Slavery, Then And Now

Slavery, Then And Now

The seder can be a reminder that the practice did not end 3,000 years ago.

A few years ago, in the weeks leading up to Pesach, my 5-year-old daughter and I joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida for part of its annual massive mobilization in support of its Campaign for Fair Food. The action was a 150-mile March for Fair Food from Fort Myers to Lakeland, where Publix, a Fair Food holdout, is based.

Over two weeks, hundreds of activists joined with farmworkers in solidarity with the groundbreaking worker campaign that, through the implementation of CIW’s Fair Food Program, has transformed the Florida tomato industry from “ground zero” for human trafficking in this country to one of the best workplaces in American agriculture. The farmworkers have found allies in consumer activists, university students, and people of faith who are determined to hold grocery stores and fast food chains accountable for the values the businesses claim to profess.

Liora and I were there in 2013 to lend the support of the Jewish community.

Human rights — and difficult issues like modern-day slavery — might seem difficult to explain to children; they are not if you break them down to the values behind the call of the crowd for “Justice for Farmworkers.”

Liora, in first grade, understood why we were marching: the farmworkers, primarily from Mexico and Guatemala, needed to be paid more, they deserved to be treated with fairness and respect, and everyone deserved to be free from slavery.

One morning, with the sun rising, we were sitting on a school bus — a banner with the words “No more slavery in the fields” along its side — waiting for the marching to begin. Liora turned to me and asked to practice the Four Questions, which she would recite soon at our family’s seder.

In that moment, I felt the past and the present come together.

Listening to her chant in Hebrew, mah mishtanah halayla hazeh mikol halaylot, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I understood the power of the commitment we make each year as Jews to telling the story of freedom.

At the beginning of the seder, the Wicked Child asks, “What does all of this mean to you?” Mah ha’avodah hazot lachem?

For a rabbi whose core work involves fighting modern-day slavery, this is more than a theoretical question. It is not enough to talk about once having been slaves. The first step: we must raise awareness about modern-day slavery.

At T’ruah, we teach the lesson that the seder’s emphasis on redemption, the process of becoming a free people, creates a model that we can apply to our own activism today.

While slavery is illegal in most countries, forced labor is found everywhere, including in the U.S. and Israel. The International Labor Organization conservatively estimates that 22 million people across the globe are in situations of forced labor; other organizations place the number at closer to 27 to 30 million. Forced labor is found in all industries: farm work, domestic work, hotels, restaurants, factories, county fairs, forced sex work, magazine-selling crews, and more. Poverty and increased migration are major drivers of the increase in human trafficking.

Our obligation is to support efforts to rebuild lives and resolve the root causes of human trafficking. This includes donating or volunteering with shelters that support trafficking victims, advocating politically to strengthen wage and safety laws that protect workers, and changing immigration laws regarding recruitment of foreign labor that leave temporary workers vulnerable to exploitation.

As consumers, most of us unknowingly benefit from slave labor. Products we buy every day, such as chocolate, cotton, or iron, have forced labor in their supply chains. There is often no way to know this about specific products directly, because companies are not required to audit their supply chains or take corrective action when slavery is found. Through legislation and worker-led campaigns, we must hold companies accountable for human rights violations in their supply chains, using the Fair Food Program as the best model for what a worker-designed solution can accomplish.

We must say “Dayeinu,” enough. It is not the tomato or the chocolate or the cotton that is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, but the worker who produced it, and this Pesach, we must not ignore their quest for dignity, rights and freedom.

In the Jewish community several organizations, including T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women International, and Hadassah, have jointly advocated for federal legislation, and raised awareness about slavery.

For anyone looking to tell the story of modern-day slavery at his or her seder, T’ruah has published “The Other Side of the Sea: A Haggadah on Fighting Modern-Day Slavery,” a supplemental reading that examines contemporary slavery from the perspective of both classical and contemporary texts, with contributions from more than three dozen rabbis, activists, and survivors of human trafficking.

Anyone looking to add a commemoration of modern-day slavery to one’s seder plate can add a tomato in celebration of the farmworkers who picked it.

Anyone looking to bring some slavery-free food to the seder has a couple of guaranteed options. T’ruah and Fair Trade Judaica have partnered with Equal Exchange to ensure that kosher-for-Passover Fair Trade (and thus slavery-free) chocolate is available. The CIW’s Fair Food tomatoes are available at Whole Foods, Stop and Shop, Giant, Fresh Market, Walmart or Trader Joe’s (currently the only grocery stores participating in the Fair Food Program).

At our seder, we will give thanks for the many courageous people who are working for freedom in our time.

My younger daughter Aliza will be the one singing the Mah Nishtanah at the seder this year. She and I recently marched in a CIW action in New York, and I have heard from her teachers that she is teaching her kindergarten class about justice for farmworkers.

The Jewish commitment to a world without slavery continues.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.