Last month, I had the honor to meet with two different Jerusalem-based organizations that address human trafficking in Israel. Mihal Leibel who heads the Task Force on Human Trafficking of Atzum and Shari Eshet, the director of the Israel office of the National Coalition of Jewish Women briefed
me on the issues and efforts going on in the
For the 4th year in a row, Israel has ranked a tier 1 on the US State Department TIP Report — a significant victory in the anti-trafficking efforts going on in the country, but the story is much more complicated than that. Just a little over 10 years ago, Israel was shocked into action by their status as tier 3 on the TIP report and the possibility of sanctions. They illegalized human trafficking, set up state-funded safe shelters around the country, and set a 16-year prison sentence for exploiters.
In Israel, part of the legal definition of trafficking requires cross-border movement. Because of Israel’s very strong borders, legally defined trafficking as suffered extreme losses. As Mihal Leibel, from Atzum noted, “Israel is like an island– it is relatively easy to control its borders,” unlike many countries in which fluid borders exacerbate issues of human trafficking. The fence erected in 2013 on the Egyptian border was a major step in definitively reducing (and almost completely eliminating) illegal immigration (and thus trafficking) from Africa. Using the legal definition of trafficking, Israeli lawyers have been able to prosecute the cases of the over 50,000 Eritrean refugees that escaped to Israel from torture camps where they were held for ransom in the Sinai before the fence was built.
Yet despite the crackdown on international trafficking, what both Mihal and Shari Eshet, of the National Coalition of Jewish Women, explained to me is the prevalence of “local prostitution.” It may not be considered human trafficking by the legal definition, but it is prevalent and exploitative. The penal code in Israel legalizes prostitution and the buying of sex, but it deems illegal pimping, procuring, pandering, promoting prostitution, or owning a brothel. Mihal argues that in defining them in two separate contexts, the law essentially creates a moral judgment– deeming in-country “prostitution” as not as bad as “human trafficking,” regardless of their comparable effects. The long term effects of cross-border sex trafficking and local prostitution are similar: PTSD, disassociation, violence (a prostitute is 200x more likely to be raped than the average citizen), and death.
It is always hard to hone in on specific demographics of those vulnerable to prostitution and those buying their services, but Mihal and Shari both helped lay out some of the basics. Three main characteristics, when in combination, make a person vulnerable to prostitution: 1) previous sexual trauma, 2) parental neglect (especially when it leads to becoming a runaway), 3) poverty. Those buying sex in set aside venues (ie. ‘massage parlors’ and brothels) range from Russian immigrants to ultra orthodox Jews. When there is a demand, the industry provides. As Mihal sarcastically noted, there is no fear of people being trafficked into oncology or law, but a demand for prostitutes open the doors for exploitative provision of services.
There has been a strong move in Israel in the last couple years, spearheaded by Atzum’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, to embrace the Nordic model which would criminalize the purchase of sexual services. This would reduce the demand and attack commercial sexual exploitation as both an economic and a social phemoninon. This has not been embraced all around, though, for some organizations (including the National Council of Jewish Women) worry that it infringes upon sex workers rights.
The conversation continues about who is to be blamed, who is to be considered a victim, which organizations are to be supported, and where the legal system needs to intercede, but it is encouraging to know that Israeli political, legal, and nongovernmental entities are fully engaged in that conversation and are working to make the country one where exploitation does not reign.