Israeli Life: Jamming Traffic
The plight of young foreign women kidnapped or coerced into prostitution has only recently started to get attention from both the government and the Israeli public.
Julia, 21, a slight, blonde woman from Ukraine, sits on her bed in a shelter for victims of sex trafficking and hugs a stuffed dog. She had wanted to come to Israel to earn money for herself and her family. Instead of finding work as a maid or waitress, however, she was forced into one of the seamiest industries in the country—prostitution.
“I lived in an apartment with other women, working 20 hours a day,” says Julia (not her real name). “We had three days vacation a month. Most of the money went to the pimp.”
Prostitution is legal in Israel, though procurement—running a brothel, escort service or trafficking in women—is not, and there are well-known red-light districts in Tel Aviv, Eilat and Haifa. Thousands of women—both Jews and non-Jews—are involved in Israel’s sex industry. However, the majority, about 80 percent according to the Jerusalem-based Task Force on Human Trafficking (www.tfht.org), were coerced or kidnapped from their homes and enslaved, abused and forced to have sex with as many as 10 to 15 men a day.
Police reports indicate that about 1,000 women were smuggled into Israel between 2005 and 2006. That number is down from a peak of 3,000 in 2003, says Ra’anan Caspi, a police investigator with the National Investigation Office, because of new law enforcement policies that call for more brothel raids, longer imprisonment time for procurers and joint investigations into the sex trade with other countries.
While Israel has had some recent success in keeping white slavery from its borders, many women are still held in tightly controlled brothels and escort services, though exact numbers are unknown. Most victims are non-Jews, girls in their late teens and early twenties from poverty-stricken former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus (much of the trafficking began in the early 1990’s with the collapse of the Soviet Union). They are either kidnapped or recruited by nationals with connections to organized-crime networks in countries from Israel to Scandinavia with promises of jobs as waitresses and housekeepers.
“They came to my home and asked if I wanted to earn money,” says Julia. “They said I could go to any country for three months on an official tourist visa. I never heard anything bad about Israel, so I chose Israel.
“But first they kept me in Ukraine in a house for nine months,” she adds, “and when I tried to leave, they threatened to hurt my mother and sister.”
Julia was eventually sent to Israel by plane with the forged immigrant visa of a Ukrainian Jew. “But I was very fortunate,” she says. “I was not sent by way of Egypt and brought across the desert into Israel by Bedouins, as some of the girls [are].”
There is a trafficking chain, says Uri Sadeh, a field coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers (www. hotline.org.il). Most of the women expect to enter Israel legally, but instead are flown to Egypt, where their passports are confiscated. They are then handed over to smugglers, usually Bedouins with ties on both sides of the border that allow them to coordinate the transfer of the women. The smugglers bring them across the Sinai Desert, often raping and abusing them along the way. Once in Israel, they are sold to the highest bidder for about $5,000 to $10,000 each.
For the first couple of months, the women are kept indoors and do not get paid. “The procurer claims she must pay off the money he spent on acquiring her,” explains Sadeh, who is also a lawyer for the government-supported shelter for trafficked women, which is centrally located but hidden to protect the former prostitutes. He visits detention centers where women who are illegal immigrants are placed after a brothel raid to convince them to come to the shelter.
“There is no doubt that trafficking in human beings reveals the most base aspects of humankind,” says Rahel Gershuni of the Ministry of Justice, the government coordinator in the battle against human trafficking. “[The victims are] young girls with no hope, often from troubled families with a history of abuse…. The procurers control every aspect of their existence: what they wear, what they eat, when they sleep. They choose their clients, impose arbitrary fines. As in domestic violence, they become captives, internalizing every act of their captors to avoid hurt and to receive small rewards.”
Julia feels fortunate that the police raided the brothel where she was working and took her to jail. “They realized that my immigration documents belonged to someone else,” she says. “I testified against the man who owned the call girl enterprise, and he fled the country.”
The police investigators are anxious to get women to testify against pimps. “But this can be very dangerous,” explains Sadeh. “In one case, a woman testified, and the pimp, his wife and partner were given five-year prison sentences. But the minute she testified she was threatened by calls from Moldova.” Sadeh appealed to the Ministry of Interior for an extension of the woman’s visa, which was granted on humanitarian grounds.
Whether they testify or not, the women can go to the shelter, a cheerful, dormitory-like facility that can accommodate 50 women. Some women have children, and the courtyard contains play equipment. “They cook their own food and can learn English and Hebrew,” says Rinat Davidovich, the head of the shelter. “There are computer and art rooms, and many women go out to work.”
Davidovich has recently returned from a month-long workshop with directors of shelters for victims of trafficking in other countries. “I see that our situation is better than I thought,” she confides. “In Israel, the shelter is government supported. Most of the women receive visas to stay in Israel while they are deciding whether to testify or their case is being processed. They can also stay for a year afterward for rehabilitation.”
