Poleaxed: The Naked Truth About an Israeli Strip Joint

Strippers who have worked at the Baby Dolls club in Tel Aviv talk about the sex services provided there, and reveal how their employment contracts allowed the owners to avoid legal responsibility.

"She dances fire and ash. All in a flash. Talks in Hebrew, in English just cash. Her beauty can turn you numb. It made me dumb. So tell me, mama, where to come − Baby Dolls the baby dolls Baby Dolls the baby the baby. Her ass is Armani, her tits are Padani − so come here to baby in Baby a hot name.”

Rapper The Shadow (aka Yoav Eliasi) shot his video for the above-quoted song in the Baby Dolls strip club in Tel Aviv. He’s not alone in using the location. In the past few years the club has become a popular filming location for the entertainment industry. The third season of TV drama series “Haborer” (The Mediator) shot some scenes at the club, as did police series “One Zero Zero.” It’s hard to think of a more appropriate place.

A less glittering reality underlies the Padani and Armani. (A former coowner of the club, Dudu Digmi, was one of Israel’s biggest traffickers in women. He is now a real estate magnate, having signed a state’s witness agreement.) Here, too, the stereotype of the college student who decides to become a stripper to help pay the tuition is quickly shattered.

***

It’s 11 P.M. on a Thursday early in March. The Baby Dolls club opens for the night shift. The door is guarded by three beefy bouncers. The men waiting in line are told to take everything out of their pockets and place it on a table before going through a magnetometer. After the security check, each guest-client gets a short procedural talk from one of the guards. There are two formal rules in the club. The first is that photography is prohibited. This rule is strictly enforced. (Later in the evening, when one of the customers takes a mobile phone out of his pocket, he is immediately threatened with ejection by two security men.) The second rule − to treat the women who work in the club gently and with respect − turns out to be more flexible.

The guests sit along the 100-seat bar, or in one of the nooks on black leather sofas, which add another 300 places.

Vodka in a pail of ice is served in most of the nooks. The big show starts at midnight. Fifteen strippers, most in their twenties, are presented to the audience. Then each stripper takes the stage alone, one after the other, completely naked. One hangs from a wheel, another does stunts with an umbrella, the third might do tricks with a bottle of champagne, and so on.

As the solo numbers proceed, the other strippers come down from the stage and mingle with the guests, wearing bathing suits.

For NIS 20 they will perform a lap dance for a client during a whole song. Another simple, formal rule comes into play here: the strippers are allowed to touch the clients anywhere. The clients, too, are allowed to touch the girls everywhere, apart from their genitalia. But that’s another flexible rule. And it undergoes a transformation in the transition to the second floor. For NIS 150, a client can take the stripper into one of the dark rooms on the club’s upper level and achieve sexual climax as a security man stands guard outside the room.

Enter the cops

Since the Baby Dolls strip club opened, at the end of 2008, it has operated 364 days a year, resting only on Yom Kippur. The police generally keep their distance, as they did for years with the other big clubs in Tel Aviv − until recently, when they decided that the clubs are “drug lairs.”

One night in February 2009, however, two undercover cops entered the club, located at 86 Abarbanel Street in south Tel Aviv. They sat at one of the tables and four strippers started to dance and rub up against them. The cops paid each of them NIS 25 to perform a lap dance. Shortly afterward, one of the strippers, Sharon (not her real name), 24, offered to go upstairs to a private room with one of the policemen. She told him she would “do anything except penetration.”

In the room, she offered him “a blow job, a hand job or a private dance,” and asked for NIS 300. He gave her the money and she stripped down to panties. However, at this stage police officers – who had been waiting outside – entered the club, put a halt to the steamy activity and detained Sharon (who had dressed in the meantime). Two hours later, she was in a police station, being questioned.

