Accounting for ourselves on Yom Kippur
Wherever a person stands to lift up eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies
Every human being created by God in God’s own image is a High Priest.
Each person’s life is the Day of Atonement.
Each one of us can face God with the language of the heart.
Each one of us can be forgiven.
Each one of us can achieve atonement and be made pure in the eyes of God.
What is each of our responsibilities on Yom Kippur? This teaching, preserved by the Yiddish playwright Saul Ansky, takes the communal lesson of the biblical Yom Kippur service to an individual level of teshuvah and forgiveness. In this moment, we each have the opportunity to stand before God, enumerate what we have done, and ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Each one of us, created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, has equal standing before God and each one of us has an equal chance to be heard.
And what we say about ourselves, not just what we collectively chant with others when we say the vidui, matters. It would be easy enough to just fade into the collective list of failings for the year: “We steal, we cheat, etc.” But deep in our hearts, we face a tremendous responsibility. One of the key components of Yom Kippur is chesbon hanefesh, literally the accounting of the soul, when each one of us must truly acknowledge how far we have come since last year and how far we each have to go in living the life of a mensch, the life of mitzvot.
This type of accounting, in which you acknowledge your own failings as well as those of others, is humbling. As a nation, it is not something that the United States is used to doing. And yet this year, on one very important issue, we turned away from looking at others to also do a chesbon nefesh for ourselves.
Slavery and trafficking continue to plague our world. More than 27 million people are estimated to live in some form of bondage, including forced labor, sexual slavery, debt bondage, and child soldiers—more people than at any other point in human history. Part of the picture of modern slavery is the way that people are being moved and trafficked across borders. People leave their homes and set out to earn money for their families, only to be caught in webs of false promises and endless debt. The United States is both a destination for human trafficking and a source, as some Americans, living on the margins of society, are preyed on by those who would exploit them.
For the past 10 years, the United States has issued an annual report on the state of human trafficking around the world. It ranks other countries on how well they comply with the minimum standards in the fight against trafficking. States with the lowest level ranking may be subject to economic sanctions. But until this year, the United States had never ranked itself or described its own efforts to end trafficking. This year, that changed. As a country, we should hold ourselves accountable to the same standards by which we judge others. For the first time, this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report ranks the U.S. including a full, candid narrative on American efforts to combat human trafficking.
The report itself explains the strides made since the adoption of international protocols to end trafficking 10 years ago:
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report marks the 10th anniversary of key milestones in the fight against modern slavery. In 2000, the United States enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and the United Nations adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, also known as the Palermo Protocol. Since then, the world has made great strides in combating this ultimate exploitation – both in terms of what we know about this crime and how we respond.
The Palermo Protocol focused the attention of the global community on combating human trafficking. For the first time, an international instrument called for the criminalization of all acts of trafficking – including forced labor, slavery, and slavery-like practices – and that governmental response should incorporate the “3P” paradigm: prevention, criminal prosecution, and victim protection.
Over 10 years, governments worldwide have made appreciable progress in understanding a number of realities about human trafficking: people are in situations of modern slavery in most countries; trafficking is a fluid phenomenon responding to market demands, weakness in laws and penalties, and economic and development disparities. More people are trafficked for forced labor than for commercial sex. The crime is less often about the flat-out duping and kidnapping of naïve victims than it is about the coercion and exploitation of people who initially entered a particular form of service voluntarily or migrated willingly. Trafficking can occur without movement across borders or domestically, but many countries and commentators still assume some movement is required. Men comprise a significant number of trafficking victims. And traffickers often use sexual violence as a weapon against women to keep them in compelled service, whether in a field, a factory, a brothel, a home, or a war zone.
Those who are trafficked are often the most vulnerable members of society. The report states:
Too often the victims of this crime are perceived to be society’s throwaways – prostitutes, runaways, the poor, racial or ethnic minorities, members of a low caste, or recent immigrants. Victims themselves do not know the legal definitions of this crime and should not be required to self-identify.
In releasing the report, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton underscored the challenges raised by the high level ranking scored by the United States:
The United States takes its first-ever ranking not as a reprieve but as a responsibility to strengthen global efforts against modern slavery, including those within America. This human rights abuse is universal, and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it… Behind these statistics on the pages [of the report] are the struggles of real human beings, the tears of families who may never see their children again, the despair and indignity of those suffering under the worst forms of exploitation… All of us have a responsibility to bring this practice to an end. Survivors must be supported and their families aided and comforted, but we cannot turn our responsibility for doing that over to nongovernmental organizations or the faith community.
Now, we talk often here in the State Department about shared responsibility… So we have to ensure that our policies live up to our ideals. And that is why we have for the first time included the United States. As this report documents, cases of trafficking persons are found in our own communities…this report sends a clear message to all of our countrymen and women: human trafficking is not someone else’s problem. Involuntary servitude is not something we can ignore or hope doesn’t exist in our own community.
