Slavery matters

On that spring day some 3,500 years ago when the Festival of Freedom was celebrated for the first time.

March 28, 2015 21:53
4 minute read.

Robot helps tell Passover story at the Technion‏. (photo credit: screenshot)


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On that spring day some 3,500 years ago when the Festival of Freedom was celebrated for the first time, the only available source pegged the number of Hebrew slaves liberated from Egypt at approximately 600,000. Today, with better reporting, the United Nations estimates the number of slaves worldwide at up to 36 million, about 8 million of them children.

Slavery is big business: A conservative estimate of the annual take by traffickers in human beings is $150 billion.

Today’s slaves are distributed into three main categories: 78 percent are used in traditional labor-intensive tasks; 22% are sex slaves, most of them women and girls. Of the total, 26% are under age 18.

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Out of all these enslaved millions, in 2013 activists managed to free just 3,127. Only 105 traffickers and slaveholders faced prosecution.

Slavery is practiced throughout the world, but more so in certain countries. A 2013 report by the Walk Free Foundation rated India with the highest number of slaves – some 14 million – followed by China (2.9 million), Pakistan (2.1 million), and succeeding countries with fewer: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The countries with the highest proportion of slaves to the rest of their population were Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan, India and Nepal.

The US State Department’s 2013 report on slavery cited Russia, China and Uzbekistan as the worst offenders among a total of 21 countries in a list that included Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

A few examples: • In India, with the largest concentration of slavery in the world today, millions are entrapped by debt bondage; loans impossible to pay off that illegally enslave laborers.

Many others are trapped in brothels or as domestic servants.

• In Congo, considered by many as the deadliest spot in the poorest continent on Earth, millions have died during the ongoing conflict between rebel militias and the national army, which exploits the country’s vast mineral wealth using slaves who work in the mines. Gold and the “Three Ts” (tin, tungsten, tantalum) are used in everything from cars to medical devices, household goods to hi-tech electronics – all brought to the consumer by slavery. As elsewhere in Africa, particularly in Nigeria under constant attack by Boko Haram, sex slavery is rampant. Militias regularly abduct women and girls from villages.

• In Ghana, the children who are a nation’s most precious resource are exploited in pursuit of other resources: gold and fish. The Free the Slaves organization helps inform Ghanaian parents about child rights in an effort to stop the flow of children into slavery at gold mines and on fishing boats and return them to their homes.

• In Haiti, impoverished families are often forced to send children away to live as domestic servants in a system known as restavèk, but promises of food and education are seldom kept and the children soon find themselves enslaved. Many kids end up laboring for 14 hours a day without pay. Two-thirds of them are girls, many of whom are used by men in the family for sex. Estimates of the number of children living in restavèk range from 150,000 to 300,000.

The mainly silent outcry of the world’s slaves should be heard at this year’s celebration of the world’s first call to remember slavery and value human freedom. The Torah instructs in Deuteronomy 24:18: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. Therefore, I command you to do [justice].”

The enslavement of Jews during biblical times and the Exodus are not merely a core narrative of the Jewish people, but a symbol of hope for all mankind. As the biblical scholar C.G. Montefiore wrote, “The Exodus from Egypt is not only one of the greatest events and epochs in the history of the Jews, but one of the greatest events and epochs in the history of the world. To that successful escape, Europe, America and Australia are as much indebted as the Jews themselves.”

The entire world should join with the Jewish people in expressing the physical and spiritual hope of Passover, as the Haggada states: “Now we are slaves. Next year, a free people!” As Jews gather at festive Seder tables this year to celebrate their liberation from bondage, another question to ask – while tens of millions of slaves toil in misery around the world – is: Why is this night not different from all other nights? The answer we must give our children is: because there are still slaves.

For more information and to help, see www.freetheslaves

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