She did not ask for a lawyer and did not try to deny anything. Instead, she stated, with surprising honesty, “I have worked as a dancer and prostitute at the Baby Dolls club on Abarbanel Street for two months. Before that, I worked as a dancer at Bursa and Pussycat [two other Tel Aviv strip clubs]. In 2008, I also started to offer sex services in Baby Dolls, after I started working there, because I wanted to make more money ... At around 1 A.M. I entered the room with the policeman. I saw that he didn’t want anything and I asked if he wanted a blow job or climax by hand − and if not, I could dance. I took NIS 300 from him and then stripped and danced. After about seven minutes, policemen arrived and brought me here.”

In contrast to Sharon, Ze’ev Mendelson – who identified himself as an owner of Baby Dolls – summoned his lawyer. In his interrogation, Mendelson stated that he forbids the girls in the club to have sexual intercourse or engage in other sexual activity with the clients, because that is “not moral in his eyes.” His trump card was the job contract signed by the strippers. Not long afterward, the police called in Mendelson and his lawyer for a second round of questioning.

“I am a businessman and I oppose prostitution on moral grounds,” Mendelson told the police, adding, “The VIP rooms are for private dancing, and what happened [that night] was a blunder by the employee. I did everything I could to prevent prostitution, including adding an annex to the employment contract defining the sex activity that is prohibited in the club ... This was apparently one girl who blundered − contrary to the interest of the business − and did it completely on her own. She has not been employed by the club since that one-time event.” The lawyer added, “In any event, the club’s aim is not prostitution, and that girl did not uphold the club’s requirements.”

Sharon maintained otherwise. She told the police that six strippers who were then working at the club also offered sex services, and that all the owners knew about this: “It is not a secret.” She added that this was not the first time she had been caught trying to solicit a police officer at the club. Asked whether Mendelson, too, was aware of the sexual activity, she said he was, and that she would be willing to engage him in a confrontation. The confrontation never took place. The police closed the Baby Dolls case; Sharon’s testimony was left uncorroborated.

However, the transcript of Mendelson’s interrogation shows that, even without Sharon’s testimony, the police had evidence that Baby Dolls is not just a strip joint. According to the transcript, “This was not a one-time event [referring to the event in which Sharon was detained]. In addition, many people contacted us, either in letters or by telephone, as a result of which the police took action. Despite the fact that a normative public was found in the visits to the club [by the police] and there were no cases of violence, the prostitution issue is unacceptable, and further visits will be made. I emphasize that many complaints about prostitution were received in this regard.”

‘Freelance dancer’

Strippers at the club who asked for a copy of their job contract related that the owners told them it had been thrown out. However, when the same owners wanted to show the police that prostitution was prohibited on the premises, they had no problem producing dozens of contracts signed by the strippers. As in Sharon’s case, that was enough to convince the police.

The contract is headed “Declaration by freelance dancer at Baby Dolls Club.” A brief perusal of the document shows that it does not resemble employment contracts in the normative labor market. In fact, it is far from being a standard contract, and its real aim appears to be to protect the owners – particularly when it comes to the law.

Like the other young women who work at Baby Dolls, Sharon too was asked to sign a contract when she was hired by the club. Article 12 states: “I am aware that I am allowed to make use of the club’s private rooms for private dancing only, and to take money from the clients for this. I undertake not to engage in sexual relations or manual stimulation in the private room; I undertake and declare that if I deviate from this provision, I will bear the full legal responsibility for this and that the club’s managers and-or owners will bear no responsibility on this account.”

In another clause, Sharon undertakes to be “clean, neat, [wear] good makeup and be primed for the performance. Management has the right to cancel my performance if I do not meet these standards.”

In her interrogation, Sharon emphasized the fact that the strippers do not have access to their contract. “I do not have a copy of the contract, no one does,” she said. “We asked [for a copy], but he [Ephraim (Effi) Vaknin, a club employee] refused to give it to us.”

Asked by the interrogator whether there was a sanction in the contract under which she would have to pay a fine or be punished in some other way if she breached it, Sharon replied, “No. He told me that it was only on paper, and so we would be protected under the law if we were caught.”

