From the early 1990s until the mid-2000s, the Israeli sex industry was based on the trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union. Not until a 2001 U.S. State Department report on human trafficking, in which Israel ranked at the third and lowest level, did the state begin taking serious steps to suppress the industry. Otherwise Israel could have lost vital economic aid.
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One move was Section 203A of the penal code, which mandates 16 years in prison for anyone who sells or buys a human being, or acts as a mediator in the sale of a human being for the purposes of prostitution. Trafficked women were now considered victims, not criminals, and enforcement was increased.
Israel’s efforts have succeeded and trafficking has been reduced. For the second year in a row, Israel has done better in the State Department’s annual report, alongside other nations trying to stamp out human trafficking.
But as trafficking has subsided, the prostitution industry has flourished because demand for sex services remains steady. This is a billion-dollar industry, according to officials who testified before the Knesset Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women and Prostitution, including the head of the Tax Authority.
It hasn’t taken long for the Israeli sex industry to win new recruits – at-risk youth, single mothers on the brink of starvation, migrant women, male and female drug addicts, and men and women who were sexually abused as children and never received treatment. Aid organizations estimate that the Israeli prostitution industry now involves about 15,000 women, men and transgender people – an unprecedented number.
The blue-and-white prostitution industry is thriving compared to the days when trafficking in women was at a high. In Tel Aviv, between 250 and 300 brothels are operating. Meanwhile, Eilat, Haifa, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, Holon, Rishon Letzion, Ashkelon and other cities have lively prostitution scenes. Prostitution occurs unhindered at hotels, bed and breakfasts, apartment buildings, industrial zones and nightclubs, as well as on the street and on websites.
Israeli crime lords, pimps and brothel operators saw that the rules had changed and adapted; no more trafficking in women and importing them from the former Soviet Union, at risk of imprisonment. Instead, they invested in “recruiting” local women and underage girls in distress. They marketed prostitution to the public as a choice and a profession, and tried to make pimping a “legitimate field of endeavor” by promoting discussion of “the institutionalization of prostitution.”
One building in Tel Aviv serves as the headquarters of an escort service where, 14 years ago, the women had been forcibly brought to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Their passports were taken away and they were enslaved to serve Israeli sex consumers. Nowadays, eight or nine Israeli women can be found on each 12-to-14-hour shift, during which they each have to supply sex services to 10 to 20 clients.
Why aren’t the authorities bothered by a prostitution industry that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade and relies on the weakest groups in society? Can’t the police, who were able to crack down on trafficking in women – an international crime – do something about fighting the domestic prostitution industry?
The campaign’s success against trafficking in women showed that legislation, harsher penalties for pimping, and stronger law enforcement can make a difference. Israel also needs to show responsibility toward weaker communities, which are now propelling the local sex industry, and apply the same model.
It must enact legislation that criminalizes clients, stiffen the penalties for pimping and promoting prostitution, enforce the law and expand the support systems and rehabilitation programs for those trapped in prostitution. The public needs to ask why the state is so indifferent to the growing sex industry, and who is behind that industry.