(photo credit: AP [file])
More than 80 percent of Israelis don't believe that prostitution should be a criminal offense, according to a new poll released by the Knesset's Committee on the Status of Women Monday.
Less than one-fifth of the 500 people interviewed by the Knesset's Research Department and the Teleseker Company said that those involved in prostitution - which included men who visit prostitutes and those who organize and sell their services - should be tried in a court of law.
The current law in Israel only punishes those involved in smuggling women into Israel and arranging for them to give sexual favors in exchange for funds. Neither prostitutes nor their customers are punished or prosecuted.
Of those who believed that prostitution should be prosecuted, more than 40% said that offenders should be given between 1-5 years in prison. Other suggested punishments included fines and community service. The poll also asked how men who visit prostitutes should be punished. More than 21% said that the names and pictures of such men should be made public.
The poll cast doubt over the Knesset's recent efforts to pass legislation that would impose harsher punishments on those involved with the sex trade, but lawmakers said they would continue to pursue their current course.
"I am not affected by these numbers because I know it will take a while to change the mind of a public that has been indoctrinated for years that prostitution is not a criminal offense. The time has come to reeducate the public," said MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), who commissioned the poll and has drafted several bills aimed at curbing prostitution in recent years.
Tziona Koenig-Yair, Executive Director of the Israel Women's Network, agreed that there needed to be a massive reeducation campaign to sway the public sentiment on prostitution.
"If the public does not understand that this is criminal, it is simply a problem of education," said Koenig-Yair. "Prostitution has been a major problem in Israel for at least 10 years, and it will continue to be a problem unless we change the public's mind."
In a report presented to the Committee on the Status of Women six months ago, police said although the number of women being trafficked into Israel and used for prostitution had dropped in recent years to less than 1,000, prostitution was still a widespread problem in Israel.
Last year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised that NIS 15 million would be allocated for psychological support for victims of sexual violence, while another NIS 15m. would go to battling prostitution.
According to NGOs that work with prostitutes, those funds have not been effective in curbing the sex trade.
Gal-On said that she would be taking a new direction in the fight against prostitution by proposing a bill that would create schools which, she said, would "reeducate men who believe it is OK for them to visit prostitutes."
"We are modeling these schools on effective models that already exist in San Francisco, where [men who frequent prostitutes] are reeducated on how to think about prostitution. They are given ethical lessons.
"Everything is education. We have to show them the true face of prostitution."
In the poll, a number of people appeared misinformed about the current legal standing of prostitution in Israel. Approximately 14% stated that prostitution was legal in Israel while 28.3% said it was legal to receive sexual favors from women in exchange for money.