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When Israeli Ministers Laugh at Sex Trafficking

Zehava Galon
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Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Emil Salman
Zehava Galon

At a cabinet meeting last week in which Israel’s disgraceful plan for absorbing refugees from Ukraine was debated, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said that Israeli mayors “want the Ukrainians.” Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman then quipped: “Some only want Ukrainian women.” Several cabinet ministers laughed. Ultimately Lieberman apologized.

Sorry if I’m taking a tough feminist stance, but I don’t find that funny. In 2001, I founded the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on the Trafficking of Women, which I headed for a number of years. It took time to convince senior officials in the law enforcement system to change their attitude towards women who were trafficked for prostitution – and transformed from human beings into objects traded in the marketplace and judged by their monetary value.

The passage of legislation banning human trafficking, which I led in 2006 along with the government, provided that women who are trafficked should be considered victims of crime whose human rights have been violated. And even when they come to Israel illegally, it provided that the government is responsible for helping them and prosecuting the traffickers.

After another decade of efforts to heighten awareness, Knesset member Shuli Moalem and I, along with other female lawmakers, managed to pass a law imposing an administrative fine on consumers of prostitution, out of an understanding that women involved in prostitution are victims and not partners in crime.

I thought we had come a long way since – until recent cases involving female refugees from Ukraine surfaced that made it clear that we haven’t. These are vulnerable women who have lost their entire world and have fled to a country where the interior minister is cruel and the Population and Immigration Authority is run sadistically, and they are liable to find themselves in a classic situation of women with no alternative.

The director of the Population and Immigration Authority has already proudly announced that he has kept out 247 Ukrainian refugees, including women who in his opinion “came here to engage in prostitution.” Women in prostitution are first and foremost victims. The destruction of their households and their being cut off from family and friends leave them penniless and helpless.

The Israel Women’s Network has noted that about 100 female refugees from Ukraine were contacted by an Israeli prior to their arrival who offered to “help” them in exchange for sex services. The government has an obligation to protect them and then to immediately find these sexual predators and charge them under the anti-trafficking law, which provides a prison term of 16 to 20 years for trafficking in women.

But Lieberman finds all this funny. And he’s not alone. Other ministers also chuckled, but fortunately for them, we don’t know who they are. Lieberman’s statement once again entrenches the view that prostitution is the default option for women – as if we hadn’t been fighting this view for two decades. Words shape consciousness, which in turn determines reality. The role of the other ministers is also important. They normalized Lieberman’s remark and lent it legitimacy. And all this happened at a cabinet meeting where a group of elected officials behaved like a bunch of horny army reservists.

Yes, this appears to be a comparatively trivial issue. As songwriter Meir Ariel put it, we’re already used to the fact that “the government of the people is once again street walking, and I’m embarrassed” (a metaphor that treats women in prostitution as contemptible). But things don’t have to be like this. Our job as citizens is to reclaim our institutions from the filth seeping out of them and, to the best of our abilities, to protect those on whom Lieberman and his gang of chucklers have imposed their own fantasies.

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