One man’s mission to end modern slavery

Aaron Cohen resists the label “slave hunter.” It smacks of Civil War-era racism, the name used for people who tracked down runaway slaves and returned them to their owners. They were the bad guys in a very dark time, as Cohen wrote in his 2009 memoir, “Slave Hunter: One Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking.”

Although he is, after all, hunting down and identifying, in the best sense, today’s victims of human trafficking — the modern version of slavery, Cohen prefers the term “human trafficking investigator.”

Cohen, a Los Angeles native with a dude-esque Southern California surfer dialect, has been a full-time investigator since 2000, identifying victims of human trafficking — often, young girls in the global sex trade — and gathering the evidence and money required to free them.

A remarkable thing about Cohen’s 13-year career is that he’s done much of it solo — sort of. In each country, Cohen assembles a veteran security team to protect and assist him. His job would be impossible without significant support, both logistically and financially. But he does not work through any one organization. He is, for legal reasons, an independent consultant for the many human rights organizations with which he works. 

And he does a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he will publish books like “Slave Hunter” and will be highlighted in an MSNBC documentary series about human trafficking. He is also well-known for his close personal and business relationship with Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell. His 6-foot-5 frame and long hair also make him hard to miss. 

On the other hand, Cohen maintains a low profile, wary of the many traffickers and corrupt government officials around the world whose wallets are made thinner every time he helps free a slave. 

When I met with Cohen for lunch recently, there were a few preconditions that had to be met — no photos, no discussion of where he’s staying or where he’ll be next, and not even a mention of where we met. 

In 2004, in a raid of four brothels in Siem Reap, a Cambodian resort town, Cohen and his Cambodian security team found about 30 Vietnamese children being held as sex slaves. In order to prevent a firefight and hold off organized crime syndicates from punishing the girls’ families, Cohen and his team “redeemed” the slaves for $500 per head. It was not a lot, considering that each one earns the bosses about $100,000 per year in the sex trade. 

It was dangerous, and afterward, when Cohen’s team of Cambodian soldiers began literally jumping out of the van in which they were riding, he understood — crooked Cambodian authorities had a bounty on his head, and his security team did not want to get caught in the crossfire.

Cohen high-tailed it out of Siem Reap to the Phnom Penh airport and hopped a flight to Bangkok.

When discussing more recent experiences, he didn’t revel in the details of his operations. And he shied away from discussing any of his recent stings in the United States. 

He wanted, rather, to discuss Judaism, the Torah, Passover, and why he meditates and prays immediately before his operations, most of which begin with a simple interview of a trafficking victim. Cohen poses as a customer who wants the girl’s services, meets her at a hotel and simply speaks to her, gains her trust, and, usually after a few meetings, gets her and others on the record, providing evidence that the authorities demand. He sets up cameras to videotape as many of these encounters as he can.

Before many of these hotel meetings, Cohen prays, hoping to bring divine energy into his operation — hopefully to achieve what is really an exodus of sorts, albeit a small one.

“I never would have gotten involved in the anti-slavery movement if it hadn’t been for the Torah,” Cohen said. “The Divine saw a group of slaves, went down and said, ‘The least of these people, I’m going to use to proclaim My name.’

“We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt. There’s a responsibility that comes with that.” 

Passover 5773: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free

Every Passover, we gather with family and friends around the Seder table to read the inspiring foundational story of our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. We tell and retell this story every year, and millennia later it informs who we are. There are many ways in which Judaism speaks so strongly to the themes of service and justice, but to me, there is none stronger than our own experience: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. Distilled in this line, the sentiment is clear. Our tradition and history compel us to give back to our society, make the world a better place, and ensure freedom for all.

This intimate connection between Judaism and social justice is why throughout American history the Jewish community—our community—has been a vocal advocate for the values of freedom and equality that make the United States the great country that it is. As a Jewish woman and a member of the U.S. Congress, I strive to bring that connection to bear on my work every day. We are all obligated to make those connections in our own way.

This Passover, I am particularly focused on the rights of women and girls, both in our own backyard and around the world. The Talmud teaches that the optimism and initiative of Jewish women ensured our redemption from slavery in Egypt. And today, women are often still the catalysts for change and liberation; yet too many women around the world are still enslaved and oppressed—including the victims of rape and violence, those who are denied an education and those coerced into sex trafficking.

The specter of violence against women looms large today. Millions of women in war-torn countries like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda don’t move freely from place to place for fear of being raped—a fear created and exacerbated by soldiers who purposefully and disgracefully turn women’s bodies into casualties of war.

