of those enslaved today.

There are several points during the Seder, that lend themselves to the inclusion of contemporary accounts of slavery, where the collective voice allows those who are unable to speak for themselves to be heard. The Maggid section of the service, when the story of the slavery is recounted, is an ideal opportunity. In the same way that a drop of wine is spilled for each of the plagues suffered by the Egyptians, some additional drops can be spilled in acknowledgement of a world that is not totally free. 

Perhaps the most recognisable Seder night motif is the plate that sits in the centre of every table. The items on it symbolise the experiences of the Jews as slaves in Egypt, and objects that represent the experiences of those who are enslaved today can be added to it. When discussing the presence of the regular items, as the Haggadah requires, the relevance of the additional objects on the plate can also be explained.

By telling our story together, we affirm that while not everyone is free, that while even we ourselves are not wholly free, there is still freedom in our world. We remember in a rush what freedom feels like. And together, over the course of the telling, we re-create a communal vision of a better world.

(Noa Rachel Kushner)

What can you do?

If you have 5 minutes:

Log onto which has links to a whole variety of campaigns.

Send a letter/email/ecard or sign a petition joining national and global campaigns to protect people enslaved in today’s world. You can also write your own letter to Gordon Brown asking him to protect migrant workers here in the UK.

If you have 10 minutes:

Plan school/cheder assembly - do you have children at school/cheder or are you a student? Plan an assembly that teaches students about slavery in today’s society and what people can do to combat it. has resources on-line that are for use in school assemblies.

If you have longer:

The Citizens Organising Foundation have run a very successful campaign called Strangers into Citizens that campaigns for the rights of migrants in this country. Join your local Citizens Organising Foundation and get involved in the campaign.

Project London is an organisation that helps UK residents unable to access medical care. Often these are people enslaved in low paid work. They need volunteers to help get people like this registered at GPs so they can access proper medical care.

Tikkun Olam page written by Hannah Weisfeld, JCC Social Action and Campaigns Co-ordinator.

  © 2006 Jewish Quarterly | All rights reserved