Her voice was weak and faltering but her message to the Knesset panel this week
was clear: No one becomes a prostitute by choice.
“I did not know there
was another world,” the reformed prostitute, who gave her name as Yael, told
lawmakers, officials and social rights activists that had gathered for a meeting
of the Knesset Subcommittee on Human Trafficking on Wednesday.
“I did not
know there was a sun, I did not see the mornings and I never believed there was
anything else I could do in the world,” said the woman, who escaped less than
four months ago from her life as a sex worker and is now receiving
rehabilitation support from one of a handful of programs designed to help former
prostitutes start a new life.
While Yael’s story is one that might have
been told a million times before, on Wednesday it came as part of a discussion
in parliament on the progress and the next steps of a bill that is aimed at
seriously cracking down on Israel’s burgeoning sex industry. Cleaning up
Israel’s streets might only sound like a metaphor for the legislation being
proposed by committee chairwoman MK Orit Zuaretz, however, if it is successful
then the provocative ads and non-stop business cards promoting “escorts” and
“massage parlors” that often litter streets and the outright flaunting of sexual
services may very well become a thing of the past in the Jewish
While pessimists have cautioned against premature celebration of a
law that has yet to become reality – it passed a preliminary reading in the
Knesset on Wednesday – the fact that Israel could become the fourth country in
the world to hold only clients responsible for purchasing sexual services is
already being hailed as a historic breakthrough for human rights
“It is a historic day not only for the victims of prostitution but
also for society, which must stop looking at women as objects or as sexual
services that can be bought and sold,” Vered Swid, director-general of the
National Authority for the Advancement of Women, who commended all the efforts
behind this bill, said during the Knesset hearing.
She added that it was
about time that the sex industry, which rakes in millions of dollars, is placed
outside the law and outside acceptable social norms.
ALTHOUGH THERE are
no official figures, human rights organizations working to combat the sex slave
trade estimate that there are currently more than 15,000 individuals working as
prostitutes in Israel – and 5,000 of them are minors.
activists emphasize that many of those working as prostitutes or sex slaves are
controlled by pimps and often experience violence at the hands of their clients.
Research has also shown that the client base demanding this service comes from
every segment of society and every ethnic, religious and social-economic
Estimates suggest that roughly 10,000 men each month visit one
of the hundreds of discreet apartments or brothels throughout the country. Of
those, around 25-35 percent are from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community;
25-35% are Arab; 8-10% are foreign workers and the rest are from mainstream
“Society cannot hide from the reality of prostitution
and we cannot be apathetic about it,” states Idit Harel-Shemesh, director of
Machon Toda’a, a non-profit organization aimed at raising awareness to
combatting prostitution and sexual exploitation.
“We really need to make
change,” she continues, adding that the bill’s successful passage through the
Knesset thus far is the “fruit of many years in which we had to persuade people
to break away from the stereotypes.”
According to Harel-Shemesh, society
is so caught up in stereotypes such as ”prostitutes are students who wants to
make money,” or that “the services answer the needs of men” or that “the women
chose to do it” that it is failing to recognize the reality of the
“The issue of whether prostitution is really a choice is the
biggest stereotype we have to break because if we recognize that these women
have no choice then essentially we are admitting to the fact that there is a
group of women who are being raped by men all day,” she says. “That is a
concept much harder for society to accept.”
While there is still a long
way to go, Harel-Shemesh notes that over the past week, since the legislation
came up for public debate, there has been a slight change in the overall
attitudes and the language surrounding the sex industry.
this process is still not completed, I really feel as though we have seen change
in social attitudes even over the past week,” she says.
“I believe that
all those involved in the fight for this legislation should welcome what has
been achieved so far and be happy because this really is a historic moment,”
concurs Rachel Gershuni, the country’s national coordinator for combatting human
trafficking, who for the past three years has represented the Justice Ministry
on an interministerial committee charged with researching the issue.
emphasizes that even if this legislation does not come to fruition, a clear
message is now being sent to the authorities and to the public that respect and
honor for all human beings, even women working in such an undignified industry,
is important and valuable.
“I did not expect to find such consensus,
especially among the ministers,” admits Gershuni, referring to the fact that the
bill received initial approval last Sunday from government ministers in the
Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
“Usually we encounter some
negativity from lawmakers or responses such as ‘What can we do about it?
Prostitution will always be there!’” she continues, adding “There seems to be
another wind blowing about this issue and that shows that even though
re-education might take a long time, it does work.”
While the political
establishment certainly seems intent on pushing through this law, Gershuni
expresses doubts that Israeli society at this stage is fully convinced of its
On Tuesday, even after the bill was approved by ministers,
Channel 2’s main news broadcast aired a controversial segment on women who had
apparently “chosen” to be in the profession because of its high payout and were
scared their income could be in jeopardy if this law is passed.
“I am not
sure that the entire Israeli public agrees that this behavior should be
criminalized, and that raises question of when is it right to pass legislation
that goes against the public views,” says Gershuni.
uncertainty, Gershuni says she is hopeful that as this legislation will move
toward a change in social attitudes.
“Now that it is going to be debated
by a Knesset committee, there is a chance that we will see in-depth research
into this topic that will go a long way in convincing the public of the need for
change,” she says, highlighting that on similar subjects, such as sexual
harassment, there have been huge changes in society’s approach.
that we are living in a new period that recognizes the fundamental laws of human
dignity and we will see a change eventually,” Gershuni concludes.