Yes, sex slavery exists here

Rabbi Lauer, founder of Atzum, encourages staff to work hard, hope they will save at least one person from life of destitution, rape, poverty.

Ethiopian girls 521 (photo credit: Atzum)
Ethiopian girls 521
(photo credit: Atzum)
Within minutes of meeting Rabbi Levi Lauer, director and founder of the nonprofit social rights organization Atzum – an acronym for “work, justice and law” or “Justice Works” in English – it is easy to see how over the past decade his thought-provoking and deeply philosophical fast talk has contributed to improving the lives of countless individuals, often society’s most downtrodden.
“Jewish sovereignty means taking responsibility for the darkest places in your history and the most problematic places in your society, the most vulnerable citizens that live among you,” reflects the American-born Lauer, who made aliya more than 30 years ago, as he explains how he went from being a renowned Jewish scholar at some of the country’s most respected Jewish institutions – Pardes, cand the Shalom Hartman Institute to name a few – to tackling a wide variety of under-acknowledged social problems, perhaps most fascinatingly the gritty horrors of Israel’s brutal sex slave industry.
“It seems to me that the Jewish world, particularly the traditionally observant community, has become abhorrently triumphant.
It is so full of itself, so self-confident and sure in its newfound wealth, its newfound power and its newfound strength, that it has grown far less aware and responsive to the have-nots in the society in which it lives,” observes Lauer, who clearly embodies the tagline on his charity’s website: “Atzum: Addressing Urgent Need in Israel, One Person at a Time.”
Helping improve people’s lives is exactly what Lauer and his staff have committed to in the 10 years since Atzum was founded.
Initially created to address victims of terrorism termed beyond help by other social welfare organizations, today the charity, which relies on funding from a wide variety of international sources, also provides care to the small remaining group of Righteous Gentiles here and runs an active program aimed at bridging the generational gap between young Ethiopian Jews and their elders. However, it is the organization’s work combating human trafficking that has raised Atzum’s profile and made its presence so critical in recent years.
WORKING ALONGSIDE organizations that provide shelter and education to the victims, the NGO’s Task Force on Human Trafficking has seen measured success ranging from urging the government to seal the border between Israel and Egypt – a main thoroughfare for women and even men trafficked into Israel – and for pushing legislation aimed at prosecuting pimps and traffickers, although Lauer is under no illusions; stopping human trafficking is an almost impossible challenge.
During our hour-long interview in his home office in Jerusalem (Lauer does not believe in wasting financial donations on rented office space), the rabbi, who admits his interpretation of Halacha (Jewish law) does not always adhere to conventionally accepted norms of Orthodoxy, delivers a convincing presentation about our failure as a society to acknowledge these sex slaves, mixing his speech with equal amounts of criticism for the government and society in general and analyzing this dark issue with the help of various Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers.
“I go back to Cleveland [Ohio] once a year to visit my parents’ graves,” says Lauer at one point during our interview. “This might sound strange but I speak to my parents, it’s part of my personal soul searching, but sometimes when I’m ‘telling’ my parents about the work I’m doing I wonder how they would react! My father thought even [Yiddish/American philosopher] Isaac Bashevis Singer was an anti-Semite because he was slightly critical of Israel. I’m sure my mother would say ‘what do you mean sex slaves in the Jewish state?! What happened to you?’” Bashevis Singer is not the only philosopher that Lauer draws on as he describes the moral quandary that faces the Jewish state, where, according to his professional estimations “there are tens of thousands of men who rape sex slaves monthly” and thousands more foreign workers who are abused and mistreated so Israel’s citizens can maintain a comfortable and cheap standard of living.
Quoting Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement founded in 19th-century Eastern Europe, Lauer points out: “Salanter used to say he met his spiritual needs by meeting his neighbors’ material needs.”
“That personally for me is very important,” says Lauer. “I’m not sure about those connections to the infinite scheme of things or to the divine, if there is such a category, but I know that if I help the neighbor next door who is in desperate need, or I know if I can get that sex slave liberated so she will not be raped tomorrow 15 times, I know that the God who does or does not exist wants that of me and the human condition, it provides a deep sense of meaning and purpose.”
