Seeking justice for the enslaved

Next April when we sit down at our Seder tables, many of us will participate in the familiar responsive reading:

Reader: Avadim Hayinu – We were slaves in Egypt.

All: We remember our histories; we acknowledge our pasts.

Reader: Ata b’nei horin – Now we are free people.

All: How will we use our freedom? We have a responsibility to fight for justice.

What I think about is how the concept of slavery could possibly have been considered just. Where did that come from? Why would one think that owning another human being was acceptable? How do we still have forms of slavery today?

Enslaved people throughout the generations have shared two major problems: the loss of personal freedom and the loss of all legal rights. Dating back thousands of years and continuing into the present, history details slave practices occurring in Mesopotamia and Sumeria, Greece, Rome, Egypt, Britain under Viking control and later on her own, Africa, Portugal, Spain, the United States and elsewhere.

The story of enslaved Black people in our country is a mark on everything we hold dear. It is inconceivable that it took a civil war to begin the process of educating those for whom slavery was a way of life.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration of Human Rights, providing that freedom from slavery is a universal human right which is to be prohibited in all forms. Have we fulfilled this promise?

Isn’t sex trafficking a form of slavery?
Isn’t forced labor a form of slavery?
Isn’t domestic servitude a form of slavery?
Isn’t unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers a form of slavery?
What about forced marriages?

In 2001, a documentary about slavery and forced child labor in the cacao and chocolate industry won a Peabody Award and two Emmys. Titled “Slavery: A Global Investigation,” it was released in the United States and in Europe.

In 2008, judges in the Special Court for Sierra Leone found forced marriage to be a “crime against humanity” and convicted three officers in the Revolutionary United Front. This was a first for an international criminal tribunal.

In 2014, the UN International Labor Organization estimated that $150 billion in annual profits was generated from human trafficking.

In 2017, a global study found that 40 million people are trapped in forms of modern slavery throughout the world: 50 percent in agricultural forced labor, manufacturing, construction, mining, and other industries requiring physical labor; 12.5 percent in sex slavery; and 37.5 percent in forced marriages.

Owning another human being is reprehensible. It always was. Seventy-three years after the 1948 UN declaration of human rights, we still have much work to do. Are we truly free people if others are enslaved?

“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l’maan tichyeh” – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…


Audrey Brooks is an Emeritus Judicial Member, State Bar of Wisconsin, lifelong volunteer, and current Tucson Hebrew Academy Board Chair.