Denying girls the education they need undermines their freedom as well. Let’s be clear: meaningful freedom for women and girls will never be possible without the ability to access education and the social tools necessary to build a fruitful life. But barriers to girls’ education are enormous worldwide. Women activists like the brave Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan receive death threats almost weekly for striving against the odds to educate young girls.

Sex trafficking is a global pandemic in parts of the world, and in Southeast Asia alone, 250,000 women are trafficked every year. Traffickers prey on women and their families who are vulnerable because they are forced to grapple with the grim daily realities of life in poverty. These women are bound by modern slavery—trafficked and abused, they languish without the freedoms and protections they deserve. Some are chained to beds, given just enough food and water to stay alive, and have no way to protect their own physical and sexual health. We must fight to liberate these women and girls from the shackles of bondage—both physical and figurative—that keep them from freedom. As Passover reminds us, we must not rest until these women too, are free.

This month, as we prepare our Seder tables, we also celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. These are both opportunities to pay tribute to the indelible contributions women have made worldwide, while rededicating ourselves to the plight of those women and girls who still need our help today. And every year at Passover, we draw from our people’s own difficult past for the strength and courage to change the outcome of their future.

President Obama has said: “Promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world remains one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time, and one that is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives.” We believe that all who understand that the story of gaining freedom continues to this day will support these goals. For women to be free, we must ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; pass the International Violence Against Women Act; and work tirelessly wherever we can to support global health, education, political participation, and women’s empowerment.

Only when women everywhere can stand tall and strong together in peace and security can we confidently say: Once we were slaves, and now we are free.

American Jewish World Service embodies the natural harmony between Jewish faith and action, putting these values into practice every day. Working to protect the health and safety of women and girls is a vital part of our community’s drive to make the world a better place. As Jews, our fundamental belief in freedom, justice and human rights requires that we work tirelessly to end the scourges of violence against women and forced child marriage, defeat those who would block girls who need and want to go to school and stop the practice of coerced sex trafficking.

Going forward, as we work together to bolster their sexual health and rights, we must not only protect, but empower, women and girls everywhere. By working together, we can ensure that the future we leave to our children is one of inclusion, equity, security, hope and freedom. This year, too many women are still slaves. Next year, may we all be free.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents Florida's 23rd Congressional district, which encompasses parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. She is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and serves on the Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, where she advocates for funding for security, economic and humanitarian assistance and works to reduce poverty around the world. She is also a member of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, a bipartisan Members’ organization dedicated to promoting women's economic, health, legal and educational interests. The first Jewish Congresswoman ever elected from Florida, Rep. Wasserman Schultz introduced the resolution behind Jewish American Heritage Month, now celebrated annually in May.

Israelis arrested for human organ trafficking

Ten Israelis were arrested on suspicion of human organ trafficking.

Tuesday’s arrests of alleged participants in an international organ harvesting ring came after an undercover operation of several months.

The Israelis arrested allegedly recruited poor Israelis to sell their kidneys for relatively meager sums for use in surgeries in Azerbaijan, Kosovo and other countries. They are also expected to be charged with extortion and tax evasion.

Israeli organ trafficking ring arrested

Israeli police arrested six men from northern Israel accused of being involved in an organ trafficking ring.

The suspects, including a military brigadier general and two attorneys, were arrested Wednesday, according to reports. The ring allegedly identified potential organ donors through advertisements promising up to $100,000 in exchange for their kidneys. Some were reportedly paid $10,000 and others nothing at all. The transplants took place in Ecuador, Azerbaijan and the Philippines, under substandard medical supervision. Some of the donors are still suffering from medical complications.

Israel outlawed providing organ donors with financial rewards in 2008; all organ transplants are supposed to be carried out through the National Transplant and Organ Donation Center. Israel has been cited as one of the world’s trouble spots when it comes to the illegal organ trade.

Briefs: Olmert upbeat on U.S. ties; Hamas names new leader; Olmert’s lesbian daughter slams Jerusale

Olmert Upbeat on U.S. Ties

Ehud Olmert voiced confidence that Israeli-U.S. relations will remain robust despite the Republicans’ midterm election defeat.

“Support for Israel has traditionally been bipartisan,” the Israeli prime minister told reporters en route to Washington, where he met President Bush on Monday morning.

“I don’t see anything changing in the next two years that can alter overall attitudes toward us,” Olmert said, referring to Bush’s remaining time in office. The Democratic sweep of last week’s congressional elections has raised speculation that Bush, with his Iraq policies increasingly unpopular, could turn his attention to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This could mean reduced U.S. support for unilateral Israeli moves and a greater engagement of somewhat moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority.

