‘One myth about prostitution is that they make a lot of money, or that it’s about choice,” says attorney Nitzan Kahana at the “Ima Anochi Betzara” conference, the first public event sponsored by the recently formed Religious Coalition for the Struggle against Prostitution.
The title of the event, which drew 100 participants, is taken from a verse in Psalms, “I am with him in sorrow,” with a shift in language to the feminine “I am with her.”
Speaker after speaker expressed shock, outrage and compassion, on learning of the depth and breadth of the prostitution industry in Israel, urging fellow members of the community to help promote legislation and to aid the large numbers of sex workers who wish for new lives. They hoped to dispel myths idealizing prostitution and focus on the suffering of its victims.
Kahana, a partner in the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, provided statistics about the industry, which reaches an annual sum of NIS 1.2 billion.
Since 2010, 66 victims have died, including a 26-year-old mother of two who passed out after the customer drugged her drink. He then called a second prostitute, only realizing afterward that the first one was unconscious.
“This incident is not even particularly unusual or shocking,” emphasized Kahana.
According to a recent survey, 12,000 prostitutes work in Israel, including 600 men. Eleven percent, or about 1,000, are minors, and 80% of them are studying in school. Most girls begin at around 13. There are estimated to be an additional 2,000 minors in the industry.
Prostitution has moved off the streets and mostly occurs in strip joints and “discreet” apartments, accessed via the phone and Internet.
The average prostitute has five or six customers a night, while some have 20 or 30. Kahana calculated that, even by conservative estimates, that comes out to 26,500 incidents of prostitution a night. One in 10 Israeli men frequents prostitutes on a regular basis.
According to a recent survey, 77% percent of women in prostitution would prefer a different reality, wanting to get out of debt and learn a profession. A shocking 90% were sexually abused as children, 67% of them by their father or a father figure. Kahana notes that while many women do earn large sums, they either spend it right away, give it to their pimps, or use it to support their addictions.
Kahana also wishes to dispel the myth that prostitution should be preserved because it keeps men from raping women in the street.
“We don’t sacrifice one population for another,” she says. Once you acknowledge that women have a price tag, it implies that there are some you can take for free.
Meital Bonchek, assistant CEO of Keren Briah, which promotes women’s rights within the health system, and coordinator of the fight against prostitution in the office of MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi), founded the coalition along with social worker Noa Mevorach.
Ten years ago, Bonchek read a book about sex trafficking.
“The story tore my soul into shreds,” Bonchek told In Jerusalem. “I began to study what is being done here in Israel.”
While visiting safe houses and emergency apartments, Boncheck was struck by the dozens of notices on bulletin boards citing names of women who had died.
“I understood that religious Zionism is absent from this struggle,” she said, “leaving a thundering silence. This has to change.”
Together with Moalem-Refaeli, Bonchek and Mevorach collected signatures from leading rabbaniyot (rabbinic wives/teachers) from all streams of religious Zionism, and brought them to the emergency rehabilitation center run by the nonprofit organization Saleet in south Tel Aviv. Bonchek and Mevorach began to send food packages to ex-prostitutes who fall into financial difficulties during the rehabilitation process, and send representatives to attend the annual memorial for victims of the industry.
As part of developing a new religious language surrounding the subject, Rabbanit Malka Puterkovsky wrote a prayer, read at the conference, to be recited by women hoping to leave the shackles of prostitution.
BUT THE most important goal for the coalition lies in legislation.
Five years ago, Moalem-Refaeli became interested in a law proposed by Zehava Gal-On of Meretz to criminalize customers instead of prostitutes. Emmy Palmor, assistant to the justice minister, suggested an additional provision providing rehabilitation.
The law recently passed a preliminary reading, and the Justice Ministry may present it as a government law.
“Until the law is passed,” Moalem-Refaeli told the conference, “when the police raid a brothel, they tell the customers to get out. The customers don’t have to give an accounting for their activities.