The annex to the contract is even more explicit. “I affirm,” it states, “that I am aware that it is strictly forbidden to engage in sexual relations in the club during my work in it with clients. I am forbidden to provide sex services to clients which include stimulation, by hand, blow job, penetration (fucking). On the stage I am allowed to strip completely, including bra and panties. I am not allowed to remove the panties amid the audience. Should I violate these provisions, my employment in the club will be terminated immediately, I will pay the club a fine of NIS 5,000 and I will face a police criminal file, arrest, questioning, trial and incarceration.”

Under other clauses in the contract, Sharon and her coworkers undertook “that drugs will not be used and not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol during work.” They were also “forbidden to maintain romantic and sexual relations with employees or clients of the club.” They had to sign a noncompetition clause, under which “I am prohibited from working in a competing club in any form of work without management’s authorization. If I am in breach of this clause I will pay compensation of NIS 20,000” (see box below).

Although under the contract employees are not allowed to photograph one another, the club’s website carries photographs of the strippers. According to some of the women, management turned down their request to delete their photos.

As in politics and business, for criminals, too, knowledge is power. In June 2010, serious charges were filed in court against an intelligence coordinator in a leading central police unit. Over a long period, the indictment charged, the officer had “crossed the line” and warned underworld figures about impending police raids on illegal gambling houses they ran. In return, the officer received large amounts of money from the mobsters.

At the time of the indictment, Haaretz reported that this was not an exceptional case. In the course of five years, there had been 13 similar cases in which intelligence officers aided criminals. For example, testimony in a major trial of traffickers in women revealed that S. (a police officer in a large police district) had called one of those involved in the prostitution ring, David Muraidi, to demand that no “female tourists” be present in an apartment that was used as the headquarters of an “escort service.” Following the call, the “tourists” were moved to another apartment ahead of a police raid.

Sharon’s testimony on the night of her detention suggests possible similar behavior in the case of Baby Dolls. However, her testimony was archived when the case was closed.

“Yesterday,” Sharon told the police interrogator from the Yiftah Region (which covers south Tel Aviv), “I started work at 9 P.M. and a guy named Yisrael, who is one of the club’s owners, gave us a briefing along with Effie, who is also a partner in the club.” She was referring to Yisrael Reuvenov, whose father, Mordechai Reuvenov, is now serving a lengthy prison term for human trafficking. The younger Reuvenov recently opened a rooms-by-the-hour place in a Tel Aviv residential building and leased it to another large-scale trafficker in women.

Sharon continued: “Yisrael told us that undercover men would be coming that day, and that we should not say that the dancing in the private room could include a blow job or a hand job, but to say dancing and pampering, and that what the girl does in the room is her responsibility. He used the words, ‘Her blood will be on her head.’”

Interrogator: “How did Yisrael know that undercover men were supposed to arrive that day?”

Sharon: “I don’t know. No one asked him. And for sure, even if we had asked, he wouldn’t have said.”

Interrogator: “Was this the first time Yisrael warned you about undercover cops?”

Sharon: “No. We were warned the time before, too, but I don’t remember [by] which of the partners.”

Interrogator: “What happened the time before?”

Sharon: “I was in a room with the policeman and I offered him a blow job or a hand job, and he chose a dance. Policemen came in and took my details, and that was all.”

Interrogator: “When was that?”

Sharon: “Three weeks ago.”

Interrogator: “How much money did you take from the policeman?”

Sharon: “NIS 300.”

Interrogator: “Who did you give the money to?”

Sharon: “To Erin. NIS 100.”

Interrogator: “Why did you offer sex services when Yisrael warned you not to?”

Sharon: “Because Yisrael told us that each girl could do what she wants in the room, but not to say outside the room what sex services we give, and if we are caught it is our responsibility.”

Interrogator: “Which other partners were at Yisrael’s briefing?”

Sharon: “Only Effie.”

A police spokesman explained that, according to procedure, cases of policemen suspected of involvement in criminal activity are passed on to the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers and are not handled at the district level.

