In 2008, the U.S. State Department ranked Israel among countries that do not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Trafficking women into prostitution thrives because of the enormous demand, estimated at more than a million monthly visits to brothels by men from all sectors of Israeli society. How do we make the enslavement of girls and women in relentless degradation, abuse, and rape tolerable to the “clients” and profitable for the “dealers”?
We all participate in objectifying, degrading, and consuming women; in this way, we are all paving and maintaining the roads for trafficking.
From most of thousands of advertising messages we see daily, we absorb the vacuous stare of anorexic women whose sole purpose is seduction. Manipulated, plasticized, surgically modified, starved and exposed women’s bodies are mainstream fare on websites, TV, billboards, airline shorts, music videos, and in magazines. Once considered pornography, sexualized depictions of women decorate and allure consumers — often with tacit or overt violence. Using women to market products is marketing women. Consuming the women and the products they ply, we rev up the trafficking engine.
The media images and messages, lingerie-like “prostitute”-style fashions, hyper-sexualized women idols, throbbing misogynist lyrics and visuals, constant surveillance of girls’ and women’s bodies, pervasive and abusive pornography — all of these cultural norms desensitize men to women’s humanity, condition men’s sexual “needs,” and subordinate women to fulfill them.
Our “Barbie” world is taking its toll. According to research by the World Health Organization, 35 to 40 percent of Israeli girls between the ages of 11 and 16 suffer from an eating disorder. Israeli fashion photographer Adi Barkan comments, “We in this industry have perpetuated and even glorified eating disorders by celebrating thinness and packaging malnutrition in such an attractive way.” Adi introduced a bill to the Knesset requiring models to undergo health examinations and have their body mass index checked before entering the modeling profession — apparently the first bill of its kind in the world.
Adi has it right about anorexia. But he doesn’t quite convey the full picture. The marketing of women disciplines girls and women about more than appearance. The male gaze — and its latent threat of sexual violation — constrains movement and instills fear. A National College Health Risk Behavior study stated in 1977 that one out of every five college-age women report being forced to have sex. Globally renowned human rights activist Catherine MacKinnon observes that this level of assault is more extreme than any war, more than any form of terrorism.
Trafficking into prostitution is an extreme expression of our everyday culture that practices and enforces the commodification and marketing of women and girls for profit. Jews have been involved for a long time. A century ago, Shalom Aleichem, wrote “The Man from Buenos Aires.”
“I supply the world with merchandise, something that everybody knows and nobody speaks of,” Motek [a Jewish salesman] said obliquely [in Yiddish].
“What do I deal in? Not in citrons, my friend, not in citrons.”
And from the 1860s to the 1930s, Jewish white slavers, through Zwi Migdal’s “Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society,” bought and sold impoverished Jewish women from “Fiddler on the Roof”-type shtetlach and ghettos of Eastern Europe. They sent them to Argentina, Brazil, India, South Africa, and China. Only with the rise of antisemitism in Europe did the “Society” abdicate control over thousands of women and annual profits of more than $50 million. In the 1990s, with the lifting of the iron curtain, Jewish traffickers began running active networks that prey on the desperately poor and vulnerable in struggling Eastern European states and beyond.
Each and every culture is responsible to intervene in the cycle of gender-based oppression. Let’s begin in our own parking spot. Jewish textual sources often dehumanize women in the most primary institution of society, marriage (see Labovitz essay).
(א:א קידושין)ובביאהבשטר בכסףנקנית דרכים. בשתי עצמהאת וקונהדרכיםבשלש נקניתהאשה
“A woman is acquired in three ways and acquires herself in two ways. She is acquired with money, or with a contract, or through sexual intercourse.”\
This mishna perpetuates a biblical tradition of marriage as male trade in women — kinyan. Both male acquisition and the unilateral male divorce prerogative normalize the dehumanization of women in Jewish culture. Whereas Judaism has long been a contributor to human ethics, many current religious practices debase humanity. The full impact extends far beyond ritual. Every moment of acquiescence and every act of complicity fuels the terror against women — against ourselves, our friends, sisters, mothers, and daughters —and smoothes the steady flow of traffic.
Some talmudic utterances critique the purchase and sale model. The Gemara queries, “Why does our Mishna say a woman is acquired, and [another] Mishna says that a man sanctifies her?” On the wings of traditions such as this one, our time has come to sanctify one another where now we profane.