Although the Israeli sex trade is said to generate billions of dollars of profit a year with as many as a million visits to prostitutes each month, the Knesset may have found a way to discourage would-be clients of Israel's flourishing prostitution market.
MK Orit Zuarets (Kadima), chairwoman of the Committee against the Trafficking of Women, presented legislation Sunday that would make the act of hiring a prostitute illegal in Israel.
"The significance of placing criminal responsibility on sex trade customers is regarding prostitution as a forbidden phenomenon that is illegitimate and is rejected by society," explained Zuarets Sunday.
Zuarets has initiated a bill that would prohibit "consuming" sexual services and would allow courts to try sex trade consumers. The bill has won wide support, and is being co-sponsored by 25 MKs from across the political spectrum.
As an amendment to the penal code, Zuarets's legislation would create a possible sentence of up to six months in prison for a sex customer. Any customer found guilty for the first time would be offered the alternative of a community rehabilitation plan, whereas repeat 'offenders' will not have the option of participating in the community plan.
"This is a revolutionary proposal, which would define the customers of the sex trade as criminals and would require them to bear criminal responsibility for their actions," said Zuarets. "Legislation such as this one is part of a strategy of action against customers, who create the demand for the phenomenon and constitute the driving force behind the sex industry which generates billions of dollars each year.
"The only way to defend the women who deal in prostitution is not by those proposals that seek to institutionalize prostitution because prostitution is not a profession, and is not the result of free will," Zuarets added.
"The right way is to criminalize the consumers, spreading a safety net of social rights, a plan for rehabilitation and the establishment of shelters for women to aid them in escaping the cycle of prostitution."
The Committee for the Struggle Against Women Trafficking has already held a number of hearings, starting during the previous Knesset, regarding the criminalization of sex customers.
Committee members discussed as the central model the so-called "Swedish System," after the Scandinavian country that in 1999 became the first state to outlaw sex consumers rather than the prostitutes themselves. That model, said committee staffers, was adopted for Zuarets's proposal.
Prostitution in Israel is currently legal, whereas the "accompanying" crimes, including pimping, running brothels, publishing sex advertisements and trading in women, are all criminal offenses.
But legislators claimed that "the law was never sufficiently efficient in reducing these phenomena in any significant manner."
Legislators and anti-trafficking organizations were not alone in their support for Zuarets's bill. Popular national religious Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the head of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, wrote a halachic opinion supporting the imprisonment of a man who has hired the services of a prostitute. MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) had requested Cherlow's opinion on the subject. The rabbi wrote in support of the measure, but opposed placing sole responsibility on the customer.