Contemporary forms of enslavement

Recounting the Exodus story as a way to renew our commitment to fight present-day abuses.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Pessah is the oldest and, at the same time, the most modern of all Jewish holidays. It not only commemorates the liberation of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, it also serves as a timely reminder of the ongoing obligation to vigorously combat all types of oppression. The message of this feast of freedom is unequivocal: In each generation recounting the story of the exodus is a means of renewing the commitment to struggle against present-day abuses. Contemporary repression comes in a variety of forms and affects a multiplicity of diverse victims. On the Seder night, Jews in Israel and elsewhere will again address persistent manifestations of harassment, coercion and discrimination, including intolerance, injustice, indigence, insecurity and indifference. They are also likely to focus on the pronounced growth of one particular brand - personal violence. Tragically, the past year has highlighted the extent to which heightened violence against individuals has become part and parcel of daily existence. The proliferation of direct physical threats both endangers and enfeebles the young and the old, the handicapped and the purportedly healthy, men as well as women. It fosters a climate of suspicion and distrust, fueling widespread social disorder. Unless its root causes are uncovered and confronted, it might yet enslave us all. The rash of instances of horrific child abuse that has shocked the country in recent weeks is but the tip of the iceberg of a much more widespread phenomenon. The Jerusalem mother who allowed her children to be tortured to exorcise their "impurities" - leaving her young son a vegetable for life - sadly is not an isolated case. The very week she was arraigned, another mother in Beit Shemesh was charged with similar crimes and investigations were launched into additional instances of gross mistreatment - ranging from deliberate starvation, humiliation and sleep deprivation to continuous beatings - in Netivot and Afula, Lod and Karmiel. There is something particularly nefarious in attacking the young and the helpless. When such violations also involve sexual molestation, they become unspeakable. But headlines these months tell too many tales of just such abuses. They have involved the most sordid instances of incest: a grandfather convicted of raping his granddaughter for years; a stepfather defiling his wife's daughters one after the other; a brother performing indecent acts on his sisters while their parents professed ignorance; and a mother charged with raping her sons. SUCH VIOLATIONS are recorded in every corner of the country and in all sectors of society. They are the latest demonstration of an even more general scourge of domestic violence which annually leads to the death of dozens of women and the mutilation of others. For too many, the home has become a prison and they are its involuntary inmates. Intimate abuse is hardly a private matter. Left untreated it spreads like a plague. In a recent poll, 60 percent of pupils acknowledged that they had been physically attacked at school. As a result, educational institutions have become battlegrounds to which few children go unarmed. And every weekend scuffles at discotheques claim additional victims. Just this year, two taxi drivers were murdered, while others complained of a spate of violent robberies. Gas station attendants are afraid to go work after colleagues have been mercilessly assaulted. Random violence is no longer uncommon, as any victim of road rage will confirm. In one well-publicized case, a young father was killed in a dispute over a parking space. This litany would not be complete without mention of the rise in vicious attacks against the elderly. In Haifa a woman was sadistically tormented. She later publicly consoled an elderly counterpart in Jerusalem who underwent a similar experience; only weeks before a wheelchair-bound man was crippled yet again by a heartless assailant. Individual violence takes place against a backdrop of continuous sexual harassment (punctuated this year by the high-profile cases of Haim Ramon and Moshe Katsav) and in a context which still supports trafficking in women, commonly recognized as the most ubiquitous form of contemporary slavery. Despite a concerted effort to halt this obscene commerce by the authorities (and especially by the Knesset), hundreds of women are still imported annually. They are held in impossible conditions, sold freely and shamelessly abandoned when no longer able to service their owners. Israel still holds a top spot on the US State Department's list of countries involved in this despicable trade. The spread of intimate forms of violence is the culmination of poverty, despair, prejudice, dependence, systemic inequality and increasing social atomization. It is also the inescapable result of ongoing conflict. Slowly and perniciously, the effects of decades of occupation of another people against their will are trickling back home, penetrating the inner fabric of Israel's social order. Unfortunately, this process has been accelerated by the relentless attacks on the judiciary. Precisely when the authority of the courts is essential to sustain law and order, its foundations are being systematically undermined. The standing of judges is being diminished, their performance debunked and their judgment questioned. Fewer citizens have faith in the legal system and law enforcement than ever before. This Pessah, the quest for human dignity must highlight the deterioration in personal security and the reasons for its prevalence. Awareness of this rising threat to freedom in the most fundamental sense of the term is the first step towards its eradication. Consciousness, however, is meaningless unless translated into action. The abused will continue to be abusive if individual as well as collective forms of abuse are not abandoned. Relinquishment of violence in its multiple forms is the latter-day means to liberation from slavery.