This week marks the Jewish holiday of Pesach, which recalls the story of the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt. Known in English as "Passover," this celebration of freedom also reminds us of the divine hand passing over the houses of the Israelites in order to slay the firstborn sons of their enslavers. Each year we gather at the "seder" meal and recline on pillows as we feast, enjoying our freedom from hard labor. But Pesach is not only about remembering our own liberation. During the course of the seder we remind ourselves again and again that slavery is an issue not confined to ancient history. We are commanded to feel as if each of us today has been personally freed. Liberty, though, comes with a price: The cost of our own redemption is our commitment to ensuring the freedom of others around the world.
Today, over 27 million people remain enslaved. On every continent, in nearly every state, slavery remains. In the modern world it is usually manifested not in forced physical servitudethough this does occurbut in alternative forms of slavery. The sex trade is now the dominant culprit. Endemic in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, millions of (predominantly) young women have been sold as sex slaves, traded across borders and between brothels. Many end up in the red-light districts of cities in developed countries, such as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States. Some are as young as 13 and 14 years old when first procured.
The sex trade is not the only source of slavery today. Chattel-slavery remains an integral part of life for many communities in West and East Africa. In Mauritania, over a million black Africans are enslaved for use in labor by Arab-Berber masters, passed as property from one generation to another. Civil war in the Sudan has taken international focus away from that country's abhorrent slave trade, complete with raids by militias to capture new slaves from rural villages. Debt slavery is common as well, found mostly in India, Pakistan, and Nepal, where many pledge themselves as collateral against loans. Also, there are as many as 50,000 forced laborers in the United States today, and countless others in Europe and elsewhere.
Survivors tell of horrible, tragic conditions. Forced rape and beatings are commonplace in the life of a slave. Many lose limbs, cut off as punishment for insubordination or attempts at escape. If a slave is freed, he or she almost always suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, including depression and extremely low self-esteem. Those in the sex trade are at an unbelievably high risk of developing HIV and AIDS. Most slaves, though, die in slavery or disappear into poverty and homelessness shortly after liberation.
Slavery in our day is a cancer that must be confronted and treated by the freedom-loving nations of the world. That it remains is a violation of the first, third, fourth, and fifth articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the U.N. in 1948. Slavery is a scathing reminder that the injustices of old, which many believe to have been stamped out at last in our increasingly progressive world, are far from gone.
Pesach allows us to enjoy and appreciate our freedom, though not without remembering our brothers and sisters still in chains. Social justice compels us to act, whether it is as individuals donating time or money to abolitionist groups, as communities organizing to protest those who benefit from slavery, or as free states making the commitment to work together in the common cause of liberty. Each year, Pesach is a call to action; just as Jews are obligated to feel personally liberated, so too must we all, as intellectuals and citizens of the world, commit ourselves to extending to all people the basic freedoms that enable us to live the lives we cherish.
Let us not overlook those who are shackled and unloved. The 21st century has no room for any form of slavery. Instead, when we observe our world and go searching for wrongs to correct, let us not pass over the houses of those who would treat a person as property; let us not pass over the houses of those who would trade women as if they were animals. It is written that Israel was brought out of bondage in Egypt with "a strong hand and an outstretched arm."
Today, we must be the hand of justice that strikes the wicked and the outstretched arm that extends to the downtrodden. May the Pesach invocation ring true: "This year we are still slaves; next year may we all be free."