The creation of the shelter and the crackdown on human trafficking did not come without pressure from outside sources. Until about six years ago, these sex slaves were seen as criminals who came into the country to conduct shady business. If caught, the women were simply arrested and deported.
In 2000, Amnesty International published a highly critical report of white slavery in Israel, exposing a situation that officials had preferred to ignore for over a decade. A year later, the United States State Department Office for Monitoring Trafficking in Persons placed Israel in the third and worst tier of their ranking, along with many Arab countries, Russia and Romania. Both reports evoked a strong public response in Israel.
In 2001, the Knesset passed a law declaring it a crime to traffic for the purposes of prostitution. The police began to crack down on brothels. The courts extradited traffickers from abroad, as well as prosecuted the transporter, the broker and the purchaser. Over the last few years, more than 30 procurers have been prosecuted and 5 traffickers were extradited to Israel.
In light of all these efforts, Israel moved up to Tier Two classification in 2002, a category that includes Angola, France, the Czech Republic and Sweden. (This year, however, the State Department placed Israel on the Tier Two watch list, a step lower than Tier Two because of problems with trafficking in migrant workers; according to some estimates, there are 10,000 illegal workers in forced labor in the country, though this number has been disputed by Israeli officials.)
A Parliamentary Inquiry Committee under Knesset member Zahava Galon of the Meretz Party has kept the issue in the public eye. The committee is pushing for an expanded bill that will include legislation against forced laborers; it would be in conjunction with a Ministry of Justice bill recently adopted by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset under committee chairman Menachem Ben Sasson. The bill recommends tougher sentences of 8 to 18 years imprisonment and stiffer fines that will fund trafficking prevention, police enforcement and rehabilitation.
However, Sadeh feels that with greater police enforcement, a lot of trafficking has gone underground; pimps now run call girl businesses from private apartments.
In addition to greater police enforcement and government focus, there are a host of human rights workers helping the victims. Among the nonprofit organizations, ATZUM Justice Works (https://atzum.org), led by Rabbi Levi Laufer, not only runs the Task Force on Human Trafficking, it has also brought the issue to the attention of world Jewry. Kav L’Oved defends the rights of all illegal workers, whether prostitutes or other forced laborers. The Hotline for Migrant Workers, based in Tel Aviv, seeks to identify trafficked women in detention and bring them into the shelter. “[The human rights workers] are at the cutting edge of the issue,” says Rahel Gershuni.
Haifa-based Isha L’Isha (Woman to Woman), a feminist organization working to expand women’s rights, is another group that has focused on trafficking.
“Initially, many [of the victims] were jailed by the immigration police together with regular criminals,” says Rita Haikin, antitrafficking project coordinator for Isha L’Isha, which received a Hadassah Foundation grant in 2006. “When I went to visit them, I expected to see a stereotypical sexy prostitute. I found confused, frightened girls who wanted to go home.
“I gathered lists of nonprofit organizations that help these women in their own countries,” she continues. “When we think a woman will be in danger at home, or that she might slip back into prostitution, we arrange that people from these nonprofit organizations meet them when they return.”
Haikin initiated a Russian-language campaign to inform trafficked women of their rights. Last April, she received the Human Rights/Anti-Trafficking Award for her work in Israel from the nongovernmental organization Vital Voices Global Partnership, which works to advance women’s economic, political and social status around the world.
Olga medvekovsky, originally from Uzbekistan, is a volunteer working with Haikin. She surreptitiously puts Russian-language stickers in the hallways of brothels with lists of telephone numbers of consulates and offers of shelter, health and legal services. She also distributes pamphlets in Hebrew and Russian that read, “No one has the right to buy and sell you, to imprison you. No one has a right to your body and your freedom!”
Medvekovsky visits with the women in detention centers and helps them translate documents, trying to convince them to go to the shelter for rehabilitation. “I explain that I am not from the government,” she says. “I come from the same culture they did. But some say that they will only leave prostitution when they have paid off their debts. They have few options.”
“Yet, I’m still amazed how much the situation has changed,” observes Haikin. “Women are now seen as victims, not criminals. They can go straight to a shelter, receive temporary visas and work to establish themselves.”
“There’s more of a desire to root out the abomination from our midst,” adds Nomi Levenkron, head of the Hotline for Migrant Workers legal department.
However, she notes, more attention must be paid to the men who go to these prostitutes. “You cannot tell me that they see subdued women from foreign countries with marks on their bodies from abuse and these men don’t know what it is all about.”
“After all,” says Medvekovsky, “trafficking is not [just] the problem of the woman. It is the problem of the society.”