Imagine that you are a 23-year-old woman in Ukraine, a country worn out by poverty since the fall of the former Soviet Union. Everyone around you is, like you, poor and desperate. There is no food, even for the children, Imagine that five months ago you gave birth. Your husband, who used to bring a little food sometimes, does not come home anymore. The baby cries from hunger, but your milk is all dried up. You have hardly clothes to keep you warm and no relief in sight; it’s hopeless.
Then, an acquaintance of your sister’s tells you about a job cleaning houses in Israel. Your passport and trip will be paid for, the work will be easy, and you can make 1,000 dollars a month. Before you had the baby, you were making 38 dollars a month. After just one year there, you could come home with enough money to start a new life.
But when you get to Israel, a rough-speaking man confiscates your passport. He says you owe thousands of dollars for your fare and passport, and that you must work—as a prostitute—to pay off the debt. You are made to service 30 men a night; if you resist, you’re beaten and raped. You speak no Hebrew or English to run away and ask for help; in any ease the man says that he has bribed the police, so don’t even try to escape. Worse, he says if you tell anyone, he’ll hurt your family at home. He recites your address, the name of the acquaintance who knows your sister, and then he shows you a picture of your baby. You are terrified.
Or this. Imagine that you are a 15-year-old girl looking for a job in your local newspaper in Russia. You spot an ad announcing that waitresses under 25 are needed for restaurants in the U.S. The salaries begin at 1,500 dollars a month. This is perfect, you think. Your family is barely scraping by. If you take this job, you can send money home, and maybe even save some extra for university later You respond to the ad, no matter the opinion of your family.
But when you arrive at Kennedy Airport in New York, the woman greeting you orders you into a van, and yells move it. Confused and suddenly scared, you’re brought to a strip club in New Jersey, where you’re told you have a huge debt to pay off for the trouble it took to get you here. Other girls hang back in the corners. As you begin to cry, you’re swiftly hit in the face by one of the men in charge. The next week you find yourself in the basement of a house in Brooklyn, told you must have sex with 20 or more men every day. If you don’t, your debt will get higher, and you will stay longer.
You want to leave this terrible place more than anything in the world. When you open the window of the house, you hear people speaking Russian, and some of the men who come to you for sex are Russian immigrants themselves. Sometimes they speak about friends or their families. One man warns you quietly to be careful of the people who brought you here, and hints that they’re connected to local crime mobs. You want to go to someone to make this nightmare stop, but you’re seared, and also ashamed. How could you ever even reach out to this Russian community? Maybe they would never believe you, maybe they would shun you, call you a dirty, stupid girl who should have known better.
You may be able to imagine these scenes but, unfortunately, these aren’t imaginary stories. Instead, they are commonplace real-life experiences in the underground world of sex trafficking, happening often right around the corner in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Tel Aviv, in strip clubs, brothels, and private homes. But in the past 24 months, prodded by tougher laws and by a growing public consciousness, there’s an attempt to stem this tide, both in the U.S. and Israel.
According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the human trafficking industry, a form of modern-day slavery, fuels an estimated $9.5 billion enterprise world-wide each year. The Safe Horizon Anti-Trafficking program estimates two million people are trafficked worldwide annually. While trafficking includes various kinds of labor exploitation, sex slavery is an enterprise where the majority of victims are women and underage girls. Overall, trafficking is the second most profitable industry of organized crime after drug trafficking.
Although there are no reliable data on the involvement of Jews in sex trafficking—as the female victims, the traffickers, or their “clients”—anecdotal evidence gathered over several months of interviews indicates that Jews are not only on the side of the angels, trying to correct these abuses of human rights, but may also be among the perpetrators as well. Henna White, who works with Russian Jews in New York as the community liaison for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, is a part of the Emigre Task Force, a group of Jewish agencies that meet to discuss domestic violence issues. She proposes that this task force take on the issue of trafficking as well.
Several Jewish organizations have been galvanized by the issue, both as a matter of social justice and from a specifically Jewish perspective. Last year, National Council of Jewish Women led a rally outside the United Nations in New York, calling for an end to human trafficking. (NCJW has a long history of protecting young immigrant women from the predations of pimps and evildoers who, a hundred years ago, would meet ships bringing girls and young women to the United States to join their families, and would attempt to lure them into prostitution known then as “white slavery.” NCJW members would meet the boats to try to get to these young Jewish girls and women first.)
A few months after the NCJW rally, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) invited Laura Lederer, Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons in the U.S. State Department, to give an overview on trafficking globally. This February, JCPA Plenary adopted a resolution on combating human trafficking. Martin Raffel, Associate Executive Director, told Lilith that part of what motivated the organization’s commitment to human trafficking was the injunction of pidyon shvuyim, the rescue of captives. Both the Rambam and the Shulkhan Arukh say that there is no greater mitzvah than pidyon shvuyim, for the captive is at once like the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, and is in mortal danger.
