March 18, 1999
A Reminder: Slavery Still Exists
Hundreds of people turned out for the Simon Weisenthal Center Museum of Tolerance's one-day symposium, "A Call to Freedom." The conference, held last month, highlighted the plight of black slaves in Sudan and Mauritania, where today, "tens of thousands of blacks are sold into slavery, raised like slaves and have the deadened expressions of men and women who know no other life but the life of a slave," said Sam Cotton, author of "Silent Terror," a book describing his secret trip to Mauritania where he interviewed slaves.
"In Mauritania, the slavery situation is rooted in race," Cotton said. "The Berber, light-skinned Muslims of the North are enslaving the dark-skinned Muslims of the south. In Sudan, the situation is not of the color of skin as much as it is of religion," Cotton said.
Cotton's "calling to action" came from an unexpected informer: Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group was one of the first Americans to bring word of modern-day slavery in Africa to the media. Jacobs, then a full-time management consultant, learned about the state of slavery in Africa by chance. "I was at a seminar, and the man sitting next to me started talking about slavery in Africa. I couldn't believe it was still going on today, and my research led to me creating the group," Jacobs said.
Following Cotton's trip to Mauritania, both men presented the information documented by Cotton, in testimony before Congress.
"For six years, we have been banging on America's door with this story. People are just beginning to respond,"Jacobs said.
California state Sen. Tom Hayden joined the voice of the abolitionist movement, as did U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. In addition, Pat Robertson and New York state Assemblyman Sheldon Silver vowed to commit their efforts to raising awareness in the U.S.
One resounding, if unexpected, response was from Barbara Vogel and her fifth graders in Aurora, Colo. Presently, the students are the most active abolitionists in the world, raising some $70,000 to buy slaves their freedom. A recent CBS News report on the students' action was shown at the symposium. "We are not politically inspired," Vogel said. "We are abolitionists."
"Although the activity of buying back slaves for freedom is highly controversial, and most certainly not a cure, it is one way individuals have been able to respond without government support," Jacobs said.
At a time when Muslim groups are accusing Jacobs of being involved in a "Jewish plot against the Muslims" and "an FBI trick," little has been done in the U.S. or United Nations -- aside from fact-finding -- to challenge the Mauritanian government's actions against slavery. "Even though slavery has been outlawed in Mauritania three times by the government, the government understands that culturally, slavery is really due to the drive by Islamic concepts and tradition," Cotton told the symposium audience. "The status of slavery is real, regardless of what the government says."
Most dramatic of all was personal testimony given by former slave Moctar Teyeb. "Slavery is systematic in Mauritania. My family has been enslaved for generations. I was told that this was how God created me," he said, while displaying his deformed arm that never healed properly from a beating when he was 9. "Without the experience of freedom, how could I question it? Slavery is a total damage to your existence. I was driven by a dream of a better life. I once spoke of this desire in the open and was humiliated by my master. At age 19, when sent to the city to meet someone for my master, I escaped. It was when I crossed the Senegal River that I knew I was free."
In light of the upcoming Passover holiday, when Jews recount the tale of their passage through the Red Sea to freedom, Jacobs encouraged Jews not to forget the tradition of extending their attention to those around the world who are not yet free.
"We are a country of abolitionists," Jacobs said. "America tore itself apart over the issue of slavery. Let us today heed our abolitionist calling."
Jacobs suggested that people leave an empty chair at their seder tables for the one without freedom in Africa, place a fourth matzo with the traditional three and read this prayer while holding the fourth matzo:
"We raise this fourth matzo to remind ourselves that slavery still exists, that people are still being bought and sold as property, that the Divine image within them is yet being denied. We make room at our seder table and in our hearts for those in the south of Sudan and in Mauritania who are now where we have been. We have known such treatment in our own history. We have suffered while others stood by and pretended not to see, not to know. We have eaten the bitter herb; we have been taken from our families and brutalized. We have experienced the horror of being forcibly converted. In the end, we have come to know in our very being that none can be free until all are free. And so, we commit and recommit ourselves to work for the freedom of these poor people. May the test of this bread of affliction remain in our mouths until they can eat in peace and security. Knowing that all people are Yours, O God, we will urge our government and all governments to do as You once commanded Pharaoh on our behalf: Shalach et Ami! Let My People Go! May we and they take these words to heart. Amen."