Despite Tough Law, Advertisements for Prostitution in Israel Still Flourish

Only 13 offenders convicted since law went into effect six years ago – and none went to jail

Cards advertising prostitutes in Tel Aviv.
Tomer Appelbaum

Six years after a law was passed banning publication of advertisements for prostitution, such advertising on cards and pamphlets has evidently increased and little has been done to enforce the law.

Only 13 offenders have been convicted for advertising prostitution since the law was amended in 2011. Nobody was sent to prison, although the law enables a three-year sentence, and only a tiny number of the pimps and brothel owners ordering the advertising have been indicted.

In some cases, indictments were served against printers of cards advertising prostitution and their distributors, rather than against the pimps and brothels who ordered the ads. The police and State Prosecutor’s Office admit the enforcement is far from sufficient, but shift the responsibility from one to the other.

Police say 274 cases have been opened against suspected advertisers of prostitution services from the law’s amendment in 2011 to 2016. In most cases the suspects allegedly committed more serious offenses than advertising, like pimping and maintaining a brothel. But despite this, most of these cases did not end up in indictments. According to the State Prosecutor’s Office, only 21 of the indictments (7 percent) included advertising prostitution. On March 2011 an amendment sponsored by MKs Dov Khenin (Joint List) and Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), was passed, prohibiting the publication of prostitution ads in newspapers, the internet or on calling cards.

The penalty for offenders was raised to three years in prison or a fine of up to 226,000 shekels ($64,000).

Newspapers stopped publishing ads for prostitution when the amendment was introduced. But pimps and brothel managers continued to advertise these services on pamphlets and cards distributed on city streets and even stepped up this activity since the newspaper ads stopped.

NGOs helping prostitutes say advertising offering prostitution services is a major factor in spreading and encouraging prostitution and therefore must be stopped. The advertising fuels the demand for prostitution, brings women in distress into prostitution, encourages punters (prostitution users) and makes it easier for them to obtain brothel addresses or contact women who work in prostitution.

Also, quite a few brothels work covertly and advertising by cards is the clients’ main way of finding them, activists say.

“Any child on the street learns that he can use sex services, when the phone number is painted in red on the card,” says Idit Harel-Shemesh, director of the NGO “Mitos – the Day After Prostitution.” “The advertising conveys negative messages and distorted notions about sexual relations in general and about women’s status in particular. It is degrading, humiliating and commercializes women’s bodies,” she says.

Attorney Gaby Lasky, a Tel Aviv city councilor and head of the municipal committee for gender equality, says “advertising prostitution is in fact soliciting for prostitution. It encourages more women to enter the prostitution circle and normalizes it in the public’s eyes.”

Not only do most offenders evade conviction, but the penalty they get does not reach the maximum permitted by law, the data shows. According to Public Security Ministry figures, the 13 offenders who were convicted were all given suspended sentence and fines of up to 100,000 shekels.

“The law banning advertising of prostitution services is a dead letter,” said MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), whose parliamentary question to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan prompted his ministry to provide the data.

“The miniscule conviction rate attests to that. The police aren’t protecting women in prostitution and the public forcibly exposed to this advertising. The police prefer to be on the punters’ side,” she said.

Haaretz has learned that at the beginning of May, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan asked Maj. Gen. Meni Yitzhaki, head of the police investigations department, to step up enforcement against the cards that advertise prostitution and the printers distributing them. Nitzan said in his letter that the enforcement in this matter is insufficient.

But sources in the prosecution say the law is relatively new and the number of convictions rises every year. They say that since the beginning of 2017, four indictments have been served in the Tel Aviv district alone.

The police refused to answer questions on this issue despite repeated requests. However, in a reply to Tel Aviv residents’ complaints about their failure to enforce the ban on advertising prostitution, police said that while they have increased enforcement significantly, this is not reflected in the prosecution’s indictments. “We think more indictments must be filed to create a deterrence,” wrote police Superintendent Robi Kayam, head of human trafficking policing.

He cited “technical camouflage” and inadequate funds as some of the reasons for the police’s difficulty in enforcing the law.

The NGO activists say the police and prosecution are not doing their job. “Anyone involved knows that behind every apartment there’s a pimp and it’s the police’s job to find him. Many of the cards lead to the large brothels, not to private apartments. The police must change their attitude and act to capture those on the other side of the phone line. Without changing their priorities and allocating adequate funds, nothing will change,” says Reuma Schlezinger, head of the Task Force on Human Trafficking.