Sukkot is the time of the year during which we modern-day Jews leave the safety and comfort of our “real homes,” and instead sleep and eat in the temporary structures we call sukkot. Despite their impermanent nature, we do everything we can to make them feel sacred, like a real home. We decorate them, we furnish them, and most importantly we invite many guests to sit and eat with us under the stars.
This year on Sukkot, as I sit in my second-home, I’ll be thinking not only of the Israelites coming out of slavery in Egypt but of migrant workers facing modern-day slavery, individuals who are subject to labor trafficking, denied fair wages, food, and even communication with the outside world. And, as I make my guest list of ushpizin, the time-honored tradition of inviting both real and symbolic guests to the sukkah, I’ll be thinking not of relatives long since passed, but of the realities of how we decide who to invite into our homes, who we welcome with open arms, and who we keep out in order to protect those already within.
Every year, new diplomats deployed on missions to America take up residence here and are welcomed into their temporary homes by the State Department. To make their stay more comfortable, these diplomats are afforded the privilege of bringing over domestic workers with them on special A3 and G5 visas given only to foreign diplomats. And every year, diplomats, in situations of extreme power and privilege, take advantage of this opportunity and traffic vulnerable domestic workers, subjecting them to conditions of modern-day slavery. They take their passports, force them to work inhumane hours, deny them fair pay and trap them into situations of forced servitude with no way out.
Why are we bringing criminals into our home, people who flagrantly violate human rights, and allowing them to remain in the United States?
The answer: diplomatic immunity. Diplomats are essentially untouchable, afforded a diplomatic shield that makes them nearly impossible to prosecute during their stay in America. A 2008 investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office revealed that 42 domestic workers alleged abuse against diplomatic employers. And this number, according to the report itself, is only the tip of the diplomatic abuse iceberg.
But, there’s hope. The United States Department of State has two tools that it could use to actually hold diplomats accountable and prosecute this injustice: waivers of diplomatic immunity and the suspension of A3 and G5 visas to countries and diplomats with a history of labor abuse. Even with all the repeat offenders, no country has ever been suspended.
This summer, as a human rights rabbinic fellow with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, I worked at Damayan Migrant Workers Association, an organization committed to the education and empowerment of Filipino migrant workers. First hand, I heard the stories of migrant worker women who had been abused and trafficked by diplomats in positions of power. Now, as we are in the midst of the High Holidays, and the season in which we hold ourselves and our community accountable, I stand with Damayan in their upcoming Sukkot Action in which they, T’ruah, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice will take to the steps of the State Department on September 23 and demand accountability from diplomats in the form of the suspension of A3 and G5 visas and the waiver of diplomatic immunity in cases of severe labor exploitation.
In Exodus 22, the Torah urges us “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” The trafficking and labor abuse of migrant workers at the hands of diplomats violates the very essence of this verse. As we enter this time of Sukkot and build anew our fragile structures, let us think carefully about how we create safe homes, who we bring in, and who we must keep out, in order to enact our tradition’s value of protecting the vulnerable and eradicating oppression.
Avi Strausberg is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston.
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