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Just two weeks ago Jews around the world celebrated Pessah, which emphasizes the Jewish people's escape from slavery and oppression in Egypt. The themes of redemption and freedom, cornerstones upon which the nascent Jewish nation were built, still resonate today.
There is bitter irony, therefore, in the release of a United Nations report this week which found that Israel is among the top destinations of trafficking in humans for sexual exploitation or forced labor. The report, "Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns," identified 137 destination countries into which victims are smuggled. Israel was among the top 10.
While the clandestine nature of modern-day slavery makes it difficult to pin down exact statistics, advocacy groups say it is one of the fastest growing criminal activities in the world. It is estimated that between 600,000 and 800,000 people - mostly women and children - are trafficked across borders every year. In Israel, government sources indicate that over 3,000 women have been trafficked into the country - most of them from the former Soviet Union - while most non-governmental organizations say the number is much higher.
But barren statistics don't tell the whole story. Most victims, desperate to escape poverty, are lured by the promise of good jobs in a foreign country. Once in the clutches of malefactors, they are smuggled into Israel without work permits or with false documents, making them acutely vulnerable to human rights abuses at the hands of traffickers and the pimps or unscrupulous employers to whom they are sold. Often under threat of death they are forced to work, usually in the sex industry, for little or no money.
In addition, victims are deterred from reporting their plight by their "owners," who physically incarcerate them or threaten to beat or kill family members in their countries of origin. Nonetheless, human rights groups in Israel have received numerous claims in which victims report restrictions of their liberty, as well as torture, rape and other forms of sexual abuse.
The fact that the Jewish state - of all countries - is among the most popular havens for such loathsome practices is a disgrace. Judaism values not only freedom but human dignity and protection of those who are powerless to help themselves.
Slavery in our midst is intolerable and Israel must work to eradicate it. This can be done through endeavors on several levels.
Israel must be at the forefront of coordinating international efforts to end this scourge. A good first step would be for the government to sign the UN's Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air. The document, produced six years ago, requires states to adopt legislative measures to establish human trafficking as a criminal offence.
The Foreign Ministry must make the issue a priority with governments in the former Soviet Union, working with them to broaden its anti-trafficking information campaigns to raise awareness of the problem among citizens there.
Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should broach the subject in his upcoming meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both sides must agree to shore up border patrols and make their shared desert frontier less susceptible to smuggling of all kinds. Olmert can also raise the issue when he visits the US - Egypt's major financial supporter - and suggest that the Bush administration pressure Egypt in this regard.
Within Israel, greater resources and care must be provided to victims. These should include more shelters in which victims can find refuge when reporting abuse, the granting of temporary visas to stay in Israel and legal, medical, and psychological services.
Police must be trained to infiltrate suspected slavery brothels and workplaces to inform victims of the availability of this assistance.
Law enforcement authorities should also employ systematic screening procedures to differentiate trafficking victims from violators of immigration laws.
Advertising for "escorts" in newspapers should also be curtailed, and citizens should be encouraged to report hotels or businesses they suspect of harboring victims.
Next year, when we speak of freedom at our Seders, we must be able to do so in a Jewish state which is effectively working to thwart slavery.
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