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The White Slave Trade and the Rothschild's 'Fallen Women'

In the 19th century and early 20th century, the East End was both a staging post and destination of the international trafficking of many young Jewish girls and women. The girls and women were systematically deceived, procured or inveigled into lives of prostitution and vice. Other centers of the trade stretched from as far east as Bombay and Constantinople and as far west to Buenos Aires. About 20% of the trade was in the hands of Jewish traffickers.

Many of the Jewish victims came from Eastern Europe, or from the East End itself. Its victims were essentially vulnerable Jewish women. Especially important were the agunot or "chained women". There were also young Eastern European Jewish girls of marriageable age, living in communities that were seriously dislocated by both persecution and emigration. Another class was of girls travelling long distances across continents on their own to join relatives.

The procuring operated by homing on in vulnerable women, removing them from the "protection" of the Jewish community, and then forcing them into immoral acts. Thereafter, once girls and women had been "ruined" and were "fallen", they would be fully at the mercy of the traffickers as the victims felt that could no longer return to mainstream Jewish society.

The key aspects which allowed the trade was three-fold. Traditionally Jewish women were deemed "under the protection" of their immediate male family or their husbands, also some women could not, for social and religious reasons, lead independent lives or follow trades. Women were largely defined through marriage, and family and marriage was seen to be the main goal of female life. This social system had effectively broken down in Eastern Europe leaving women especially vulnerable. Furthermore the powerful social religious force of shame that surrounded pre-marital sex, or sexual impurity meant that women who had been unwillingly forced into immoral acts simply could not return to mainstream Jewish society. In particular it meant that their chances of marriage and support were virtually nil, rendering them outcasts.

The case of the chained women, who had been refused divorce by their husbands or had been effectively abandoned by them, was particularly poignant. The traffickers would often work by placing adverts in newspapers claiming to know something of a missing or errant husband. Once the women approached the traffickers and placed themselves in their hands it was usually too late for them to turn back or to escape. Notably the breakdown in Jewish social structures meant that they were largely alone in their plight and had no one to call on.

The extent of the problem with the agunot is indicated by the following fact. At the end of the First World War a Jewish congress thought that some 25,000 women in Poland alone were at risk of being chained women. This was due to their husbands disappearing in the war or simply taking the opportunity to desert their wives.

For the rest the traffickers would often lure simple Eastern European girls away from their homes with the promise of marriage and the lure of the good life in another country. Often enough there would even be a false marriage ceremony. As for the young girls, the dislocations in European Jewish life meant that many young and naive girls would have to travel huge distances alone. Quite often they would only a name and general address of the person they were travelling to.

These girls would be easy prey to runners at the confusion of the dockside, or to immoral "low-lodging House" keepers who would take the innocents in; the girls discovering that their lodging was in fact a brothel or the keeper a procurer or pimp. A young girl could before very long be one of many child prostitutes. Sometimes when a girl did arrive at the proper address she would discover their relative was in fact a disreputable person, a trafficker.

The Beth Din entered into the picture as they were aware of "the social evil" and the plight of chained women. However, while they were effective in stamping out false marriages in London, they proved otherwise unable to cope adequately or react to the situation. Obviously, a solution to the plight of chained women at the time would have had far-reaching humanitarian consequences. However the fault was not only that of the Beth Din. Deep rooted attitudes in male dominated Jewish society, towards the sexuality of women and their prescribed social role, helped to lock isolated women into a dangerous situation.

The practical solution turned out to be largely through the efforts of women themselves. Upper class women, headed by Lady Rothschild, formed the "The Jewish Ladies' Association for Preventative and Rescue work" in 1885. They organised agents to intercept vulnerable girls and women at the docks and to ensure they got to their destinations or were kept out of the hands of runners. There were dramatic rescues of girls from the clutches of known runners, often after false marriages had taken place.

An important part of the work was the setting up of safe houses. In the 1880s Tenter Street North was the home for a number of fallen women who had been "rescued" from prostituition and more particularly from the clutches of the traffickers who ran the so called 'White Slave Trade'. One early one was Rosaline House, 2a, Tenter Street North, off Great Alie Street, in Goodman's Field, which was a temporary transit house for girls and an informal employment agency for domestic work. Another was "Charcroft House", Beresford Terrace, Shepherd's Bush. Here the girls were offered a stern regime of moral reformation from their "fallen" state and training for domestic service. Domestic service was regarded as the only course open to former victims of the trade. The low social status of the girls was frequently noted in the society reports and their lack of "self control".

It is clear that the girls were subject to social prejudice by the Jewish community - they were regarded as both inferior because they were working class and they were regarded as somehow responsible for their condition, rather than the victims of a vicious trade. An annual report noted the girls' social low condition, as "poor outcasts" lifted from the "gutter". It also noted their "hazy" knowledge of right and wrong, as well propensity to moral fall, "...Others have been backsliders and others again do not seem as if they would ever grow into very creditable specimens of Humanity..." Others it was noted has having a, "...pronounced dislike to household work, not unnatural to the class to which they belong..."

While the moralistic tone of the society might not to be modern tastes but they did never-the-less provide an invaluable help to girls and women who were other wise on their own. It should not also be thought that the girls were emotionally neglected by the society as the reports also empathise the friendship and "loving help" given to the women and indeed the attitudes of the staff in the homes may well have been more understanding than their social betters. The work also included looking after "child mothers" and their children, as well as the "fallen girls".

It is of interest that not all of the inmates were enamoured of the future prospects offered to them by the society. A few choose to go back to the life of "independence and shame" offered by prostitution. There is evidence that the attitude of working class Jewish women towards prostitution was more complex than might be assumed and that prostitution was not always perceived as the worst evil to which a woman could descend. Certainly prostitution did offer a means of evading severe poverty for a season as well as a qualified degree of female independence and money before other Jewish women had gained it.

While the Ladies Association were not able to address the under-laying causes of the White Slave Trade, they were nether-the-less important Jewish social pioneers. The society did reflect a genuine self-empowerment of Jewish woman against the general indifference by male Jewish society to their plight and status. In the longer term the problem was resolved by the reduction in mass emigration from the east and a new-found if slowly increasing independence of women. Part of the independence of Jewish Women was achieved by the little known Jewish League for Woman Sufferage (1912). However, the situation was not fully resolved until the last war.

While history has swept away the tragic situation which brought about the White Slave Trade, the trafficking in women remains a serious problem into the present. Many women from the former Eastern Bloc have been recruited into the present manifestation of the trade. In Israel alone, Amnesty International calculate that 10,000 women form the Eastern Bloc are prostituted in the country by Russian and Israeli crime gangs.

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