The real boss

Baby Dolls was opened to great media hoopla in September 2008; it was described as the largest strip club in Israel. According to press reports at the time, one of the owners was David Tor, a well-known figure in the Tel Aviv nightlife scene and the founder of several major clubs – including Dana and The Cat and the Dog.

Tor, the media noted at the time, had established the clubs with partners, but they preferred to remain anonymous. The reason for the discretion was fairly obvious. One of the partners was a young man named David (Dudi) Digmi.

Unlike Tor, Digmi could not allow himself to boast about his new club: at the time, he was still an undercover police informer. He was busy incriminating his associates in Israel’s biggest prostitution ring, which smuggled hundreds of women into the country between 1999-2007, most of them from the former Soviet Union, and employed them as prostitutes − with the aid of repeated violence − in dozens of apartments in metropolitan Tel Aviv.

Digmi was the senior figure in the prostitution ring. According to Tel Aviv District Court Judge Chaled Kabub, Digmi was the “moving spirit” behind the network. His accomplices were sentenced to jail terms of up to 18 years, but he found a haven. He signed a state’s witness agreement with the police and the state prosecution, and in return 24 serious charges against him were dropped.

Within a short time of becoming a police informer and then state’s witness, Digmi became a real estate magnate, even as police continued to receive complaints about extortion threats related to real estate projects of Digmi and his associates. Digmi was, in fact, convicted once of extortion and threats after he joined forces with the head of a large Jaffa-based crime organization.

The police and State Prosecutor’s Office continued to protect Digmi and support him during a legal battle fought by Haaretz to lift the gag order that barred the publication of his name. He now owns dozens of real estate companies and is doing business with members of the family of Shota Hovel, who until the end of 2012 was director of the building permits and supervision unit in the Tel Aviv Municipality. Hovel is suspected of allegedly promoting building projects in Tel Aviv, together with his son and nephew and another associate, attorney Eitan Segal − who is also Digmi’s lawyer − in return for kickbacks.

In the period around February 2009, when Sharon was detained for questioning, Digmi was cooperating with the Tel Aviv police’s central unit. One of his main jobs was to secretly record his associates in the prostitution ring − two months before the investigation went public and his partners in the ring were arrested. Sharon, when asked who the club’s owners were, rattled off a list headed by Digmi. Following her testimony, a police inspector from the Yiftah Region called Digmi to ask whether he was one of the club’s owners. Digmi said he was not, that he was “only an assistant to the manager.”

When Mendelson was asked by the police, in a different phone call, who owned the club, he replied that he was the sole owner, and that David Tor and Dudi Oren were his employees. He did not mention Digmi.

A year later, it turned out that Digmi had not hesitated to lie to the police, even after signing the agreement. Indeed, in the trial of his associates for trafficking in women, Digmi testified that he was a part-owner of the club until mid-2010, at which time he sold his share.

In fact, in her interrogation Sharon told police that the owners of the Baby Dolls club were “David Digmi, Effie Vaknin, Yisrael I don’t know his last name [Yisrael Reuvenov], and another Dudi whose last name I don’t know [Oren]. There is also David Tor, the owner of The Cat and the Dog, which is on Carlebach [Street].”

Tor stated in response: “At first I thought I would establish an entertainment place and be the owner, but it turned into something else, so in the end I was not the owner. I only helped them design the place and get it off the ground. The owners were originally in a different building, and then it changed.

“Someone invested the money and I helped with the design and with getting it off the ground,” he continued. “I don’t want to talk about who invested the money and I want nothing to do with strip clubs.”

‘A one-sided commitment’

According to lawyers Orna Lin and Osnat Longman, “This is an employment contract which purports not to be an employment contract. These women are supposed to be employees of the establishment, but, as we see in the contract, there is nothing about employees’ rights. It is a one-sided commitment by the stripper to the establishment, and not a job contract. The document contains unreasonable and uncommon elements, such as that she has to pay for clothing of the place of employment; that she has to compensate the club’s owners if she works in a competing place; and that she undertakes to work for three months during which the contract can be terminated within a month.

