(photo credit: AP [file])
Half a century ago Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said, "We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew."
It is unlikely that his statement was meant as an invitation to either of those pursuits, but both crime and prostitution have become more common in Israeli society, said Linda, a woman formerly involved in both of those professions.
When Linda, who asked that her real name not be used, first followed Ben-Gurion's Zionist dream and immigrated to Israel in the 1960s, she thought she was escaping the corruption of the United States.
But the mother of three soon found herself unable to make ends meet in the new country, and began performing sexual favors for men in exchange for money.
"The first time I did it, it was an arrangement between me and them. It was quick, easy cash. I was alone, in a new country. I didn't know how I was going to pay for my food, for school, for the needs of my children," said Linda, who spoke to the Knesset's Committee on the Status of Women Tuesday. "I was a Zionist, though. I wanted to live in Israel."
The committee is considering a new bill by committee Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), which would outlaw paying for sexual services and sentence violators to either jail terms of up to six months or workshops on the harm of prostitution.
The current law in Israel only punishes those involved in smuggling women into the country and arranging for them to give sexual favors in exchange for funds. Neither prostitutes nor their customers are punished or prosecuted.
Linda supports the new measures, but still thinks it is not enough.
"I think the time has come for people to wake up and realize that this is not something women get into by choice. It is not a real choice when they have to sell their bodies to make ends meet. I made that choice for 20 years," said Linda. "Was I stupid? Is that why I became I prostitute? I am not stupid. I am not a drug addict. It was an act of desperation."
It has been more than eight years since Linda stopped working as a prostitute in the central Tel Aviv area. She now heads an organization called We Are Worthy, which helps women who want to leave prostitution start new lives.
"If I can help one more person leave that life, I am happy," she said. "Even now, in my day-to-day life, I flash back to something, I remember something and I am embarrassed."
It is difficult living in a country as small as Israel, where everyone knows everyone and the past can always follow you, said Linda - but, she added, "I am still a Zionist, so I still live here."