Analysis |

Israel's Anti-prostitution Law Could Start a Revolution, but Only if Authorities Aim Higher

Enforcement, rehabilitation, prevention and education are needed for Israel to truly claim its place among the ranks of progressive countries fighting to end prostitution and human trafficking

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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A police officer closing brothels in Tel Aviv, March 2020.
A police officer closing brothels in Tel Aviv, March 2020.Credit: Tomer Applebaum
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

In honor of the new calendar year, Israel is joining the list of progressive countries fighting to end prostitution – a list that includes Sweden, Canada, France and Ireland. As of Thursday, it began enforcing a law banning the use of prostitutes.

For a while, it seemed as if Israel were trying to destroy this revolutionary achievement by refraining from enforcing the law. Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s loyal agent, defied the Knesset’s decision and, like an anarchist, refused to sign the order to enforce the law, which was supposed to take effect in July.

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But the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution petitioned the High Court of Justice, which got the minister to promise to sign the order. And thus, after a six-month delay during which Ohana tried to reap political capital, enforcement of the law has officially begun.

The law banning the use of prostitutes sends a clear and necessary message that using prostitutes is a crime against humanity. From now on, a client is a criminal in every respect, an essential link in the criminal chain that exploits other people in their weakness and distress.

Moreover, the law doesn’t criminalize people trapped in prostitution, thereby sending the message that they are victims in the eyes of the law. This breaks the old mold and could therefore, for the first time, give them power against the clients and pimps in the prostitution industry. It is also a clear statement that prostitution isn’t a choice, but a lack of choice.

The law forbidding the use of prostitutes was sponsored by the government. It’s a temporary law that will remain in effect for five years, during which its impact will be studied. One of the law’s important provisions is that it requires the state to offer rehabilitation to people trapped in the prostitution industry.

Under the auspices of this law, the state, for the first time, is developing treatment options that hadn’t existed for transgender individuals and single mothers working as prostitutes, as well as for people with a double affliction – drug addicts suffering from psychological problems.

Rehabilitation is a fundamental right, and it must include broad, holistic, appropriate solutions in the fields of education, housing, employment and psychosocial treatment.

This is necessary to prevent women, men and transgender individuals from being abandoned a second time by the state, which ignored Israel’s flourishing prostitution industry and is therefore responsible for them.

A prostitute photographed in Tel Aviv, 2010.Credit: ASAblanca / Getty Images

The police need to be trained about the local prostitution problem. They would also be wise to set up a dedicated unit to enforce the law, similar to the special unit set up in the past to combat human trafficking, which was later dismantled.

The law imposes administrative fines on offenders, but also offers treatment. Many offenders are addicted to the use of prostitutes. A high proportion use drugs or drink. They are in a state of emotional crisis, and some were victims of sexual assault as children.

Now that a legal and public spotlight is being shined on prostitutes’ clients, it must be said clearly that the time has come not only to punish them, but also to rehabilitate them. Just recently, nauseating Israeli sex tourism to the United Arab Emirates has hit the headlines. This isn’t a new problem; Israeli sex tourists are also infamous in Thailand.

But on the day the law to fight the local prostitution industry came into force, Israel also committed to fight the consumption of paid sex by its citizens overseas and to try to prevent the problem from migrating to other countries.

Israel could choose to follow the example of, say, Norway, which adopted the Swedish model of criminalizing the use of prostitutes in 2009 and enacted legislation barring its citizens from using prostitutes both within the country and outside its borders.

According to a Norwegian government report, this law has reduced demand and contributed to a decline in prostitution and human trafficking in the country. Law alone can’t foment a revolution, but a law banning the use of prostitutes is revolutionary. Therefore, this is indeed a historic day.

The law itself is the best explanatory campaign, but it also requires enforcement, punishment, rehabilitation, prevention, explanation and education. That is how Israel successfully acted in the 2000s, when it passed legislation against human trafficking, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t act similarly to protect its own citizens who are trapped in prostitution.

Ideally, the next generation, which will grow up in the light of this law, won’t need the legislation to understand that using prostitutes is a crime. Above all, however, this law is dedicated to the prostitutes who died in painful anonymity for years, and to the survivors of prostitution who, with great courage, dared to tell society the truth about the prostitution industry.

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