Mensch or Superman. That’s how we Jews often like to portray our men. The one is sweet and studious, kind and compassionate, Sam the “pickle man” in “Crossing Delancey.” The other is Clark Kent (created by two Jews from Saint Louis, of course) who, when forced to don his cape, can liberate the Western Wall and daringly rescue the hostages at Entebbe. Both are good to women, one through love, the other through duty. Neither would ever visit a sleazy “massage parlor.”
Or so we hope. The truth is that Jewish men are no different in this regard than the men of any other ethnic group. So long as we refuse publicly to affirm otherwise, we all have a hand in the trade where trafficked women perform what many of us recently learned from a well-publicized visit to one such emporium is euphemistically called a “rub-and-tug.” I hope you cringed at that phrase. You should.
Like any ethnic group, we tend to venerate our heroes all out of proportion to the prosaic truth that our men are often rather ordinary. And ordinary men are prone to the ordinary evils that have long plagued men and especially women.
Think about what transpired in Eden. The woman ate the taboo fruit, then gave it to the man. But when confronted by God, what did the man do? Take responsibility for his act? Accept his wrongdoing? No, the man immediately pointed the accusatory finger to the woman, and all but said, “She made me do it! It’s her fault!” One could argue convincingly that the history of humanity in the Torah begins with a masculine act of cowardice and sexism.
Let us return to the here and now. Several recent incidents have raised the issue of sex trafficking and misogyny in the Jewish community. One concerns a noted owner and philanthropist of a professional sports team. Another was the prime minister of Israel inviting into negotiations about the next government coalition a man convicted of “upskirting,” that is, taking surreptitious photos of the underside of women’s dresses and clothing with his phone.
Let’s not kid ourselves: They are not alone. Think about that the next time you sit in shul.
Is this a Jewish issue? Sure is, especially for Jewish men. It is an issue that afflicts all ethnic and religious groups, including ours. And as a human rights issue, it is very much a Jewish issue, too. For as the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) reminds us, we are commanded by Deuteronomy with the stirring words, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” That group walks the walk, along with many other Jewish groups and nonprofits that address sex trafficking, which, let’s face it, is better described as men renting out vulnerable women’s bodies for their own momentary pleasure.
Sex trafficking was not uncommon among Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side of New York in the 1880s. Today, the Ministry of Justice in Israel notes on its website that in “the recent past, Israel was faced with a severe phenomenon of human trafficking for prostitution.” Things there have improved. Still, “Although the [Israeli] government met the minimum standards” according to the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2018, reported The Jerusalem Post this past July, convictions of sex traffickers were down, while weak sentences remain the norm. The Israeli government “also did not prosecute or convict any forced labor perpetrators” and often fails to provide necessary protections for identified victims.
The multi-organization initiative “We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking” includes the New York Board of Rabbis, the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, the UJA Federation, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Jewish community centers and more. We should all join them—as decent people, but also as Jews, both women and especially men.
In 2017, Hadassah posted a declaration by the Jewish Coalition Against Trafficking. Titled “Ending Human Trafficking: A Jewish Statement of Values,” it is worth reading. It begins with a well-known yearning from the Passover Haggadah, “This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.” We cannot plead for our own freedom so long as we are complicit in the servitude of others. This includes trafficked women, and all women brutalized by so-called “sex work.” To not actively confront this issue in our community is to acquiesce to the practice. It is cowardice.
What message do we send to our kids if we do otherwise? That women’s lives and bodies are less important than men’s? That we should excuse such behavior if you are otherwise seen as a nice guy or a hero? Would you allow your son to grope the young woman sitting next to him in Hebrew school if he otherwise acts like a mensch when studying for his bar mitzvah? Would you tell your daughter to accept the occasional paw or upskirt photo so long as the harassment was from a nice Jewish boy? Of course not.
The women who lend their talents, as it were, to shady spas do not arrive at those occupations by way of the same career choices you likely enjoyed or hope for your own kids. They are part of a worldwide network of human trafficking and misogyny whose sordid harms go well beyond the pale of the everyday peccadilloes for which one can rightly plead for atonement during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This has nothing to do with kindly but wayward souls, lonely and sad, who momentarily step off the path of righteousness. Human trafficking is pure evil of the worst sort.
And it’s an evil largely perpetuated by men. Including Jewish men.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit that fights the global scourge of trafficking, estimates that upwards of 25 million people around the world suffer “the business of stealing freedom for profit.” In sex slavery, which it is, vulnerable women with little to no access to resources, money or opportunities are forced, tricked and coerced into serving men. I bet you would rather be building pyramids for Pharaoh. Sex trafficking is immoral and illegal. Without full and honest consent, too, sex is, at best, assault. At its worst, it’s called rape. I hope you teach that to your kids. Sexual misconduct does not become excusable because the perpetrator is a mensch or a hero.
Yes, this is a Jewish issue.
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