Trafficking will remain a Jewish problem as long as we commodify women

This piece was adapted from a Purim-themed sermon delivered at Congregation Beth El on March 18, 2016.

The plight of women trafficked from Mexico to the United States has been the focus of much of my work this past decade at Sanctuary for Families, New York’s largest provider of services to victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking and other forms of gender-based abuse. Because of Sanctuary’s role in helping Mexican victims recover from their abuse, the Mexican government invited me to participate in a conference in Mexico City sponsored by their Attorney General. After sharing information with local service providers and government officials, I spent the following days visiting trafficked girls in a government-run shelter, and exploring the areas where thousands of women and children are sold, both in Mexico City and in the nearby state of Tlaxcala. I joined a Mexican nun at the daycare center she and her sisters operate to care for the children of women being sold for sex, and together, we wandered through La Merced, an infamous red light district, speaking with trafficked girls and women ranging in age from 16-68. It was illuminating, but also heartbreaking.

As I traveled through Mexico, I thought of the journey my own clients had taken to the United States. Unlike the images commonly projected in the movies, my clients’ traffickers captured their prey not through force, but through seduction and abuse of trust. The experience of one client, Angela, mirrors those of thousands of other young women like her. Raised in an impoverished indigenous community, where Spanish was a second language, Angela was employed as a housekeeper when she was befriended by a handsome young man, Martín, whom she had met in the park on her day off. Originally, Angela fended off Martín’s invitation for coffee, but as the weeks passed and she continued to see him in the park, he was no longer a stranger, but an acquaintance, and one day, she finally accepted. The friendship turned into a romance, and when Martín proposed that Angela meet his parents as a first step towards an engagement, Angela happily agreed. Instead of preparing for a wedding, however, Martín took Angela hundreds of miles away from her family and friends, cut off all communication, raped her, and sold her for sex to thousands of men in Mexico, and ultimately, the United States. Angela could not escape; she did not speak English, she had no idea where she was living, and she was deeply afraid of the authorities who, she had been warned, would arrest, imprison and deport her.

Angela’s escape was almost accidental. In Queens, Martín became increasingly violent, beating her for not earning enough money on some nights, and (if one can imagine this) beating her even more severely on other nights for “cheating” on him with other men. When Angela became pregnant, Martín tried to force her to undergo an abortion. She refused on the basis of her personal Catholic beliefs and Martín pummeled her in an effort to induce a miscarriage. Angela ran out of her apartment in stocking feet, and a neighbor, seeing a young woman in her night clothes and covered with bruises, called NYPD, who in turn contacted Sanctuary for Families.

The devaluation of women is a widespread phenomenon that results in abuses across cultures, including my own. In full disclosure, I always had harbored some vague discomfort about Purim: as a baby feminist, I never wanted to dress up like Queen Esther for the children’s parade, always preferring Vashti for her defiance to authority. However, after witnessing the systematic commodification of my clients, I recognized the roots of their abuse in my own Jewish narrative. Vashti is banished, or perhaps murdered, because she refuses to dance naked before her husband and his drunken cronies. She is perhaps the first documented case of sexual abuse resulting from the equivalent of a semester long frat party. Esther, her replacement, does not become the new bride of Ahasuerus willingly — she is sent from the home of her uncle Mordechai, along with numerous other young virgins, to the king’s harem, so that he could “sample” one each night before choosing a favorite. We don’t know how Esther felt about being herded like cattle, or whether she had wanted Ahaseurus to have sex with her. Ultimately, Esther not only becomes a survivor, but a savior to her people by transcending her own victimization, and Megillat Esther ends happily, in its own fashion. But after the last grogger has been shaken, the twin images of the vanished Vashti and the orphaned Esther remain troubling testaments to a patriarchy that devalued women; Jewish and Gentile women alike are portrayed as commodities that can be discarded or destroyed when no longer useful, and replaced with a newer model.

Our tradition, while professing veneration for our mothers, wives and sisters, has struggled with the darker consequences of valuing women as “less than” men. Between the 1880’s until the outbreak of World War II, thousands of Jewish women were trafficked from Eastern Europe to the Americas, while even more were sold for sex in the first red light districts in the Lower East Side, Philadelphia, Chicago and across the Western United States. This piece of history, so stunning to me, was widely known in the Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century. When Sholom Aleichem penned his infamous short story, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” his worldwide Yiddish readership knew immediately that the exquisitely dressed “businessman” enjoying his whiskey on a train and searching for a bride, was not in the business of selling etrogs or prayer books, but of human flesh.

Contemporary Jews, learning of our tragic history, have often replied, “well, thank G-d, this is not a problem in our community any more.” In fact, trafficking will remain a Jewish problem as long as we commodify women. The Israeli government has struggled with an epidemic of sex trafficking throughout the country; initially detected with the influx of Russian emigres, many of them on falsified documents. After implementing stricter immigration controls, the importation of trafficked women stopped, but in its place, a widespread crisis has resulted from the internal trafficking of Jewish Israeli women, many from impoverished and marginalized communities. Here in the US, trafficking of Jewish girls continues to plague our community. Both secular and Orthodox Jewish girls have been brutally trafficked, often after running away from a home in which they had suffered sexual abuse from a relative or neighbor.

And let’s not forget the other element of the equation: demand. Jewish men purchase sex from trafficked individuals. It is normalized and often accepted as a right of their masculinity. Until our fathers, our brothers, our sons, and yes, our husbands, stop purchasing sex from trafficked individuals, trafficking will continue to flourish in our midst.

As Passover approaches, let us celebrate the liberation of our people from slavery under Pharaoh. But let us not forget that, for us to truly be free, we must respect the sacredness that is in every human life, and embrace both men and women, boys and girls, as equals.

Lori L. Cohen is the Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services in New York City, where she represents both immigrant and domestic victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence. She also the Chair of EXODUS: NCJW’s Anti-Sex Trafficking Initiative, an NCJW Board Director, and a lifetime member of the NCYW-New York section.