Slavery Still Exists

It’s early April, 2004, and the Jewish holiday of Passover is less than a week away. I am standing in the chow line with Rabbi Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell Ackerson, and a group of fellow Jews. We are discussing the Passover story. We are at the point where Moses demands that Pharaoh releases the Hebrews from their bondage.

Rabbi Ackerson speaks up, “You know, slavery still exists.”

“No, I didn’t,” I answer him.

We move on to the last minute details of the coming celebration. For the first time, Jews are going to celebrate Passover in Saddam’s palace in Baghdad. Which means that Jewish personnel, both military and civilian, are coming from all over Iraq for the festivities.

But once upon a time, Jews lived here.

At one point the Jewish community in Iraq was estimated to be about 160,000 strong. But, due to political changes, forced emigration, and ethnic cleansing, those numbers have dwindled to the double digits. At last count there were 12 Jews living in Baghdad.

When the first of the convoys dropped off the Jewish service members in the front of the palace, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the Combined Joint Task Force 7 commander, just happened to be passing by.

“What’s going on here?” he asked me.

It took me a second to find my voice. Having General Sanchez speak directly to me, an Army sergeant, was the equivalent of having the President of the United States, or the Queen of England, address you personally. The whole world stops for a moment.

“It’s Passover, General. These Jewish soldiers will be celebrating with us.”

“Ah… carry on.” With that he continued down the hall. I don’t remember seeing him at the Seder.

The next day the little Jewish community assembled in the palace, and celebrated our freedom from slavery. We were joined by members of the tiny Baghdad Jewish Community, we used an ancient Torah for the service, and sang Iraqi-Jewish songs. Jews, Christians, and Muslims made up the hundred strong around the tables praying and breaking matzah together. We really believed that we were changing the world with our meal.

Fast forward eleven years—slavery still exists.

Passover 2015 is coming up in a few days, and soon all over the world Jews will be sitting around tables laden with wine and symbolic food, retelling the Exodus story on multiple nights.

My favorite will be the first night seder with friends. It will be a wonderful night. I will eat too much and allow myself to take long drafts from the ceremonial glasses of wine. I will hear prayers in Hebrew, and at about hour three of our symbolic meal, my thoughts will turn to going home and how nice it would be to get up and stretch my legs, and do anything but continue to eat.

My freedom will come with the  traditional final words of the meal, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Then everyone will slip away, secure in the knowledge that we have done our duty for the year and set a plate for Elijah, eaten the bitter herbs, and even pronounced some of the Hebrew correctly.

But remember, slavery still exists. According to The 2014 Global Slavery Index, right now, worldwide, there are an estimated 35.8 million people trapped in slavery.

While we are celebrating our freedom from slavery,  I would like to take a few moments to remember the people still trapped in slavery’s clutches and honor those who are working to free them.

Happy Passover, but never forget: not everyone has made it out, and 35.8 million of God’s children are still in bondage. Let’s celebrate next year knowing that we have made a difference in their lives and in ours.

Sylvia Bowersox first went to Iraq in 2003 as a US Army broadcast journalist. She was stationed in Mosul and Baghdad, but reported from Coalition outposts around the country. A year in Iraq wasn’t enough, so she returned to Baghdad as a civilian, spending almost two years working in the US Embassy as a State Department press officer. Bowersox received her BA in English literature from San Francisco State University, and is currently completing her MA in creative writing at California State University, Chico. She was recently honored by a Pushcart nomination for her nonfiction essay, “This War Can’t be All Bad.” Her nonfiction essay, “The Importance of a Dollar Bill,” has been submitted to the National Associate Writing Program Awards competition. She lives in Chico with her husband Jon, her son Holden, and her service dog Timothy.