“There is no commitment to the minimum wage and no commitment to insurance coverage for damages − she has to insure herself − and the same goes for all the social-insurance deductions. And we haven’t yet reached article 12, which insinuates, ironically, that what the strippers are ostensibly prohibited to do is exactly what they are required to do. Article 12 is very disquieting. Is it aimed at absolving the club of responsibility? (That is, in practice are the strippers expected to provide sex services in the private rooms; and, alternatively, how can the dancer prevent a client for whom she is dancing in a private room from demanding sex services?) Though the expectation in practice is different, the aim of the clause is apparently to impose on the employee all criminal or other responsibility if they provide sex services, and effectively the employer is shirking responsibility.”

Stripped-down self-image: The story of a young woman who worked at Baby Dolls

“I saw an ad in the paper at a time when I was in a bad mental state. Two years earlier, my life was turned upside down when I was raped. I couldn’t commit to any job and I needed money fast. I know that today, after undergoing psychological treatment and being in a different place in my life, I would not work in a place like that. It’s not something you do with a clear mind. I was stressed and didn’t have a place to sleep. During the month when I worked in the club, I also slept there.”

Tamar (not her real name), 30, was a stripper, danced on the stage and performed lap dancing. “There was also an option to go up to the rooms with the clients,” she says, “but I didn’t do that.”

She describes the hiring process: “The owner brought me into a room in the presence of his secretary and asked me to strip. I kept on my panties and bra and he looked my body over. It’s not pleasant, but you understand that this is the place; after all, you need to go onstage and work with your body.” Like all the club’s strippers, she was given a contract to sign. “I signed the contract, but it was laughable and ridiculous,” Tamar says. “There is a clause saying, ‘You are forbidden to have sexual relations with employees or clients of the club.’ That is not true in itself. You see employees going up to the rooms all the time with clients and a security guard going up with them. Everyone knows what the rate is, and they have to give the owner half of what they get.”

The hope she felt when she read the ad faded quickly, Tamar says. “In contrast to the ad, which promises you big money, you don’t get a shekel from your employers. You work intensively, obligated to five shifts by the contract, but you don’t get a pay slip and you don’t get a salary from the place. The club opens around 6 P.M., the clients start to arrive around 9, and you work as a stripper until 4 or 6 in the morning. The only money comes from the clients. You are dependent on tips and on the clients’ whims, and that is your salary.”

What are relations among the employees like?

“We didn’t really communicate among ourselves. It is very alienated. There is pressure and competition between the women for the clients. Everyone has a false stage name and lives a double life with a lot of secrets. Here and there I spoke with a few of the others. A single mother told me she puts her child to sleep and then comes to work and that she is willing to humiliate herself in order to provide for him. It is a hard place. Lots of drugs make the rounds among the staff and the working girls. Many of them are permanent users, sniffing stuff to cut off their thoughts and go on stage.”

Tamar left after a month, when her family began to suspect what she was doing. “I left abruptly, without telling anyone,” she says. “When I slept there they would lock me in from the outside and I would call when I wanted to go out.”

Why did you leave abruptly?

“I was afraid to say I was leaving. I slept there for a month and I didn’t know if they would accept my wanting to leave, so I chose to disappear without saying anything. To leave and not come back.”

Tamar adds, after some reflection, “I ended up in that place because of the rape I suffered. You think you are in control of your body, but it’s not like that at all. You think that this is why there are guards, signs forbidding sexual relations, that you are in control and no one will hurt you. But it’s completely twisted.

“I would insist that every woman who goes to work in a place like that get a confirmation from a psychologist that she is really doing it of her own free will and not because of mental distress. The month I worked there wore down my sense of myself, the way I saw myself. You feel that you are only a body and a sexual object, and that that is all you are worth. Your self-image is constantly worn down in a place like that, and you feel you are nothing.” (Vered Lee)

Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman