Prostitutes Working in Brothels Aren’t Breaking Law, Tel Aviv Judge Rules

As long as men are allowed to buy sex from strangers for money, Judge Itai Hermelin says, the state must minimize the risks these women face.

Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer
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Male prostitutes are becoming increasingly commonplace around Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station.
Male prostitutes are becoming increasingly commonplace around Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station.Credit: Nir Kafri
Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer

In a landmark ruling, a Tel Aviv court declared on Monday that prostitutes working from home or paying rent for a brothel could be acting legally.

Magistrate’s Court Judge Itai Hermelin determined the conditions under which operating a brothel is not an offense as part of a trial brought by the state against an establishment in east Tel Aviv.

Hermelin imposed restrictions on the operations of the Tel Aviv brothel. However, these were subject to the state committing to avoid prosecuting sex workers who use their own apartments or locations that are rented by several women together for the purpose of prostitution, or at a location rented by one woman who then invites other women to share it.

The penalty for operating premises for the purpose of prostitution can be five years’ imprisonment.

This is believed to be the first time a judge in Israel has underscored the freedom of women to engage in prostitution, as well as specifying their rights.

The entrance to an alleged brothel on Wolfson Street, Tel Aviv.Credit: Dan Keinan

Hermelin proposed that the state reexamine existing statutes, writing, “As long as prostitution is permitted in Israel – with men allowed to buy sex from strangers for money – it is incumbent upon the state to minimize the risks these women face.”

He added that “pushing these women onto the street violates their dignity in an unacceptable manner. As a result, interpreting the law in a way that criminalizes prostitution taking place in a building is unconstitutional and must be rejected.”

In his ruling, the judge noted that the main criticism voiced by the sex workers speaking in court was directed not at their place of employment – which they described as discreet, safe and clean – but at the police.

“The attitude of the police was depicted as degrading and harmful, sometimes bordering on violent abuse,” wrote Hermelin. “There were repeated descriptions of women being chased out of buildings naked during police raids, with abusive language being used by policemen.”

Hermelin issued an injunction prohibiting the use of the Tel Aviv brothel for 90 days, starting in mid-September, granting the women working there time to prepare after the restrictions imposed on their livelihood.

The judge concluded by saying he hoped “the legislator and law enforcement agencies will take note of the details of this ruling, and that the voice of women engaged in prostitution is not silenced while their matter is debated.”

The judge had sharply criticized the state for objecting to letting 15 prostitutes at the Tel Aviv brothel be party to the litigation. The women had asked that no limits be imposed on using the building on Yitzhak Sadeh Street, since that might drive them onto the street, where conditions are much harsher.

“I found the state’s position to be mistaken and hurtful,” wrote Hermelin, adding that any concerns the women might be expressing the views of their employers did not warrant their silencing.

“Such silencing offends their human dignity, since it’s based on an unexamined a priori assumption that they are not autonomous beings and that they won’t express their own views.”

The judge described the six women who testified in court, noting that they were all adults, aged in their 20s to 40s, of differing educational level, and that most of them were mothers. “Based on their testimony and my impressions, none of them were addicted to drugs or alcohol,” wrote Hermelin, adding, “Some of them said they have been prostitutes all their life, or nearly all of it, while others said they’d done other things beforehand.”

The Tel Aviv State Prosecutor’s office said it was pleased the court had accepted the state’s position on the brothel. “We’ll continue to fight these phenomena, which degrade human dignity, operating on the basis of the law, court rulings and directives from the state prosecutor,” it said in a statement.

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