The Return of Trafficking in Women

The Israeli sex industry has been operating unhindered in recent years as the authorities have turned a blind eye.

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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Prostitutes in Tel Aviv.The photograph shows two figures wearing high boots standing on a street, their backs to the camera.
Prostitutes in Tel Aviv.Credit: Nir Kafri
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

Over the past three years, Israel has taken pride in the fact that in the American State Department’s report on human trafficking, it ranked highest for its success in stamping it out. Israel wiped away the disgrace of its disregard of trafficking in women, which had been prevalent here from the 1990s until the early 2000s. But recently, trafficking in women has come back into our lives in a new form.

Accounts of trafficking are steadily accumulating. A trafficking ring that brought women into Israel from Ukraine under the guise of medical tourism was exposed in September. Another ring from South America was discovered in August, and two men and one woman who trafficked in women from eastern Europe were arrested in May. Groups that assist women forced to work in the sex trade report that women from the former Soviet Union, who enter Israel in coordination with traffickers using a tourist visa, are put to work as prostitutes in so-called “massage parlors” and strip clubs.

The incidence of forced prostitution among residents of Israel is increasing as well. In 2012, police opened only two criminal files against citizens who forced women to work in the sex trade against their will. Twenty-nine such files were opened in 2013, and 25 have been opened since the beginning of 2014.

Maybe it is not surprising that trafficking in women has returned. The local sex industry has been operating unhindered in recent years as the authorities have turned a blind eye. The police, who are tolerant of local prostitution, capture few pimps and hardly enforce the law prohibiting the operation of houses of prostitution. The number of brothels is steadily increasing, the pimps are recruiting local workers without fear, and prostitution is spreading to many spheres – the Internet, the street, hotels, “discreet” apartments, spas and escort services.

The thriving prostitution industry is padding the pockets of Israel’s crime world. For brothel managers, a brothel is a business in every sense, prostitution is a profession and women’s bodies are merchandise. But none of this can absolve the pimp of his responsibility. The exploitation and oppression of women in the “discreet luxury apartments” show this industry in its entirety: The pimps impose fines on the women, and they must pay in exchange for using towels, consuming alcohol and contraceptives for safe sex.

Even the rape of a woman working in prostitution by a customer translates into profit in most cases – the customer is given the option of paying an additional sum to keep the incident quiet, and the sum is divided between the pimp and the woman.

This is a market for human meat with a dark mechanism of supply and demand: The underworld prefers a cheap and weakened workforce that it can oppress and exploit.

We would do well to take a look at The Netherlands and Germany, which waved the banner of legalized prostitution and now must deal with a worsening problem of trafficking in women, which is spurring local prostitution. Anyone who does not want to see a rising wave of trafficking in women in Israel must encourage police to enforce the law by closing escort services, promote legislation to criminalize customers (such laws have the power to affect real change), impose more severe penalties on pimps and expand rehabilitation services for victims of prostitution.

Trafficking in women and prostitution are part of the same heavy chain that binds women into modern sexual slavery. When a woman works in prostitution for 12 to 14 hours a day three to five days a week, forced to provide sexual services to between 15 and 20 men on average per “shift” – whether it be because of debt, economic vulnerability, drug addiction or depression – she too is chained, deprived of liberty.

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