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12 Years A Slave Could Have Been Set in Los Angeles Today—and We Can Do Something About It

by Rabbi Robin Podolsky

March 6, 2014 | 7:52 pm

Imagine that you are promised a great job by recruiters who wine and dine you and whisk you out of town—not to the lucrative gig you were promised but into terrifying captivity.  You find yourself trapped in a strange place without any identification or anyone who knows who you are and is on your side.  You are set to work at a backbreaking job for little or no pay.  Your person is entirely at someone else’s disposal.  In this awful privacy, there is nothing to stop the people who have power over you from enacting every capacity for evil that is in them.   A good day is when you’re not raped or beaten or too sick to function.  A good night is one in which you manage several hours of uninterrupted sleep.


That is, of course, the premise of this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave.  The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man who, in 1842, was lured with promises of employment into Southern captivity by remorseless kidnappers.


This movie is set in the past, yes, but director Steve McQueen dedicated his Oscar to, “21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”  Throughout the world, people are lured into slavery by traffickers who promise them good jobs and transport them to a place where they know no one and, often, don’t speak the majority language, and then seize their identification and turn them over to “employers” who keep them captive and working for little or no pay at factory work or domestic labor or as prostitutes.  And an astonishing number of those people are suffering here in the United States.   It’s estimated that 15,000 to 17,500 men, women and children are trafficked into The United States every year, and our own city of Los Angeles is one of the three top points of entry.


Now we have a practical way to help.  A coalition of the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, an organization that provides direct services to trafficking survivors and trains them as advocates and policy-makers, OASIS USA, Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, T’ruah (a rabbinic human rights organization that I am proud to work with), and Gibson, Dunn, Crutcher LLP is working to help implement a new California law, SB 1193, authored by California State Senator pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-6, which mandates that mass transit hubs, emergency rooms, bars and other establishments display a poster with information about human trafficking, including the hotline numbers to CAST (888-539-2373) and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (888-373-7888).  At a press conference on February 10, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Supervisor Don Knabe, City Council Member Nury Martinez and City Attorney Mike Feuer pledged support for this bill.  The City Attorney’s office has begun sending letters inform Los Angeles business owners of their obligation to comply with this new law.


These hotlines offer direct help to possible victims of human trafficking by connecting callers to NGO (non-governmental organization) workers who are trained to assess and respond to each call individually.  People who may be afraid to interact with government agencies can call these hotlines, where workers will only interact with law enforcement when they assess that a trafficking crime is being committed.  People who have been brought to the United States through false promises and whose passports are held by their enslavers are offered help to legalize their immigration status and find safe harbor here.  Neighbors or other people who have observed something that doesn’t seem right (a ‘household member’ or ‘employee’ who seems afraid to meet anyone’s eyes or speak…can call these numbers and consult with someone who is trained in evaluating such evidence.


While the passage of this law is a victory, there are currently no funds available for its implementation.  The coalition is mobilizing volunteers to alert businesses to their responsibilities under SB1193 and to provide them with poster.  Everyone interested is welcome to contact Maya Paley, Director of Legislative and Community Engagement at NCJW/LA at 323-852-8536 or maya@ncjwla.org.


Solomon Northup endured years of captivity until he was able to get a message to friends who would act on his behalf.  Enslaved and trafficked people today are also desperate to reach out for assistance.  We now have a means to help.


As we approach Pesach, this work is especially resonant.  We are preparing to retell our foundational story of redemption from slavery and to remember our assumption, as a free people, of the honor of obligation, our covenant.  Our Torah commands in Exodus 23:9, "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the HaShem your God.”
God’s holiness and ours are entwined with empathy for the exploited and suffering.  And empathy calls for action.

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