December 17 is a special day. It is when the oppressed try to be heard. It is when they come together and speak out as a group of people who have the right to exist on this planet, free of contempt and condemnation. So why when asked to write about the plight of sex workers and the significance of December 17, was I resistant?
This was the second year in a row I was asked and this year, I came close to refusing without a diplomatic excuse. Instead of thinking about the mistreatment of sex workers, and how many of them are forced to work in that profession, I instead allowed my anger toward some of them to consume me.
I selfishly resented sex workers because I – as a person who is blind and also high spectrum – assumed that the only way that I could get them to talk to me was for me to open my wallet. I know that that is not true; in fact, I have platonic friends who are sex workers. Instead of thinking about their plight, all I could think about was how I recently got so angry at one of them, that I was ready to walk away from all of them forever.
Then I remembered how Thursday, December 17, 1942 was significant for Jews. It was the only time during WW II that the Allies protested the Nazis’ slaughter of European Jewry. At the time, the allies knew that the Nazis were systematically placing thousands of European Jews into gas chambers on a daily basis. This was their “final solution” to the Jewish question. A month earlier, the U.S. State Department confirmed this. U.S. Under Secretary Sumner Welles told Rabbi Stephen Wise, a founder of the World Jewish Congress and friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the Nazis were in the process of exterminating all of Europe’s Jews.
According to David Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews, the allies feared that if they protested, then Hitler might then release millions of Jews and no country wanted them. The Evian Conference of July 1938 made this point entirely plausible. Thirty-two countries met at Evian, France to decide what to do about the Jews of Austria and Germany who tried to escape Nazi persecution. None of the countries wanted them. Worse, Rumania’s and Poland’s delegates wanted to get rid of their Jews. They asked if their governments should stage pogroms to let the world know that they, like Germany and Austria, meant business in wanting their Jews to emigrate.
After the allies learned about the final solution, they made one declaration and that was on Thursday, December 17, 1942. The United Nations issued the following declaration:
“The attention of the Governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the USA, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Yugoslavia, and the French Committee of National Liberation, has been drawn to numerous reports from Europe that the German authorities, not content to denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule has been extended the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s often repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported, in conditions of appalling horror and brutality, to Eastern Europe. In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughterhouse, the ghettoes established by the Nazi invaders are being systematically emptied of all Jews except a few highly-skilled workers required for war industries. None of those taken away are ever heard of again. The able-bodies are slowly worked to death in labour camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions.The number of victims of these bloody cruelties is reckoned in many hundreds of thousand of entirely innocent men, women and children.
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The above-mentioned Governments and the French National Committee condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination. They declare that such events can only strengthen the resolve of all freedom-loving people to overthrow the barbarous Hitlerite tyranny. They reaffirm their solemn resolution to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution, and to press on with the necessary practical measures to this end.” (Cited on page 91 of The Jews Were Expendable by Monty Nam Penkower.)
The world turned its back on European Jewry in their darkest hour. Today, it seems as though the world turned its back on sex workers. People have shunned sex workers the way that they shunned Jews, African Americans, and other minorities. I was surprised to learn that some “righteous” Jews look down on sex workers.
In 1981, I was a camper at the Jewish camp, Camp Ramah. When my bunk and I were on a New York City tour, the guide told us that there were a number of Jewish prostitutes in the U.S. during the early 1900s. I turned to my counselor Reuven who was also a rabbi and asked how he felt about that. I thought that he might have liked that there were certain Jewish women who had the same type of work as certain non-Jewish women.
“I don’t like it,” said Reuven. “Jewish women should know better than that.”
“Suppose prostitution is the only way that they can make a living?”
“I don’t care and I don’t want to discuss it,” Reuven snapped.
To call a woman a whore is a grave insult. One way the most cowardly child might stand up to a bully if the bully were to call his/her victim’s mother a whore. It is worse than an insult. Prostitution however, is one of the world’s oldest professions. I advise people who look down on this profession to read Genesis. There, you will find the story of Judah and Tamar. When Judah learned that Tamar worked as a prostitute, he was ready to have her burned until he found out her reason.
He then said, “She is more righteous than I.” (Genesis 38:26)
Today, people, including editors and professors, and those who champion people with disabilities look down on sex workers as if they are the most contemptible beings on the planet. In terms of being a hated group, they are up there with the Jews of Europe and African Americans during Jim Crow. December 17 is a special day. It is when the oppressed try to be heard. It is when they come together and speak out as a group of people who have the right to exist on this planet, free of contempt and condemnation.