Zwi Migdal: The Missing Piece of Our Jewish History Education

By: Fruma Landa  |  August 17, 2019

By Fruma Landa, News Editor

America – land of the free and home of the brave. This seems to be one of the highest forms of praise. Not only does it praise the policies and values America stands for, but it praises the dedicated and brave citizens who have fought to turn these values into reality. 

America is a country that exists to protect the rights of its citizens. While most Americans are generally aware of the lack of equality amongst many different groups living in the United States, we still like to think of our country as a progressive, cultured, and civilized First World nation. 

America is far from perfect, but many are thankful to live in a country safe from the horrors that other underdeveloped nations face. It wouldn’t be surpising to discover high percentages of sex trafficking in underdeveloped countries. Horrifying, yes, but shocking, no. What about America? In the free and civilized United States of America, we are free from sex traffiking, right? Wrong! 

After watching documentaries and reading articles and testimonials, I was horrified to discover the revolting truth that sex trafficking was indeed alive and well in the United States. 

Keeping the sex trafficking pandemic hidden under a rug furthers the growth of this industry. There is no way to fight an issue or protect oneself if we don’t know what we are up against. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that there were 5,591 potential cases of sex trafficking in 2016 (gathered from call data alone.) According to the Polaris Project, there was a 13% increase in sex trafficking cases from 2016 to 2017, bringing the count up to 9,000, with the estimation of many more unreported incidences. As specified by the Federal Human Trafficking Report, in 2017, 95.1% of active criminal cases involved sex trafficking. 65.8% of those cases involved children.

Like victims of molestation, many victims of trafficking know their abusers well. 14.4% of sex trafficking and criminal labor cases in 2017 had “defendants who trafficked their children, spouses, intimate partners, siblings, or other family members.”

We live in a country where family members are trafficking other family members and where children are living lives of abuse. It is difficult to believe that these children have access to a decent education when their bodies are consistently sold for the pleasure of others. 

Our own Jewish communities have been tragically affected by the sex trafficking pandemic as well. History tends to forget the Zwi Migdal, a Jewish prostitution ring of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the height of their power, they controlled thousands of women, owned 2,000 brothels, and directed bases throughout South America. 

Thousands of young Jewish girls wishing to escape poverty or European pogroms walked eagerly into the hands of the Zwi Migdal under the pretense of a better life. Parents trustingly gave their daughters to these men hoping that their lives would improve. Jewish men would travel to Eastern European shtetls pretending to be searching for employees for rich Argentinian Jews. Often times, girls were ensnared through marriage proposals. The pimps offered marriage to the village girls, who quickly married the pimps and followed them to Argentina. Many of them were beaten and starved on the journey over to the New World. Upon arrival, the girls were told to undress, they were then inspected and auctioned off as sex slaves. Eventually, Raquel Liberman, a former prostitute of the Zwi Migdal, Superintendent Julio Alsogaray and Hon. Dr. Rodriguez-Ocampo, dismantled the Zwi Migdal. 

Sex slavery is not something to be taken lightly. We can’t turn a blind eye and pretend it doesn’t exist. We need to acknowledge it, we need to look it in the eye and let the world know that it isn’t okay. There is a popular Talmudic phrase, shkita k’hodaah — silence is consent. If we sit idly by and make no effort to put a stop to these horrors, we are guilty bystanders.

It is wrong to think that we are safe from the evils of sex trafficking because we live in the United States and are part of Jewish communities. Sex trafficking can happen anywhere. We can’t protect ourselves from the corruptions of the world if we don’t know what we are protecting ourselves from. We have constructed an idealized version of our history, built on the erasure of events we would rather not recognize. Skipping over chapters of our history that we are ashamed of teaches us that we are safe, and that bad things can’t happen to us. We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. We need to be intellectually honest and recognize the corruption we allow to run rampant in our communities. We need to stop ignoring incidents of human trafficking in our own country. 

Spreading awareness and supporting organizations like Equality Now and others committed to ending human trafficking are ways of fighting this universal inhumane industry. It is important to recognize the signs of child trafficking, which can be found on the Polaris Project website, and to then report any suspicious behavior. No one is safe from sex trafficking. If we are to live up to our ideals, we need to be brave and speak up.


Photo: Fruma Landa