Enjoying the services of a prostitute in Israel may cost you more than money - it may get you time in jail, under a proposed law that would criminalize buying sexual services.

Dozens of people demonstrated outside of Israel’s parliament on Sunday to push lawmakers to adopt legislation that could curtail sex trafficking by making the purchase of sexual services from prostitutes punishable up to five months in jail. They would also have to attend a two-day educational program, known as the "School for Johns."

Similar protests took place in New York, Washington DC and London, all highlighted the dire plight of the tens of thousands of prostitutes estimated to be employed in a multi-million dollar industry in Israel.

“A woman’s body shouldn’t be for sale. Women aren’t a commodity,” demonstrator Rose Prevezer told The Media Line. “I believe that this bill … is the best way possible to reduce violence against women, to reduce the rate of sex trafficking in the country. In countries where they have instituted it, it has been proved to be a very effective deterrent.”

On February 12, Israel's Ministerial Legislative Committee will be weighing a law containing these provisions proposed by MK Orit Zuaretz, who belongs to the opposition Kadima Party. From there it will begin its journey in the parliament until it becomes law.

“I decided to change the tactic and to work with the ministers and with the MKs. The first step is to convince them that we have to do that in order to maintain the State of Israel’s democracy and keep our values as a Jewish democratic state,” Zuaretz told The Media Line. 

The demonstrations were organized by Atzum, an organization that encourages social activism, which joined forces in 2003 with the law firm Kabri-Nevo-Kaidar to create the Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT) in Israel. They have pushed for eradicating sex slavery in Israel, closing borders to sex trafficking, protecting women who escape prostitution and prosecuting traffickers and pimps.

Gili Veron, an attorney from Kabri-Nevo-Kaidar, said the massive street protests in Israel demanding social justice this past summer were an impetus for addressing the plight of prostitutes in the country.

“I think that in the past summer we saw a difference in the sentiments of people and this is a good opportunity to make a shift away from the debate over security issues and start talking about other issues like human rights and social justice. This bill is totally part of this,” Veron told The Media Line.

According to Atzum, an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 women have been trafficked in Israel since the 1990s. Some 5,000 of these are minors.  The US has criticized Israel for not taking adequate steps to stop sex trafficking.

“Every country that has put this in place, the Scandinavian countries, England, San Francisco has seen a rapid decrease in the amount of prostitution both because the criminalization itself sends a message to prospective clients and the publication of their names, the shame proves daunting, especially in a society this small,” said Rabbi Levi Lauer, executive director of Atzum.

“If this legislation is passed we will see a radical decrease in the amount of prostitution and consequently an even more radical decrease in the amount of trafficking of women into Israel,” Lauer told The Media Line. 

Kayla Zecher, the projects coordinator for the TFHT, said the protests around the world would help raise awareness to the issue.

“Ninety percent of women who work in the prostitution industry are controlled by pimps. There are different types of human trafficking. There are internally trafficked people, for instance, Israeli women who are coerced into the industry and who can be taken from the south and brought up north and who work in brothels today,” Zecher told The Media Line.

“The more typical victim of human trafficking and Israel knows it from the 1990s is the Eastern European woman who was brought from abroad and put into brothels. Then there is the example of externally trafficked people, for instance, what is going on in the Sinai today for African migrants. They end up coming into Israel and as the most vulnerable population they are coerced into the prostitution industry,” she said. 

Alon Metrikingold, a student who joined Sunday’s demonstration, said that improving the lives of prostitutes is the first step to ensuring Israeli in a more socially just society.

“I think that social injustice begins with the people who most need it and by far women who have been harassed, raped, under the pretense of being prostitutes are the first community we need to start with social justice and that is what we want to amend today,” he said.  

An earlier attempt to pass similar legislation in 2009 failed for a variety of reasons.   

“Because there are too many important people who themselves solicit the services of trafficked women, because the criminal underground, which has its hands deep into the pockets, you are talking about half-a-billion dollar to three-quarters of a billion dollar industry has brought that money into the legitimate economy, because there are too many people in important places with too many important friends would get caught with their pants down,” Lauer said. 

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