Haniyeh Successor Named

Palestinian Authority officials named the likely successor to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a future Cabinet. Representatives of the governing Hamas and rival Fatah faction said Monday that Mohammad Shbair, former head of the Islamic University in Gaza City, had been tapped to lead a future Cabinet of technocrats. Hamas and Fatah hope that by forming a coalition government devoid of major figures from the Islamic terrorist group they’ll be able to lift a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority. Haniyeh, of Hamas, has voiced willingness to step down under such circumstances. Shbair, who was educated in the United States, is close to Hamas but isn’t an official member. Israeli media reported that his candidacy has received tacit U.S. backing. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has yet to approve Shbair’s nomination.

Olmert’s Daughter Slams Gay Pride Handling

Ehud Olmert’s lesbian daughter came out against Israeli authorities’ handling of last week’s gay pride rally in Jerusalem. Dana Olmert gave a rare media interview Sunday in which she accused police and politicians of being too lenient toward religious protesters who threatened violence against those participating in the event. While not commenting on her father’s refusal to take a strong stand for or against last Friday’s rally, she deplored the fact that a Cabinet member could denounce homosexuals without being challenged.

“I would have been happy had someone within the government responded to Eli Yishai, who called the march an abomination,” Olmert told Israel’s Army Radio. As a compromise deal, what had been planned as a march through Jerusalem was relocated to a Hebrew University stadium on the outskirts of the capital. Dana Olmert said the fact that the event was not canceled outright was a “bitter victory.”

“There was a feeling that we were in a cage,” she said. “There was something sad about the whole thing, the way it was handled.”

Seaman Sentenced for Japanese Deaths

An Israeli court sentenced a seaman to community service for causing the death of seven Japanese fisherman. Pilastro Zdravko, a Montenegrin who worked as a navigator for Israeli shipping company Zim, received six months of community service Sunday in Haifa Magistrate’s Court. He was found guilty of negligence in a 2005 collision off Japan that capsized a fishing boat. Separately, Zim has offered compensation to the victims’ families.

Arabs Want Peace Summit

The Arab League called for a peace summit with Israel and U.N. power brokers. Arab foreign ministers who had gathered for an emergency conference Sunday in Cairo issued a resolution to try to engage Israel, as well as the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, in peace talks on the principle of territorial concessions. The Cairo talks were convened following the recent killing of 18 Palestinian civilians in an Israeli artillery barrage on the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a member of Hamas, said he supported the idea of a summit, but it remained unclear if he would attend.

Israeli Arabs Suspected of Gun-Running

Twelve Israeli Arabs are suspected of trafficking arms in the Palestinian Authority. The Shin Bet on Sunday lifted a gag order on arrests of the 12, all of them from northern Israel. Four suspects have been remanded in custody, while the rest where released on bail pending their indictment on lesser charges. According to the Shin Bet, the suspects, who were arrested last month, sold large amounts of small arms and ammunition obtained on the black market to Palestinians. It was not immediately clear how they would plead to the charges.

Border Communities Strike

Israeli communities on the border with Lebanon went on “strike” to demand compensation for damages suffered during the recent war with Hezbollah. Seven frontier farming villages announced Sunday that they were suspending tax and utilities payments until they receive long-delayed government payouts for lost harvests and buildings damaged by Hezbollah attacks in the 34-day conflict. They also threatened to withhold services to Israeli soldiers garrisoned along the border. State representatives said the hold-ups were due to bureaucratic difficulties, but promised to address the bulk of the communities’ complaints by the end of the month.

Study: More Boston Kids Raised Jewish

Most children in interfaith households in Boston are being raised as Jews, a new study found. Almost 60 percent of such children in Boston are being raised Jewishly, far above the national average, according to preliminary findings released Friday from the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study. The study was commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the central planning and fundraising arm of Boston’s Jewish community, and carried out by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute. The study also found strong growth in the Jewish community, which now stands at 265,500,or nine percent of the total population. That figure includes 57,000 non-Jews living in Jewish households.

Stolen Klimt Sets Record

A Klimt painting stolen by the Nazis and returned to its rightful owner set records at auction. Austria ended an extensive legal battle in January by handing over five works by Gustav Klimt to Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer; one of the paintings was a portrait of Adele. It sold for $87.9 million at a Christie’s auction in New York on Nov. 8, setting a record for a Klimt. It had been expected to sell for $40 million to $60 million.”My Aunt Adele and Uncle Ferdinand enjoyed living with these paintings and sharing them, and we trust that their new owners will build on this tradition of appreciation,” Altmann said.

Three of the other Klimts also sold for much more than anticipated. Another work reclaimed through Nazi restitution, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, sold for $38 million, above its $18 million to $25 million estimate.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.