NGOs: Religious educators must fight human trafficking

Rabbi: “There has been no concerted effort in which the religious community has been approached about this topic."

Trafficking workshop 311 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Trafficking workshop 311
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Religious educators assisting victims of human trafficking might seem like an unlikely pairing but encouraging influential figures in Israel’s observant Jewish community to become involved in tackling the shadowy phenomenon behind the country’s illegal sex trade was exactly the goal of a two-day workshop this week organized by the Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT).
“There has been no concerted effort in which the religious community has been approached about this topic or in which it has organized itself to fight against human trafficking,” commented Rabbi Levi Lauer, Founding Executive Director of ATZUM-Justice Works and co-founder of TFHT, a non-profit organization which campaigns against the human slave trade, especially trafficking in women for the sex industry.
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According to Lauer, CREATE – Conference of Religious Educators Against Trafficking and Exploitation, which took place Tuesday and Wednesday to mark International Human Trafficking Awareness Day on January 11, is just the beginning steps that will hopefully push the religious community to address what he calls the “flourishing” sex trade and other forms of modern-day slavery and exploitation in Israel.
Figures shared by the TFHT, which was founded in 2003 as a joint effort by ATZUM and law firm Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar, suggest that a high percentage of the estimated 20,000 women working in Israel’s sex industry are victims of international and local human trafficking rings.
While exact figures do not exist as to who utilizes the services of these women, NGOs believe that roughly 10 percent of the customers are migrant workers, 20-25% are men from the Arab community, 25-30% are religiously observant Jews and the rest are drawn from a broad spectrum Israeli society.
“Even though there seems to be a disproportionate number of religious men who are clients in brothels, there is still little inclination by that community to address this problem because it involves women and sex,” Lauer explained to The Jerusalem Post, adding “It’s an ugly business that is much easier to ignore.”
The goal of this week’s workshop, he said, was to give [religious educators] the information and tools needed to raise awareness and teach students about the problem of human trafficking, emphasizing the exploitation and slavery aspects.
While the conference attracted Jewish educators and speakers from a variety of religious institutions, including the Jewish Theological Seminary and Kolech – Jewish Women’s Voices, most of those who attended already had some understanding of the issue and sensitivity toward it, said Lauer, adding “ideally we would like to reach more religious institutions.”
“This is a very taboo subject,” commented Ori Keidar, co-founder of TFHT and a partner at Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar. “When we organized this conference, we wanted to include people from the Haredi community too but it was difficult to get support on an issue that involves sex and feminism.”
However, he added, “we are starting at the root of the problem and trying to make advances in this world. We hope that through these conferences we will learn how to do so.”
“[Religious educators] are role models and those who listen and learn from them do so out of their own choice,” said Keidar, adding that this is something almost unique to the religious population and is less prevalent in secular Israeli society.
“Religious leaders and educators have a unique role in preventing trafficking and it is important for them to understand how potential victims fall prey to trafficking because they could be the ones to help the victims to rehabilitate and return to society,” observed Giulia Falzoi, Director of the Migration Management Unit at the International Organization for Migration, which works with governments worldwide to promote humane and orderly migration for all.
The Rome-based Falzoi, who was in Israel for the first time this week to share her experiences in involving religious leaders in combating trafficking, added: “It is common for male religious leaders to turn away from this problem because they think it is a woman’s issue about sex but in many cases victims of trafficking are looking for someone to talk to them on a spiritual level. This is where religious leaders can be helpful.”
In addition to engaging the religious community in its battle against prostitution and trafficking, the TFHT said Wednesday that it is currently focusing most of its efforts into creating legislation to criminalize those who utilize prostitution services.
The bill is being sponsored by MK Orit Zuarets (Kadima), chairperson of the Knesset Sub-Committee on Human Trafficking and 25 other Knesset members from across the political spectrum.