Opinion

A dose of nuance: What if Israel were a Jewish state?

For years, a small, relentless Israeli non-profit called Avodot Tzdaka Umishpat – Justice Works (ATZUM) has been working to stop the trafficking of women in Israel.

Prostitute [illustrative]
Photo by: Edgard Garrido / Reuters
The negotiations with the Palestinians appear hopelessly stuck. No great surprise there, of course.

I happen to agree with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state – which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says is out of the question – matters. It would be the first indication from the Palestinians that Jews are not interlopers in the Middle East, that our national aspirations here are legitimate.

If the Palestinians cannot call us a Jewish state, they have no intention of ending the conflict. So why pretend we have a deal when we don’t? And without recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, what moral basis could there possibly be for refusing to repatriate all the Palestinians who call themselves refugees? “So what if the return of all those refugees would destroy the Jewish demographic majority in Israel?” will be the response. “That majority would only matter if Israel were officially a Jewish state, which it is not.”

So Bibi is right to insist.

But it’s time to stop waiting for the Palestinians to call us a Jewish state, and for us to ask ourselves what actually being one would look like. While we’re waiting for them to come around, we ought to ask ourselves: Does what the Palestinians are willing to say matter more than what we are committed to doing? Israel, like every other country in the world, has a significant problem with the trafficking of women. For a long time, the primary source of these women trafficked over the Egyptian border was the former Soviet Union, the result of an implicit arrangement between the IDF and the Beduin in the area: you limit your smuggling to cigarettes, light arms and women, and we will look the other way – as long as you don’t smuggle in any serious weaponry. But predictably, the Beduin didn’t keep their end of the deal, and the IDF’s response – better units and a much better fence – has reduced the number of women from the FSU smuggled from Egypt into Israel for the purposes of prostitution, from about 3,400 a year to “just” a few hundred. That’s a significant improvement.

But the demand for sex, of course, hasn’t decreased. So now, the women and girls are being found among Israeli Jews – Russians, Ethiopians and other weaker classes. And let’s not pretend that this is a “free choice” that women make about what to do with their bodies; studies show that 95 percent of prostituted women are the victims of rape and/or incest between the ages of 12 and 15. This is not about an unfettered capitalist market; it’s what happens to internally trafficked weak, abused girls who have nowhere else to go.

For years, a small, relentless Israeli non-profit called Avodot Tzdaka Umishpat – Justice Works (ATZUM) has been working to stop the trafficking of women in Israel. ATZUM has attended to the needs of 400 families of survivors of terror who fell through the government’s safety net, and to the dignity and basic needs of every Righteous Among the Nations who immigrated to Israel and is vulnerable in their old age. Under the leadership of its founder, Rabbi Levi Lauer, it has also battled the trafficking of women in the Jewish state.

In response to the growing numbers of young Israeli girls and women being prostituted, ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, with the pro bono partnership of the law firm Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar, is pressing for the passage of a bill stuck in the hallways of the Knesset. The goal of the legislation, modeled after the “Nordic Law,” is to criminalize not the prostituted person, but the “john,” and the act of paying for sex. If men who pay women for sex are breaking the law, they can be arrested, and they can be fined. Their names might also be published – a daunting deterrent in this small country of ours.

Scandinavian countries passed laws like this, and saw a 65% decrease in rates of prostitution and trafficking. There’s a similar law gasping for air in the Knesset, but no one with any real power wants to take it up. It was first introduced by Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) two Knesset sessions ago. When she was not reelected to the Knesset, Orit Zuaretz (Hatnua) pushed it forward. The bill unanimously passed the ministerial committee and should have been assigned to a committee for refinement, but MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, has so far refused to assign it.

Prior to the recent elections, Tzipi Livni said she would make the bill a priority, but Livni, now justice minister – there’s an irony for you! – has also refused to bring it back to life. While they dither, thousands of girls and women are being enslaved and sexually abused on our streets on a daily basis.

The Chief Rabbinate, of course, is silent; powerless women aren’t very high on its list of priorities. The haredi modesty patrols, too busy measuring the lengths of women’s sleeves and skirts, do absolutely nothing to keep the men, many from their own communities, away from brothels and “discreet apartments.” The mainstream press has reported the story, but without finger- pointing. Why? Because women at the very bottom of the social food chain don’t worry many people – especially when they provide men with sex.

Stories of sexual harassment in the workplace commonly make their way to Israel’s headlines. A president here, a general there.

And Israelis are aghast, again and again, that our leaders descend to such depths.

But what’s the surprise, really? If a society won’t do what it can to protect its most vulnerable girls and women, why should we be surprised that it also tolerates sexual harassment? After all, it almost seems like a small fish to fry.

We’re right to point the spotlight at the Palestinians, noting that part of the impasse in the negotiations stems from their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But if that moniker is so important to us, shouldn’t the content be as well? In a genuinely Jewish state, women’s bodies wouldn’t be for sale.  The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His forthcoming biography, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, will be published by Nextbook in March.


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