Israel, like other countries around the world, observed the United Nations International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on Wednesday. Although slavery was officially abolished in both the United States and Britain in the 19th century, it continues to flourish in many parts of the world - including Israel.
At the President's Award ceremony at Beit Hanassi, in which three women were presented with citations in recognition of their outstanding efforts in the battle against human trafficking, President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Gila Gamliel, Deputy Minister for the Status of Women, Youth and Students all noted that slavery in modern times exists in the guise of human traffic. Peres termed it "a humiliating plague that distorts morality and contradicts all ethical values."
The basic rights of any human being, said Peres, are the right to live and the right to freedom. "Without freedom life has no significance," he said.
Declaring with some degree of pride that Moses was the first to come out against slavery, firstly on behalf of the Children of Israel and then on behalf of others, Netanyahu noted what a long period had elapsed from the Biblical era to the 19th century when the abolition of slavery received formal expression in progressive and enlightened countries.
The slavery of children, he said, was "outrageous" and every human being should come out in condemnation against the continuity of this phenomenon.
"It's shocking that we still talk about improving the situation instead of being able to say that it has been totally eliminated," he said.
Netanyahu, who last week visited shelters for battered women and asked them to believe that the government will fight on their behalf, made the same pledge at Beit Hanassi to victims of human trafficking.
"It's important that everyone knows that there's an address to which they can turn not only in the government but also in volunteer organizations," he said.
Neeman observed that regardless of what it's called, human trafficking was a terrible form of slavery to which hardly any nation gives legitimacy, "and yet it continues."
In previous eras, he observed, the slave was treated as a valuable commodity in which it was worth investing, while today, the victims of human trafficking were treated as objects that can be easily replaced when they outlived their usefulness.
Neeman emphasized that the Justice Ministry plays an important role in providing legal aid to victims, drafting legislation and charging and prosecuting traffickers.
Eighty per cent of the victims of human traffic are women, said Gamliel. Every year women are brought to Israel, threatened, humiliated and even tortured and forced into prostitution. Israel has done a great deal via legislation and law enforcement to prevent this, she said, citing 331 case files that were opened over the past year and the closing of 50 brothels.
The award winners were Marit Danon, the director of the Status of Women Authority in the Prime Minister's Office; Rinat Davidovich, the head of Shelters for Victims of Human Traffic; and Hannah Zohar, the director of Kav L'Oved, which for 18 years has protected the rights of foreign workers in Israel.
"Prostitution is a form of death," said Danon, adding that the public was under the mistaken impression that the incidents of women being forced into prostitution were only borderline and that the women involved were all foreigners. "Behind the statistics, there are human beings," she said.