Not a reprieve but a responsibility. It would be nice for us to think that trafficking was something that happened somewhere else, to some other people. But it happens right here: all around us people are being exploited for their bodies and their labor. The report tells the stories of survivors, including this man’s experience being enslaved in the United States, even after having entered the country legally:
A recruiter in Jamaica promised Sheldon a visa through the U.S. federal H-2B seasonal worker program. The processing fee was hefty, but the prospect of working in America seemed worth it. Sheldon arrived in Kansas City eager to work, but he ended up at the mercy of human traffickers. Along with other workers from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, Sheldon cleaned rooms at some of the best-known hotels in Kansas City. The traffickers kept Sheldon in debt, constantly charging him fees for uniforms, transportation, and rent in overcrowded apartments. Often, his paychecks would show negative earnings. When Sheldon refused to work, the traffickers threatened to cancel his immigration status, and which would render him illegal in an instant. In May 2009, a federal grand jury indicted the leaders of this trafficking ring – including eight nationals of Uzbekistan – on charges related to forced labor in 14 states.
Here are two other stories of American trafficking:
Katya, a student athlete in an Eastern European capital city, dreamed of learning English and visiting the United States. Her opportunity came in the form of a student visa program, through which international students can work temporarily in the United States. But when she got to America, rather than being taken to a job at a beach resort, the people who met her put her on a bus to Detroit, Michigan. They took her passport away, and forced her and her friends to dance in strip clubs for the traffickers’ profit. They controlled the girls’ movement and travel, kept keys to the girls’ apartment, and listened in on phone calls the girls made to their parents. After a year of enslavement, Katya and her friend were able to reach federal authorities with the help of a patron of the strip club in whom they had confided. Due to their bravery, six other victims were identified and rescued. Katya now has immigration status under the U.S. trafficking law. She works in a health club and hopes to finish her degree in kinesiology. The traffickers are in federal prison.
Harriet ran away from home when she was 11 years old and moved in with a 32-year-old man who sexually and physically abused her and convinced her to become a prostitute. In the next two years, Harriet became addicted to drugs and contracted numerous sexually transmitted diseases. The police arrested Harriet when she was 13 and charged her with committing prostitution. They made no efforts to find her pimp. Harriet was placed on probation for 18 months in the custody of juvenile probation officials. Her lawyers have appealed the decision, arguing that since she could not legally consent to sex, she cannot face prostitution-related charges.
Continuing to ignore the need for the United States to do a chesbon nefesh would have been the easy route, but it would have ignored the exploitation in our midst. The challenge was for us to do better. Indeed, the challenge is still for us to do better.
According to Ambassaor Luis Cdebaca:
In our first Trafficking in Persons Report, we cited the U.S. only as a destination or transit country, oblivious to the reality that we, too, are a source country for people held in servitude. We have all had successes and we have all made mistakes. And we will continue to make them as we reach toward solutions that the victims of this crime so desperately need. We have an involuntary servitude problem now just as we always have throughout history. But the American story is one of striving for perfection; the perfection we believe in and overcoming the great challenges that stand in our way. In our striving to become a more perfect union, we will not shrink away from the promise; the promise of freedom that Abraham Lincoln made almost 150 years ago.
Some additional quotes from this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report:
“The victims of modern slavery have many faces. They are men and women, adults and children. Yet, all are denied basic human dignity and freedom. …
All too often suffering from horrible physical and sexual abuse, it is hard for them to imagine that there might be a place of refuge.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, January 4, 2010
More and more people including young women are on the move, at a time when changing patterns of production and consumption are in turn affecting demand for labour. … A particular problem throughout the world has been the manipulation of financial credit, locking poor people into severe indebtedness and in the worst cases a debt bondage that can be equated legally with modern slavery.”
Roger Plant, former head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labor
The familiar remedies of food, shelter, schools and medicine are urgent, but they do not address the root cause of aggressive violence that manifests itself in slavery – indefensible abuse of the vulnerable by the more powerful. Addressing this issue will require a systemic and sustained commitment to effective public justice systems that protect the global poor.”
Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission
Ambassador Luis Cdebaca:
Millions continue to toil in modern forms of slavery. Disturbing trends are coming into focus, such as the feminization of migration. For example, in the last three years, one source country in Southeast Asia has seen the demographics of its outgoing migrants switch from majority male to more than 70 percent female. Given the unscrupulous nature of labor recruiting, this trend leads to the feminization of labor trafficking, once simply thought of as the male counterpoint to sex trafficking. But like their brothers, husbands, and sons, women are trapped in fields, factories, mines, and restaurants, often suffering the dual demons of forced labor and sexual assault. As we more fully understand the plight of women who are victims of labor trafficking, we continue to see the devastating effects of sex trafficking, where services for survivors are as rare as programs that address the demand for their victimization. And if they are found, women are repatriated as a matter of first instance, or are locked in “shelters” that look more like prisons than the safe haven that a survivor needs.
For more information about the 2010 Trafficking In Person, please visit http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/
In particular, we recommend the 54 page introduction, which includes statistics on human trafficking, definitions of different forms of slavery, and stories of survivors of modern slavery. Specific information about efforts to fight trafficking in the United States and the Tier One ranking can be found in the country narrative for the U.S., which is in this section of the report: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/142984.pdf
For actions you can take in the fight against slavery, please visit www.truah.org.