As Americans and as Jews, we have a special relationship to slavery. As Americans, we know our country fought a terrible civil war to end trafficking in humans. And we know that it took another 100 years to ensure basic civil rights to those freed from bondage in 1865, but denied basic human rights until the 1960s.
As Jews our history as the victims of slavery is much older and more remote in time. But we keep the memory of our enslavement alive. It is a basic part of our DNA, shaping how we view our place in the world and how we respond to injustice visited upon others. Indeed, in the early 1900s National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) members were at the docks meeting boats of newly arriving immigrants from Eastern Europe in order to protect young women from traffickers, even creating a permanent immigration-aid station at Ellis Island in 1904. So it is with a strong history of confronting this scourge that we now, once again, engage with solving the problem of modern-day slavery.
Recent attention has made it all too clear that the trafficking of women and children for sex fuels an underground economy of misery in our midst, not only in many major metropolitan areas, but even in rural America. In response, President Obama has made human trafficking a signature focus of his presidency, holding a daylong invitational anti-trafficking conference at the White House, which I was privileged to attend. Working with anti-trafficking activists, the president has taken important steps to improve the federal government’s response, including issuing an executive order strengthening protections against human trafficking in government contracting, forming a public-private partnership to focus on best practices in victims services, and proposing a five-year strategic action plan across agencies to improve victim assistance.
For years, NCJW members across the country have been working to combat sex trafficking in their communities — raising awareness and helping to pass state legislation. Now, the newly launched Exodus: NCJW’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative, expands on that comprehensive and coordinated response. Through the Exodus Action Kit, NCJW offers resources and programming materials to help educate and raise awareness about this hidden issue. Additionally, three state laws that are key to ensuring trafficking survivors can escape their traffickers and move forward with their lives are highlighted: National Trafficking Hotline posting laws, safe harbor laws, and vacating trafficking conviction laws.
Many states don’t mandate the posting of state or national trafficking hotline numbers. As a result, sex trafficking victims and survivors in these states don’t have this critical resource to obtain support services or seek safety. Another important law provides safe harbor from prosecution by recognizing that trafficked children are victims, not criminals, and ensures access to medical care, safe housing, remedial education, and counseling services. Lastly, laws that allow for vacating or expunging trafficking convictions acknowledge that trafficking victims are not responsible for the criminal activity in which they have been forced to engage. Taken together, these laws provide trafficking survivors with a real second chance in life.
Our work on trafficking also includes a continued push for federal laws that provide funding for data collection. Without quantifying the scope of trafficking, it’s difficult to address the problem. Another key focus is reforming the child welfare system. Children in foster care can be especially vulnerable to exploitation, and too often the welfare system has effectively been serving as a supply chain to traffickers.
NCJW is a powerful voice for social justice in the Jewish community and in the larger advocacy world. But we don’t go it alone; we try to forge coalitions to multiply our strength. NCJW is a longtime member of the steering committee of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, a national coalition of hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault prevention groups. NCJW heads a trafficking working group for those organizations within this coalition interested in federal anti-trafficking legislation. And together with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, NCJW convenes the Jewish Coalition Against Trafficking.
In Israel, we work to combat sex trafficking through legislation and our Israel Granting Program. We have funded Turning the Tables, an innovative organization that assists women who are survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution. Its flagship project embraces a multidimensional approach to survivors’ rehabilitation through vocational training, a micro-business development program, and in-house or external job placement.
Jews around the globe have just celebrated Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and we are called to reflect upon the year that has just passed and to contemplate how we will work to fix this broken world in the year ahead. The women welcomed to our shores in New York harbor a century ago began new lives of opportunity, thanks to the efforts of the women who preceded them in finding refuge here. We must honor our commitment to them and be true to our own values by defeating the scourge of trafficking from which we sought to save our sisters so many decades ago. When we combine the efforts of government and nonprofit agencies, shift away from blaming the victim, reform the child welfare system, and adequately fund survivor assistance, “modern-day slavery” can become a term relegated to history once and for all.
Nancy Kaufman is CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.