Ceremony recognizes flag-bearers in battle on human trafficking

Former Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On, who has been at the forefront of the battle against human trafficking, received official recognition on Sunday in a state ceremony at Beit Hanassi. Gal-On's efforts have resulted in legislation against trafficking and in upgraded police efforts to track down prostitution racketeers and bring them to justice, The ceremony was the first in what will become an annual tradition. According to a government decision, future ceremonies will be held on December 2. However, because of the proximity of the general elections, this one was postponed to shortly before Pessah. Gal-On's was one of three citations announced. The other recipients were the Tel Aviv Police's Central Investigations Unit and the Workers' Hotline, a nonprofit NGO that protects the rights of migrant workers and defends them against exploitation and other forms of mistreatment. "Nothing is more precious to a human being than freedom," said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In a reference to Pessah - the holiday of freedom - Olmert said, "When we recall that we were slaves in Egypt, we have to be aware that slavery still exists in the 21st century." Victims of human trafficking, he continued, have had their dignity defiled and are treated as chattel rather than human beings. Alluding to women forced into prostitution, Olmert noted that by and large, they came from economically disadvantaged countries. Olmert praised the work of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, whose commitment to the cause brought about a much-needed change in Israeli policy. President Shimon Peres declared that the recipients of the award were true emissaries of Israel's values. That the plague of human trafficking was able to contaminate the Jewish state was an embarrassing stain on the nation's character, he said. "It was a betrayal of our heritage." Peres reminded the audience that among the integral beliefs of the Jewish people were "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and "All humans are created in the image of God." He also quoted the biblical injunction to remember what it was like to be a slave, and to treat the stranger in one's midst accordingly. There is nothing more outrageous or repugnant, he said, than trafficking in human beings, forcing women into prostitution, and the exploitation of people in distress or of foreign workers whose status or rights are negligible.