600 People Protest in Tel Aviv After Sex Worker's Suicide

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Protesters hold signs reading 'Prostitution is rape,' and 'Brothel = rape facility,' Tel Aviv, August 22, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

About 600 people demonstrated Saturday night near a brothel in Tel Aviv following the suicide last week of a woman who had been employed there as a prostitute.

The protest, a rare public show of support for women who work as prostitutes, was attended both by friends of the woman, whose name has been stated as “Jessica,” but also by representatives of aid organizations.

The police did not permit the protest to take place in front of the Tel Aviv brothel where the woman worked, so it was held in front of another building on the same street.

One women who came to the demonstration, Eti, 60, said she heard about it from a friend and came to express support. “This is unbelievable. Who knows how many women, girls, minors, need help and we don’t even know.” A 35-year-old man, Moti Zalmon, said he joined the protest after hearing about Jessica’s case at work, “although it’s already too late,” he added. Passersby who stopped to see what the protest was all about seemed shocked when they were told.

Some demonstrators carried signs with slogans including: “As long as a woman’s body can be bought, no woman is protected” and “All prostitution is rape.” Others carried signs with copies of death notices for Jessica and other women who died while working as prostitutes. The death notices were printed by Atzum, a group combatting human trafficking, which put them up in various places around Tel Aviv, including Hayarkon Street and at Atarim Square, where a strip club operates.

Candles lit in memory of sex worker who killed herself, at a protest in Tel Aviv, August 22, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“Look at the death notices, at the initials of all of these women. Who would choose to die at such an age?” Zionist Union Knesset member Merav Michaeli asked the crowd rhetorically at the demonstration. “How can one speak [of prostitution as] a choice?” She said she would continue to pursue efforts to make it a criminal offense to be a customer of prostitution, as well as legislation to provide rehabilitation services to women who worked as prostitutes. Current law does, however, make it a criminal offense to solicit prostitution. 

Sivan, 35, who worked as a prostitute with Jessica, said: “This demonstration is important, but it is a late awakening. I hope this is the first step in a process that will lead to a change in the general public's perception of prostitution.”

She said that when she was employed as a prostitute, she worked 12 hours a day, going to bed with between 10 and 30 men. Guards at the location supplied her with drugs, she noted. “That was my day-to-day [routine]. I quit because I felt like I was killing myself and only later understood what a hell I was trapped in.” With regard to Jessica, Sivan called her one of the best women she had known. “It’s important for the public at large to understand. There is no such thing as prostitution by choice. We are faced with a dark world that is hard to get out of.”

Naomi Ze’evi-Rivlin, who directs the Saleet program for the rehabilitation of women who have worked as prostitutes, said Saturday’s protest was the first demonstration on behalf of such women in Israel. “Jessica brought us onto the streets, if not during her lifetime then with her death,” she said, adding that Jessica’s was the 31st case of the death of a prostitute in Tel Aviv alone since Saleet was founded seven years ago, an average of a death every three months, with the women’s average age at death of 40.

And despite the demonstration, even as the protest was underway, people continued to come in and out of the Tel Aviv brothel where Jessica worked. As demonstrators went to the building to post death notices and light memorial candles in Jessica’s memory, a man was escorting prostitutes to the second floor of the building.

The brothel has continued to operate despite it being ordered shut down several years ago by the police. Sivan, calling the place the worst house of prostitution in the city, said its existence was a matter of public knowledge. Meretz Knesset member Michal Rozin said she would call on State Comptroller Joseph Shapira to investigate why had not been closed down.

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