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Hebrew Slaves and Israeli Foreign Workers

"We were slaves in Egypt." Are there still slaves?

At Pesah, we celebrate the end of slavery of the Israelites and their becoming a free people. One might have thought that slavery had passed from our world, and that this term belongs to history. However, there are many places where people work for others in exchange for an extremely low wage and, sometimes, for an almost non-existing one. Some of their basic rights are ignored or only partially safeguarded. These are hard and serious facts but are they enough to qualify these individuals as "slaves of the new age"?

In Israel, there is a large group of such workers, known collectively as the foreign workers population. They work long days, live in poor neighborhoods and earn very little money. Their number is increasing in Israel daily because of the competition among employers to cut manufacturing costs in order to supply the market with cheaper products, which is achieved, among other ways, by bringing more workers from abroad.

Throughout the history of the Jewish people there have been slaves, even after the Exodus. Rules of slavery can be found in the books of Shemot/Exodus and Vayikra/Leviticus. They differentiate between Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves. Together they are called Hok Ha'eved - the Law of the Slave.

Though it would not be accurate to call the foreign workers slaves, it is very easy to find similarities between them and Hebrew slaves, or any slaves for that matter. Foreign workers come to Israel seeking employment to make a living and many are supporting families in their home countries. In order to travel to and enter Israel they must pay a large sum of money so, for a period of time, the wages they earn go directly to pay this debt. Hebrews often became slaves for the same financial reason: if a person had a large debt he could not pay, he had to sell himself as a slave and pay off the debt through his work.

There are other similarities between Hebrew slaves and today's foreign workers: the slaves used to work many hours a day and live in rough conditions, as do the foreign workers. Perhaps one of the most vivid similarities is the fact that both Hebrew slaves and foreign workers are attached to their employer with no option to leave other than to run from them. The current law in Israel says that foreign workers cannot leave their employer, in order to prevent them from trying to find another employer or an illegal job that pays better. This law protects the employer while violating the foreign worker's right to freedom. It is known that some employers use threats, violence and even refuse to return their passports in order to ensure their workers will not leave.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What similarities can you find between slaves of the past and certain populations in the United States or Canada? What populations are they?
  2. Try to think of some human and basic rights in the U.S. Constitution or in another country's law. Are these rights guaranteed to members of these populations?

Examples from the Torah:

  1. "When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment." (Exodus 21:2)

    Hebrews sold themselves as slaves for six years, knowing that in the seventh year they would be set free. Foreign workers do not have that time limit; they stay with their employer until they manage to pay back their debt and earn some money for themselves or their families. They might stay in Israel longer than six years on the one hand, but on the other - they never know when they will be out of work because their employer doesn't need them anymore, or might be expelled from Israel.
  2. "You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him." (Deuteronomy 23:16-17)

    Here we return to the issue of a slave who ran from his master. It is said that a person who finds the slave or welcomes him in must not turn the slave over to his master.

    The problem of foreign workers who run away from their employers is very common as a result of the violations of their basic rights mentioned above. Kav La'oved (Line to the Worker), a non-profit organization providing direct services to and advocacy for foreign workers in Israel, says that many times, when a foreign worker runs away from his employer, the police focus on trying to find him and not on checking if the employer paid his salary or safeguarded his rights. Foreign workers are treated as criminals, and the police expect citizens to turn them in.
  3. "You shall not abuse a needy and a destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt." (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)

    These verses refer to the poor and not to Hebrew slaves, however, they are given the following justification in a succeeding verse:

    "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment." (Deuteronomy 24:18)

    Foreign workers often get their salary late as an employer's way of ensuring that workers will not run away in the middle of work after getting their salary, or simply because employers know the law is on their side and no one will do anything if they pay wages late. Foreign workers often get less than the minimum wage, even though there is a very clear law requiring it. (For more on Hok Ha'oved - the Law of the worker, visit Kav La'oved (Line to the Worker).
  4. In his book Human Rights in the Bible and Talmud, Haim H. Cohn, former Justice of the Israeli Supreme court, writes: "... And again: the fact that we ourselves are slaves to God, and that we were once 'slaves' in Egypt, is what leads us to the conclusion that we are commanded to relate to the slave, who is like our total possession, as a person, as we would like people to relate to us. The Torah commanded: 'for it is good for him with you.'" Cohn, citing a rabbinic text, explains that the master was commanded to treat his Hebrew slave as he would treat himself and provide him all he needs. The employer of today is not obligated to provide his worker a place to live but is obligated to pay a sufficient salary so that workers are able to support themselves properly. In reality, foreign workers do not earn enough money and are doomed to live in poverty with a lot of other workers in one room. Foreign workers seldom get all the rights they deserve such as social security services (if they have a visa to stay in Israel), emergency medical care, proper gas masks kits etc.

Working toward Change:

This article translated from Ha'aretz daily newspaper discusses one way that Physicians for Human Rights is fighting for foreign workers’ rights.

Physicians for Human Rights: Change Policy for Distributing Gas Mask Kits to Foreigners
By Anat Ciegelman
March 13, 2003

The organization protests that Israeli citizens are receiving new gas masks kits while foreign workers are buying expired or about to be expired kits. It calls upon the minister of defense to change the discriminatory policy and give everyone identical kits.

Physicians for Human Rights turned yesterday to Minister of Defense, Shaul Mofaz, demanding he change the policy for distributing gas masks kits, "which discriminates between foreign workers and Israeli citizens." The organization called for the distribution of identical and properly working kits to both populations, and to order the cessation of selling expired or nearly expired kits to foreign workers.

This demand came after it was revealed that the gas masks and Atropin shots sold to foreign workers in Israel are older than those given to citizens.

The organization wrote: "no one even bothered to tell the workers that the kits they received are valid, at best, only for a few months."

The distribution of kits to foreign workers began in February following a request of the Center for Assistance to the Community of Foreign Workers of Tel-Aviv. The center noted that foreign workers are not assisted by the media channels known to the Israeli public, and therefore they receive information from the home-front command late or not at all. According to estimates there are about 60,000 foreign workers in Tel-Aviv.

You can help!

To find out how you can help organizations assisting foreign workers, visit the following sites:

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