Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Israel's Shame

Congress has instructed the State Department to issue periodic reports ranking countries according to several categories of bad conduct. Perhaps the most notable of these report cards assesses the degree of hospitality to terrorism, with the drug trade being next in line in importance. Other reports deal with theft of intellectual property and money laundering.

I will not swear that these documents are the whole truth and nothing but. As with conventional report cards, subjectivity often comes into play, as do political considerations that may induce Foggy Bottom experts to use evasive language or, as likely, to give countries a better grade than they deserve. Allies - or countries that we want to be our allies - tend to pose a sticky problem when we know that their hands are in the cookie jar but political constraints prevent us from telling the truth. As an example, there is the ongoing dilemma of what to say about Mexico and drugs. More serious but less reported, at least until recently, is the question of Saudi Arabian involvement in terrorism, a matter that still is not being sufficiently addressed by Washington in the wake of September 11. We continue to fudge, lest we incur the wrath of the Sheiks with their many wives, many oil wells, many billions of dollars and also their barbaric practices and kinship to anti-Western fanatics. Invariably, although not always, reports err in the direction of leniency.

According to a recent story in Ha'aretz, not long ago "the U.S. State Department released a report naming Israel as one of a group of countries in which trafficking in humans has reached epidemic proportions." The article wasn't about mistreatment of Palestinians or foreign workers. The subject was prostitution and not merely prostitution, but about how women are literally being treated as slaves, as human chattel to be bought and sold.

The pattern is well known. Young women, mainly from the Former Soviet Union - and many not Jewish by any definition - are induced to come to Israel where they are forced into prostitution after they have been physically and psychologically abused and kept as prisoners. They are then sold and often re-sold a number of times among brothel owners and pimps. Women who have resisted are beaten and some have been murdered.

This is about as ugly and repulsive a picture as we can imagine. Can we feel anything other than revulsion and shame? It's a good bet that some will argue that it is wrong to criticize Israel on any grounds, particularly during the Intifada, and that it is better to turn a blind eye to the sordidness than to write about it because Israel's security is now endangered. I happen to believe that treating people as slaves endangers Israel's spiritual and physical security.

This story is not about Somalia or another sub-Sahara African country where slavery continues to be practiced. It is about Israel, for Jews the place of transcendent sanctity and the focus of our prayers and religious aspirations. Even for secularists, Israel is a country whose values must speak of freedom and human dignity. How can the practice of human slavery be tolerated in Israel?

There is admittedly disagreement about how many women have been sold into prostitution in Israel. Volunteer groups, mainly feminists who are attempting to combat this sordid practice, put the figure at 10,000, while the police cite the much lower figure of 3,000. Let's accept the lower figure because it too is a national scandal.

Without exculpating the low-lives who conduct this trade, much of the blame must be directed at the police and Israel's law enforcement apparatus whose ability to fight against criminal activity has been greatly compromised by poor training, dreadful leadership and misplaced priorities. The security situation obviously limits the capacity to combat ordinary crime, although before the Intifada and during periods of relative calm, the police had a strange habit of ignoring local criminal activity.

Israelis can readily testify to this because, especially before the Intifada, the country was awash in burglaries and car thefts. Prior to the Intifada, cars were being stolen wholesale off the street and shipped a few kilometers away to chop shops across the Green Line, some eventually to be used by suicide bombers. Except when they were caught in the act, few burglars or thieves were apprehended. It must be admitted, however, that the Israeli police have always been vigilant about illegally parked cars.

Instead of focusing on crime, the police give priority to crowd control, a function that allows them to swing at demonstrators, all the better if they are charedim. A more high profile activity is to go after politicians suspected of corruption, a function that has been conducted without much concern for the rights of the accused. Innocent people have been hurt and civil rights have been traduced.

For fifty years we have been conditioned to make excuses for the Jewish State. But slavery?

Israeli authorities know of the sordidness and they could readily take steps to curtail the slave trade. Israel's security depends on immigration and border control. Although a law was enacted in 2000 providing for more severe penalties for slave traders, it is scarcely enforced. Media attention is intermittent, without a sense of urgency.

Whatever else may divide us, we must insist that a continuation of this situation is intolerable. American Jewish groups and individual Jews must pressure Israel to eradicate this awful stain. The shame is Israel's, but also ours. The next time our dozens of major organizations meet with Prime Minister Sharon, they must let him know that we are all sickened by the existence of slavery in Israel and that immediate steps must be taken to stamp out the practice. We must demand a commitment from Mr. Sharon to take forceful action and we must then follow-up by monitoring the situation.