Dont sweep human trafficking under the rug

When you read the phrase “human trafficking,” it’s all too easy to conjure up mental images of Russian brides seeking a better life in Israel ending up as sex slaves in a mafia-run prostitution ring.

And that does happen, even in the Jewish state. But that prostitution ring could be in San Francisco, too. Or maybe even Walnut Creek.

Jewish women are among the many here in California forced into self-degradation by abusive men upon whom they are often totally dependent. It is difficult to imagine a more loathsome situation, and we are proud the Jewish community has taken a principal role in combating it.

A consortium of Bay Area Jewish organizations has joined to form the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking and has been working with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office as well as sponsoring and supporting legislation aimed at aiding trafficking victims and severely punishing their exploiters.

The D.A.’s office and Jewish Coalition are not spouting platitudes — they have taken real steps to fund shelters for the women fortunate enough to get out from under their oppressors’ thumbs, and government lawyers can aggressively prosecute these pimps and exploiters. Members of the San Francisco D.A.’s office talked of freezing and seizing traffickers’ assets and redistributing them to victims, who are entitled to sue their exploiters. Naturally, we support and encourage all the above.

Media coverage of human trafficking has alternated between the polar extremes of nonexistence and hysteria — a New York Times Magazine story in 2004, for example, referred to an “epidemic” of trafficking and published numbers that, in retrospect, seem grossly inflated.

The irresponsible use of the word “epidemic,” a hallmark of trend journalism, takes the emphasis away from where it should be. The issue isn’t the statistically dubious claim that human trafficking and sexual servitude are swelling uncontrollably in the United States, it’s that the situation exists at all.

Fear-mongering and hysteria are not helpful. What is helpful is the approach taken by the D.A.’s office and Jewish Coalition: Find a way to get these women away from their captors and set aside money for such programs — as new state laws do — while energetically prosecuting human traffickers.

It would be heavy-handed to imply that Jews’ history of suffering and bondage in Egypt and elsewhere makes this a particularly resonant issue. It should be a resonant issue for everyone. So the cooperation between the Jewish Coalition and District Attorney is a huge step in the right direction.