“Prostitution opposes every value: Jewish, moral, human, social,” continued Moalem-Refaeli. “In 2018, there are graduation parties with strippers or prostitutes. I am shocked to hear excuses for a general in the army, that he is an adult and decides where to have fun.... They tell me that young people today go to strip joints and that I should be ‘easygoing.’ But a strip joint is prostitution, as are massage parlors and discreet apartments. Prostitutes are not only on the street. There is no mistake. When you see it, you recognize it. After one visit to one of these places, you don’t talk about being easygoing, or choice.”
When Moalem-Refaeli went to the safe houses run by Saleet, it was often the first time that a religious woman had visited. “The most important place that I can bring the voice of Torah, of Judaism, is to this struggle,” she said.
THE CONFERENCE featured posters created by students from the religious Emunah Appleman College of Arts and Technology in Jerusalem.
“I was in shock after learning the facts about prostitution,” recalled Shaked Perez, a second-year student at the college, who spoke to In Jerusalem. “I went home and began reading the witness statements, and felt that I needed to do something.”
Perez produced a series of three posters, each with the theme of a child’s game, to draw attention to the seriousness of the topic, and that so many children are involved.
“My goal was to get the message out more gently,” explained Perez; “for viewers to be shocked, but still be able to look at the images.”
Throughout the evening, representatives of the organizations read anonymous testimonies by former members of the sex industry.
“I spent three years in prostitution,” wrote “Yasmin,” as read by Yael Rockman of the Kolech Religious Women’s Forum. “It felt like a slow suicide. You harm yourself again and again. I would say that I would stop on Rosh Hashana, or my next birthday. I didn’t know how to get out into the world.”
One of the most moving talks was by Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, who represented the Nishmat institute for advanced Torah study.
“I’ve experienced the best of Israeli society,” she said.
Her son Naftali was kidnapped and murdered along with two other teens in 2014, in a terrorist attack that brought Israelis together in support of the families. “I didn’t want to see the dark side of society. We distance ourselves from things that are too rough... we try to make everything good, while there is so much suffering in the streets, so much evil and crime. But Tel Baruch Beach [in Tel Aviv] is also part of Israel. We have the responsibility to know that it is happening here. It’s ours....
“With abuse, you learn to disconnect.... We do the same within religious society. Or people think of the high-class prostitution, and not about the bad part.”
Fraenkel associated the work of the coalition with at least three commandments. “Freeing captives is a great mitzva,” she said. “Prostitutes are held captive. They are raped on average once a week.
“The obligation to save someone, ‘don’t stand by the blood of your brother,’ doesn’t mean you need to literally save someone’s life. But anytime you can remove something causing damage, you have an obligation to do so.” She also compared returning a prostitute’s body to herself as fulfillment of the commandment of returning a lost object.
Eitan Eizman, founder of the Noam/Tzvia network of religious schools, pointed out that according to Jewish law, one may not damage oneself. “Prostitution causes physical and emotional damage; it destroys the soul. Even if a woman is earning a living, she is causing damage to herself.”
He mentioned the high rate of suicide. “Men who use prostitutes need to be aware of the damage, the physical effects, the humiliation.”
Rabbi Doron Perez, head of the Mizrachi World Movement, which hosted the evening in its Jerusalem premises, stressed that those living in the Diaspora also need to be aware of the issues affecting Israeli society.
Liat Bar-Stav, a secular journalist and activist who went undercover as a receptionist in a discreet apartment, highlighted another tragedy of prostitution. “I met women who could be doctors, MKs, teachers. The loss of these talents is ours, and not only theirs.”
When asked about opposition to the initiative, Boncheck cited a few mentions of the importance of freedom of commerce or the cynical reference to the “right of a woman to her own body.” But she sees the involvement of organizations representing the entire spectrum of religious Zionism, from “haredi-nationalist” to liberal, as the true measure of the community’s commitment to the effort.
“After the event, secular activists approached me to say that they feel this was a historic event and a turning point in the struggle,” said Bonchek. “I hope they are right.”