Monday, 30 March 2015

Slavery - Them and Us, Then and Now

Pesach comes closer


I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a panel on freedom at New North London this week. The tales of oppression and bondage were heartbreaking. The notion that slavery is a thing of the past is absurd.

The question is –where are we in all this?

Hillel suggests the perfect balance, almost 2000 years ago. ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I?’

The most frequently articulated command of the Torah is the obligation to love or not oppress the ‘ger.’ The word – ‘ger’ – is often used today to describe a convert. But in the Torah it refers to an outsider to our society, someone who wants to be part of this society, but is apart from it. The insistence on paying attention to the ‘ger’ is surely due to the ease with which we look past the new immigrant, the asylum seeker and the like, especially if we perceive they don’t embrace every element of our societal values.


The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate there are between 3-5,000 victims of forced labour in the UK alone, let alone the cotton pickers of Ukraine, the domestic workers enslaved to debt-bondage in so many countries, and so many others. In a recent report they suggest that Forced Labour is the less an isolated crime, and more one extreme of a spectrum of labour abuses. These are abuses we can focus on, and act upon, or ignore in search of ever cheaper, ever less regulated goods and services. We live in a much more confusing world; the very terms ‘modern slavery,’ ‘forced labour,’ ‘human trafficking’ are awkward, conflated and confusing. But the message is clear. There are human beings, created in the image of God, who are being oppressed to produce for goods and services which we consume. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, speaking as part of the same panel as I, reminded us of the Jewish insistence on asking questions; at the Seder table most especially. It’s all too easy to consume behind a veil, not asking questions about how and by whom the things we consume came to be. It’s not good enough.


The verse that begins, ‘do not oppress the “ger”’ so often continues, ‘for you were “gerim” in the land of Egypt.’ Our own experiences, and not just the experiences of ancient millennia should sensitise us to the awfulness of slavery, in all its forms.


More information on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on modern slavery, in this country at;

Tzedek is a Jewish organisation working, among other projects, to provide fair trade employment possibilities in the poorest countries in the world. 

Truah, ‘the rabbinic call for human rights’ campaigns, among other things, for tomato pickers in Florida. The organisation has a Haggadah available for download at



Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026


Sermons and other stuff on the blog,uk



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