Slavery in the modern world

We need another Passover in our day. Many forms of slavery still exist around the world. Jewish activists like Charles Jacobs, have been trying to bring awareness of this issue to the world – yet most human rights groups refuse to join this effort.  So I wanted to share a letter by Charles Jacobs

Image from, Modern incidence of slavery

Dear friends,

You know us-American Anti-Slavery Group -as the small, feisty set of abolitionists who broke the stunning story that modern day human bondage thrives around the globe. You know us as the people who helped free slaves in Sudan and America. You know as those who helped former slaves educate tens of thousands about slavery. And you know us as the folks who successfully helped press the US government to stop the genocide and slave raids in South Sudan.

You’ve not heard from us for awhile. We’ve been writing, thinking and planning. This message marks the re-launching of AASG — with an enhanced and transformed mission.

What we learned about the fight to emancipate modern day slaves:

After two decades with some rather stunning successes, we took time to step back to evaluate our experience fighting to abolish slavery.

Here’s what we learned: A major flaw in the human rights community needs to be addressed.

The history of the modern day abolitionist effort is a history of small, dedicated passionate groups of people, fighting slavers and slaving nations – while the large, well funded human rights organizations sat on the sidelines, or in the case of Sudan, actually hindered our work.

I spent more than a decade unraveling why this was the case: how could the very people who led the fight against apartheid in South Africa turn their heads away from the plight of black slaves in North Africa who suffered much worse oppression?

The short answer is what I have called, “the human rights complex.”  Briefly:

* Western rights groups consist mainly of decent white people who are motivated to fight evil committed by people who are like themselves.

* The vast majority of slave-owners are non-white.

* If human rights organizations are embarrassed to point out, much less fight hard against awful behavior by non-whites, they cannot be counted upon to be an important force in a movement to abolish slaves around the world.

* Any effort to free the some 27 million people who are today in bondage, without addressing this human rights flaw, is destined to remain relatively small, no matter how heroic.

Alternatively, helping human rights community to overcome this narcissistic viewpoint will exponentially add to the forces of emancipation.

For this reason, in addition to fighting slavery, AASG will promote a non-politicized, bias-free human rights community that employs a single and universal standard of human rights conduct.

Charles Jacobs

Source sheet on Jewish views of slavery

The Dignity of work and the indignity, by Rabbi Gordon Tucker

Doesn’t the Bible teach that slavery is acceptable?

If we read the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) outside of a historical context, one may see it as condoning slavery. Yet Jewish readings of the Tanakh hold that such verses must be interpreted as (a) severe limits and restrictions on previous forms of slavery that once existed in the ancient near-east, and (b) the beginning of a rule-based and ethics-based system of indentured servitude.

We may see verses which state that non-Jewish slaves could be owned forever, and only freed if one knocked out a tooth or eye – what do these verses mean?  Note that at the time of the Torah, widespread slavery with almost no limitation existed: if we take these verses literally, then what we are seeing are rules that force slave owners to free slaves. We shouldn’t read these verses backwards, from today’s 21st century, and assume that these severe limitations on servants were the creation and encouragement of this practice.

Yet even more significantly we must ask, was slavery – as opposed to temporary, ethics-restricted indentured servitude, really part of Biblical Jewish life? We know that the Torah itself wasn’t even redacted into its modern form until the time of Ezra the Scribe, long after Moses. Whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox, we don’t read the Torah as sanctioning anything like chattel slavery.

(A) Non-Orthodox Jews learn from historical scholarship that the Torah must not always be taken as literal history. Since it was edited together well after Moses, it contains idealized reconstructions of what the editors thought the practices must have been. As such, we can’t be certain that all of those rules were followed literally. That’s why Judaism’s oral law – Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud – are so important. We have to read the Bible through the lens of Judaism’s oral law to know how to apply it.

(B) Orthodox Jews are adamant that the Torah – even if understood as literally written all by Moses – never contained all the information or rules, and that even many rules were literary/legal devices, not meant to be followed literally. These rules developed in a context.  That’s why Judaism’s oral law – Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud – are so important. We have to read the Bible through the lens of Judaism’s oral law to know how to apply it.

Then there is the entire story of Passover itself, which is a clear repudiation of the idea of slavery itself.

Moses and Aaron before Pharoah by Gustave Dore
Moses and Aaron before Pharoah, from Gustave Doré’s illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours.

Rabbinical Assembly resolutions

From 2002, the Rabbinical Assembly (Masorti/Conservative Judaism)

WHEREAS there are currently an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide, more than at any other time in history, lives purchased at an average cost of $90 per person; and

WHEREAS the United Nations International Declaration on Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states in Article 4 that: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”; and

WHEREAS the United States government has gone on record in the 107th Congress (HR 2052 RH and S 180 IS) as recognizing the need to address this human rights violation; and

WHEREAS Jewish tradition call upon us to see ourselves as liberated slaves, “in every generation, we are commanded to view ourselves as if each one of us was personally brought forth out of Egypt.” (Passover Haggadah)

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Rabbinical Assembly call upon the Secretary General of the United Nations, the President of the United States and members of the 107th Congress, to condemn the practice of slavery and exert all possible influence on governments of countries where these practices exist to end these practices in their countries; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Rabbinical Assembly call upon its members to educate our constituencies as to the widespread practices of slavery and to advocate for the eradication of slavery worldwide and to encourage other affiliated organizations and institutions of the Conservative Movement to join in this effort; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Rabbinical Assembly educate its members, through the Social Action Committee, as to the countries that practice slavery and how they do it.

Passed by Rabbinical Assembly Plenum, February, 2002


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