WHILE LAUER is clear about his goal of helping this country’s downtrodden, he is also painfully aware of the challenges he faces in tackling a subject that most people (not only his late parents) refuse to acknowledge exists in a Jewish country.
This time he highlights the writings of American literary critic George Steiner and his book Real Presences.
According to Steiner, says Lauer, “The good news is that the Jews have developed a culture obsessed with the power of the word, the bad news is that we come to cathartic emotional satisfaction through words and aesthetics.
As Steiner, quoting [English poet Samuel Taylor] Coleridge said, ‘the beauty of the poem dulls one’s reaction to the real street.’” Philosophizing on his own, Lauer asks: “Have the Jews in their own culture, obsessed with the power of the word, become so satisfied with those words and so preoccupied with them and with aesthetics that we are dulled to the pain of the street? Is it true that real suffering no longer interests people? Some of my own friends cross the street when they see me coming because they do not want to talk about these issues. What is going on here? Do we [Jews] really not care? If we really cared, then there would not be hundreds of brothels and thousands of discreet apartments.”
It’s true, admits Lauer, that the problem of human trafficking in Israel has mildly improved in recent years, thanks to legislation and certain steps taken by the government to secure the borders.
While he does not attempt to philosophize on what perpetuates what is often called the world’s oldest profession, Lauer is adamant that most people are in denial about how far it has penetrated into Israeli society.
“No man you know does this, not your husband, your uncle, your fiancé, and not your boyfriend. You do not know a single man who would rape a sex slave. That’s what everyone says about the men they know but yet there are tens of thousands of men raping sex slaves in the State of Israel,” says Lauer.
“So, who are these guys?” He adds: “They are among your husbands, boyfriends, fiancés, uncles and nephews, people just don’t want to admit to that. The men do not want to admit to it and the women do not want to face up to a very harsh reality that among the men they know, there are those who regularly rape sex slaves.”
And, says Lauer, the “more troubling phenomenon that crosses all religious, social and economic lines is that raping sex slaves is addictive because it isn’t about sex, its about power, and that power is addictive.”
Denial is not the only challenge that Lauer, who soon plans to lobby lawmakers for legislation making it illegal to utilize the services of a prostitute, faces. He lists and then smashes some of the most common myths that people like to believe about the sex trade here.
“Most of the clients are foreign workers,” he laughs. “If that were true then foreign workers would not have time to clean our houses or work in our restaurants or pick our vegetables or look after our elderly people!” “None of the women are Jewish, so it doesn’t matter because they are ‘shiksas.’” Lauer shakes his head, saying that efforts made to crack down on the flow of trafficking has actually meant that there is an increasing number of young Israeli women pressed into sexual slavery and even being shipped out of the country.
“The other thing I hear constantly, and it is even becoming a mantra as I have been trying recently to find a large international organization to partner with us to put pressure on the government to give this issue more priority, is that I am asking them ‘to wash the dirty laundry of the Jewish state in public at a very sensitive time.’ “I sat in this room for a long time trying to think of a counter-mantra to that argument and while it is true that this is the dirtiest laundry of the Jewish state washed in public at a most sensitive time, I believe there will never be a non-sensitive time for the State of Israel and besides, there is only one thing worse than washing your dirty laundry in public and that is to keep on wearing it, because then you end up stinking up the reputation of the Jewish people. So lets wash it, hang it out to dry, expose it to everyone and be done with it,” he says defiantly.
Just as Lauer declares he will never give up his fight to improve people’s lives, he is also quick to admit that the battle is bigger than smashing common myths or persuading those in power to share his priorities.
But referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kitter, Lauer declares, “I encourage my staff to have the courage to fail. We are in the trenches and our failures are daily, but the hope is by taking on challenges that are bigger than you, you might just succeed at making a few lives better... even if there is only one sex slave that we prevented from being raped again then it is infinitely better than doing nothing.”