Israeli Justice Minister Mulls Criminalizing the Hiring of Prostitutes

Ayelet Shaked forms committee to examine European countries' approach, where women cannot be tried and are entitled to a range of welfare services if they leave the world of prostitution.

Outside the old bus station in Tel Aviv. The average age of the girls entering prostitution is 13 to 14.
Nir Kafri

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is forming a committee to examine the possibility of making the hiring of prostitutes a criminal offense, at the urging of MKs Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) and Zehava Galon (Meretz), who are promoting a bill on the issue and met with Shaked two weeks ago.

The committee, which will include representatives from the social affairs, finance, public security and justice ministries, will look into the costs and implications of such a move. The committee will also study international models of criminalization of prostitution consumers, including the new French law that was enacted earlier this month, which also instituted aid for women in prostitution. In the French model, customers who hire prostitution services will be fined up 1,500 euros for a first offense and 3,750 euros for a repeat offense. The women cannot be tried, and if they wish to leave the world of prostitution will be entitled to a broad range of welfare services. With this law, France joins a number of other countries, including Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland, in which consumption of prostitution services is a criminal offense.

Legislative proposals to criminalize the use of prostitution services have been put before the Knesset for several years, and the Social Affairs Ministry has expressed support for the new proposals and is currently working on the issue – but there are still disputes between the various involved parties concerning the moral and social implications, as well as the amount of resources needed to enforce the law and rehabilitate women who leave prostitution.

According to Israeli law, prostitution in itself is not a criminal offense. But the penal code does include criminal offenses related to prostitution, such as pimping, causing someone to commit an act of prostitution or to engage in prostitution, exploitation of minors for prostitution, human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution and advertising of prostitution.

In 2012 a bill to criminalize consumption of prostitution services submitted by MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) passed an initial reading but was not fully passed. The issue came up on the current Knesset’s agenda when MK Sharren Haskel (Likud) submitted a similar proposal three months ago, but the vote on this bill has been postponed due to concurrent work on the other bill put forward by Moalem-Refaeli and Galon, which will likely be attached to Haskel’s bill.

Galon and Moalem-Refaeli’s bill is broader, as in addition to making consumption of prostitution services a criminal offense, it seeks to ensure a basket of rehabilitation services, overseen by the welfare services, for women who want to get out of prostitution.

The emerging bill would make the soliciting of prostitution services an offense punishable by prison time, but like the French model, it may also offer the possibility of a fine rather than a criminal charge. Another possibility is that the customer could pay a reduced fine on condition that he attends a preventive workshop about prostitution. But a source familiar with the details says that Justice Ministry officials are afraid the police will lack the suitable resources to enforce the law. For example, from 2013-2015, due to enforcement difficulties, only 20 indictments were issued for soliciting prostitution services from a minor, which is a criminal offense.

Currently, a woman who works in prostitution or has survived prostitution is not automatically eligible for aid from the welfare services. Each case is considered on an individual basis and any aid that is given is offered in accordance with a social worker’s recommendation. Social Affairs Ministry data show that 29 percent of women in prostitution receive assistance.

The new bill would make every woman working in prostitution or has left prostitution eligible to receive assistance from the welfare services, including assured income and pocket money in the rehabilitation stage, assistance with employment, rent, household supplies, supplemental education, medical or psychosocial aid, legal aid and assistance in strengthening her relationship with her children.

The Justice Ministry has reportedly made its support for the bill contingent upon the welfare services’ readiness to take on the proposed guidelines. The Social Affairs Ministry is currently working on a new aid basket to be offered to women in prostitution.

The number of consumers of prostitution services in Israel has never been officially studied. The Mitos – The Day After Prostitution NGO estimates the number to be about 300,000, with payments from consumers totaling NIS 1.2 billion per year. This large number raises the question of whether the criminal label should be attached to such a large segment of the population.