Hebrew Union College in New York entitled a December 2005 symposium on trafficked persons, “Freeing the Captives: The Jewish Response to Human Trafficking.” In response to presentations on the prevalence of this modern-day sex slavery in New York, Rabbi Ruth Gais, Director of the College’s Kollel and Community said, “What struck me was [that] women and girls were living as slaves five minutes from my home.”
One Jewish organization—American Jewish World Service (AJWS)—is taking action directly, working in 37 developing countries with support from Jewish organizations and foundations. From these efforts come programs such as the Cambodia-based COSECAM, which addresses sex exploitation of young women and works to connect them to apprenticeship positions, creating alternative means of income so they’re less vulnerable to the lure of earning money abroad.
Caroline Katz, Director of Immigration Services of the UJA-Federation of New York, explained that 9/11 was the impetus that propelled the organization to take on immigration policies, which eventually led the organization to look at human trafficking. According to Katz, the victims turn up first “mostly in programs for victims of family violence.”
Critiquing the commitment to fight this sex slavery, Dorchen Leidholdt, Director for the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Service at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, said in an interview, “Somehow it was the Eastern European women who brought attention to this issue. Perhaps the global West identifies with people who look like them….” The idea of white women as premium, luxury merchandise in the sex trafficking industry is not new. In January of 1998, in a New York Times special report, Michael Specter wrote that “.. .Economic hopelessness in the Slavic world has opened what experts call the most lucrative market of all to criminal gangs that have flourished since the fall of Communism: white women with little to sustain them but their dreams. Pimps, law enforcement officials and relief groups all agree that Ukrainian and Russian women are now the most valuable in the trade.”
Anita Altman, deputy Managing Director of Government and External Relations at UJA-Federation of New York, asks, “What were we told at Passover each year? That we were once slaves. If not us, who? Jews are told Zachor, remember. We must not be a community that’s so insular that we look out only for our own.”
But in some cases, it is “our own” who are the parties involved, particularly as “clients” (we should more aptly term them “abusers”) of these sex slaves in Israel.
Bonna Haberman, a lecturer in Gender and Judaic Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explained the role of the U.S. in the bringing trafficking to the fore as an urgent issue in Israel. In 2000, the U.S. created a three-tier monitoring system to identify which countries meet the minimum anti-trafficking standard, attaching sanctions to “Tier .3” nations who do not fulfill it. “When Israel came up in the third tier, then it really lit a fire under the administration of Israel.”
“Not only did the publication of the U.S. report result in great embarrassment,” reported Nomi Levenkron, author of a 2003 Israeli report on sex trafficking, “it also constituted a very real threat, since U.S. legislation prohibits the provision of nonhumanitarian economic aid to countries in category three.” Levenkron is the head of the Legal Department at the Hotline for Migrant Workers and directs the legal clinic for trafficking at Hebrew University.
Israel’s Paiilamentary Enquiry Committee on the Trafficking of Women, led by Zahava Gal-On, published findings early in 2006 which illustrate the enormity of the problem in Israel. The committee assessed trafficking in that country from 2000 to 2005 and found that between 3,000 and 5,000 women are smuggled into Israel each year for the purposes of sex trafficking, most of them women from the former Soviet Union. Each woman is traded for about $8,000 to $10,000 U.S. dollars. Annually, the take is over one billion dollars in Israel.
Levenkron’s report stated that of the large sample of trafficked women interviewed, 44% said that the men who came to them for sex were a part of the Israeli police force. When Llilth asked Levenkron to explain, she responded that she believed there was a great deal of complicity with trafficking on the part of legal authorities worldwide. She told of police authorities returning escaped victims to brothel owners. Levenkron also described the anger of the public when the police involvement as clients was revealed. “They called us crazy feminist bitches after we published about this.” In response to the why? of trafficking, Levenkron was clear: “There is this thinking that I deserve it, I am the best.. .she’s only a Russian prostitute.’ You have to give women some rights, besides just using them for testimonies and sending them home. They have trauma I cannot even start to describe.”
At a UJA Forum on Trafficking in February, women joined together from a range of organizations—among them Jewish Women International, FEGS, New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), The Jewish Board of Children and Family Services and Safe Horizon—Altman, who had founded the UJA-Federation Task Force on Family Violence in New York, stressed the urgency of lobbying for state laws to prosecute trafficking specifically. Right now, they only address specific crimes such as rape, physical assault, homicide. New York, for example, has no state laws against trafficking itself, and most charges are brought at the state level. And there is not even one shelter in the U.S. for victims of sex trafficking.
