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The decision by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to support a bill that assigns criminal responsibility to the clients of prostitutes is praiseworthy. The bill, sponsored by MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), is not intended to take revenge on those clients, but, for the first time, to raise the veil on one of the sickest evils in any society - an evil whose existence is often denied - and in Israeli society in particular.

Within the Western world, Israel is one of the countries with the worst record of trafficking in women. In the absence of stringent legislation and adequate resources, the police and courts are having difficulty reducing the scope of the trafficking. Enlightened lawmakers around the world have long understood that - despite the convenient, though illusory, aura of mysterious romanticism that has surrounded prostitution since, it seems, the beginning of time - prostitution is nothing other than slavery, in the deepest and most despicable sense. Some 15,000 victims of this form of slavery in Israel are controlled by pimps who do not balk at any means to strengthen that control, including violence and getting the prostitutes addicted to hard drugs. Of the prostitutes in this country, most are women and about one-third are young people (both male and female ) who began selling their bodies between the ages of 12 and 14.

In an effort to fight this phenomenon, lawmakers in several European countries have exposed the link in the chain that had until then been pretty well protected: the prostitutes' clients. Imposing responsibility on the clients signals a deep-seated change in the relationship between the legislature and the prostitution industry. Whereas arresting and jailing the prostitutes essentially punishes them twice without affecting the chain of exploitation, Scandinavian and French laws assigning criminal responsibility to the clients have succeeded in significantly reducing prostitution.

But as important as such a reduction is in its own right, an even more important consequence of such a law is the change in social consciousness, which paves the way for a quiet cultural revolution. Let us hope that will be the result of the Israeli version of this legislation. Like similar laws in Europe, it takes a cautious pedagogical approach and calls for rehabilitation for a first offense and punishment only if a second offense is committed. Israel's 1998 anti-sexual harassment law has shown that legislation can indeed effect change, even when the law is far ahead of prevailing social norms. This new bill is another important stage in this welcome process of change.

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