On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, setting the date for the liberation of more than 3 million black slaves in the United States. In it he wrote, “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
Looking back these 150 years later, we know that despite the considerate judgment of humankind and the gracious favor of the Almighty, the eradication of slavery is yet an unfulfilled mandate.
This past summer, I traveled with American Jewish World Service to Africa, where I was confronted by the brutal truth of slavery legacy in societies still infected with its presence. Embedded in communities and industries across the world, children are sold for as little as $50 into a life of forced labor, malnutrition and physical abuse. Young girls are trafficked into lives as sex slaves. My eyes have been changed by what I saw, the children I sang with, communities still touched by the enduring darkness of human oppression.
But I didn’t need to travel across the world to see slavery. Here in the United States, Rabbis for Human Rights–North America is mobilizing the Jewish community to fight slavery in our home communities and in the products we buy, including a groundbreaking partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to end forced labor in the Florida tomato industry.
I am guilty of knowing that slavery persists, all the while living a life of smartphones, food and clothing that are all touched or produced by slavery. And I am grateful to both organizations mentioned above, as well as others doing similar work, for their tireless commitment to continue raising awareness and leading the Jewish community to making the world a more just place for every person.
Let’s do something about this. On Oct. 1, 2011, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the cornerstone of the U.S. effort to fight human trafficking, the largest piece of anti-trafficking legislation in U.S. history, expired as a result of congressional inaction and partisanship. Call your senators and ask them to support the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (S. 1301).
Benjamin Franklin’s proposed great seal for the United States was a depiction of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom, a journey that commands the Jewish people to “treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Every person, created in the image of the divine, is worthy of dignity.
Our story of slavery is older than the ones being written in our world this very day. And we can — we must — do something about it. As Americans, we are called. As Jews, we are called.
Jewish tradition teaches that teshuvah, repentance, is achieved only when we are confronted with the same wrong thing again and given the opportunity to act justly. I had to travel around the world to be reminded that slavery persists in my backyard. I intend to learn this lesson well and share its heavy obligation loudly.
The modern prophet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The image of the person is larger than the frame into which they have been compressed.” Just imagine how high the heavens will have to expand to make room when every woman, man and child is free.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights–North America.