Cate Griebel, an intensive case manager with the Safe Horizon Anti-Trafficking Program, commented that “the Jewish community has the unique ability to become involved with antitrafficking efforts both on local and national policy levels and through direct services to trafficking survivors.” Such direct service includes assistance to victims who not only experience language barriers in communicating with those trying to assist them, but are also, understandably, fearful and distrustful in the aftermath of their trauma. Griebel explained that she recently met with staff of the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services working in the Russian-speaking sections of Brooklyn, New York. “I’d say we have seen an increase in the number of Russian clients over the past year. The Jewish Board has important inroads to the Russian-speaking population in New York City; they understand the dynamics of trauma and they are seen in the community as professionals, especially regarding issues of confidentiality. This is very important.” Safe Horizon’s program does not screen for religious background, so Griebel had no comment on the exact percentage of these Russian-speaking victims who might be Jewish.
A gutsy Jewish Canadian filmmaker, Ric Esther Bienstock, has more to say on the possible role Jews play in trafficking. Bienstock was struck by the subject of trafficking when she met two Russian women working as slaves in a brothel in China three years ago. The result is the brave and scathing documentary Sex Slaves, a “Frontline” investigation that aired on PBS in February. Bienstock took to the streets in Moldova and Ukraine and filmed with hidden cameras actual scenes of women being sold. While Bienstock did not work directly with Jews, she suggests that they may be involved. She told Lilith by email that “While filming “Sex Slaves” we didn’t come across any Jewish traffickers or victims, but that’s not to say that they don’t exist. It is common knowledge that there are Jews involved in the Russian mafia, which is undoubtedly involved in the trafficking of women to Europe and inevitably, to North America. [Since the broadcast] I have received emails from several people criticizing me for not discussing the Jewish involvement in trafficking.”
An American Jewish woman who works closely with Russian- Jewish populations in New York (and who requested anonymity to protect those she serves) said that she believes Russian-Jewish women are indeed being sold into sex slavery and brought into the U.S., but do not come forward for help out of shame, fear of the traffickers, and a fear of local police authority based on experiences in their home countries. This source noted that 15 years ago, domestic violence was not spoken about in the Jewish community at all, and suggested that trafficking of girls and women for sex slavery would in the future similarly become more publicly acknowledged in the Jewish community. She noted that the profile of many of Jewish women trying to leave Eastern Europe for the U.S. is the same as that of their non- Jewish cohort: they come from poverty, they are from a place they want to get out of in Russia, they need to make money in the U.S. to survive. Meanwhile, any Jewish victims, like most of their sisters, remain silenced.
“Certainly if women have another alternative economically,” says Leidholdt of Battered Women’s Legal Services, “it would help the situation tremendously. We have to look at how we can provide women and girls with meaningful alternatives. We need to look at who is being prostituted and who is benefiting from this.” Filmmaker Bienstock says, in the director’s note accompanying “Sex Slaves,” that “the collapse of the Soviet Union has resulted in a desperation that has forced thousands of young women to do anything to get out and try to earn a living. This is the root cause of the increase in women from these countries into the global sex trade.” Bienstock exposed this cruelty in her “Frontline” interview.’ “There are no happy endings in the world of trafficking. There are women who get saved who might be helped…and get back on their feet, but these people are scarred for life.”
llana Kramer is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She hold a Masters in Gender Politics from New York University and counsels victims of domestic violence, email@example.com
New Federal Law-will this help?
Marina Livshits, clinical coordinator of Kol Isha, a domestic violence program in Boston at Jewish Family and Children Services, works predominantly with Russian-speaking women who come into the U.S. as mail-order brides and often end up being abused by their American husbands. Livshits explains this practice of servile marriage as another form of trafficking, where a woman is recruited through an international bridal agency to be a sexual and domestic slave. Most of Livshits’s clients are Russian women motivated by the idea of marrying a Westerner who promises a good life.
A new federal law that just took effect March 6 requires that mail-order brides brought to the United States be informed both of their immigration rights when they apply for a U.S. visa and also of any criminal history of the husband-to-be. Marriage brokers are under scrutiny as well; they now must screen their clients or be hit with significant fines. “American men don’t need background checks to marry American women, so the law is discriminatory,” Natasha Spivack, owner of Encounters International, in Rockville, Maryland, told Womensenews angrily Hers is the first U.S.-based marriage-broker agency to be sued by a former client, according to Womensenews.
We Were Slaves…”
Forced trafficking and prostitution are part of a seldom-told history of Jewish women. Isabel Vincent, author of Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas (Random House, 2006) tells not only of these three women, but of an entire phenomenon of thousands of Eastern European young Jewish women who fled a rising climate of anti-Semitism and the bleak realities of their shtetls and ghettos, from the 1860s to the beginning of World War II. They left with the prospect of work opportunities abroad only to be sold into forced slavery and prostitution by the Zwi Migdal, an organized group of Jewish mobsters, in the brothels of South America, India, South Africa, and New York. They were then, like so many victims of trafficking today, shunned by their own people. In America, these Jewish women were forbidden to enter the synagogues of the surrounding, reputable Jewish communities. These communities viewed their fellow sisters as uncouth, foul women.
Bonna Haberman in Israel speaks to this history, referring back to the happy shtetl imagery of such icons as “Fiddler on the Roof”: “It was a very dark side of Tevye.”