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Recently I attended an event sponsored by ATZUM, an acronym for "Avodat Tzedaka U'Mishpat" (righteous work leads to justice). Knesset member Zehava Gal-On of Meretz was honored for her work in confronting those who traffic in women.
ATZUM established a task force against human trafficking in women. From its Web site:
"Israel is a destination country for human trafficking. Women and children are brought into the country every year to be exploited as modern-day slaves. Rates of human trafficking in Israel are alarmingly high. Nearly all the trafficking victims in Israel come from the former Soviet Union.
"Most victims enter the country through Israel's border with Egypt. Once in Israel, victims are often sold and resold to pimps and brothel owners, who force them to work in slave-like conditions. At every stage in the process, the victims are abused and exploited, often suffering severe beatings, rape and even starvation.
"Israel has made limited progress in the fight against human trafficking, but more can and must be done."
Significantly, ATZUM is the brainchild of Rabbi Levi Lauer, who sees a direct connection between Judaism and causes of social justice, including conferring upon women equal dignity to men, despite a sometimes underappreciated attitude that our tradition has toward females.
Because of ATZUM's work, the issue of trafficking in women is slowly creeping into the public consciousness, and is seen more and more as a blight on Jewish decency. Most recently the Knesset passed a law that would empower the police to take action against those who traffic in women.
THE CHALLENGE is whether the police will act in a serious manner to address this crime. As evidenced in a brief documentary by news commentator Orly Vilnai-Federbush, one wonders, as the police - upon staging a raid to release some of these enslaved women who were literally caged in a dungeon - treated the women with contempt, cursing them and physically roughing them up.
In an interview, Pini Aviram, superintendent of the Tel Aviv Central Unit, had little to say about the behavior of the police, but one could not help but notice the "instructional guidelines" posted on the wall near his office on how to handle women forced into prostitution:
1. All are liars;
2. Do not believe any one of them;
3. Arrest, do not hesitate.
Once liberated from the "prisons," the women are housed in shelters until deportation, protected should they testify against their pimps or brothel owners. Approximately 2,500 women cross our borders annually and are sold into prostitution; not much different from the slave trade that took place in Africa, where auctions were held and slave traders examined the naked bodies of the potential slaves to determine their worth as laborers.
So, too are these women stripped and examined for their potential economic drawing power.
Police Commander Danny Avi Meir, also of the Tel Aviv Central Unit, also viewed the film. In a subsequent interview with Vilnai-Federbush, he also did not condemn the police behavior. His claim is that law enforcement agencies are making progress.
But when one listens to his subordinate Aviram talk, this is hard to believe, as Aviram states that once one brothel is closed 200 more appear. This claim dovetails well with the lame defense presented by Ya'acov Sheklar, an attorney for some who traffic in women, who says: "As there's a demand, the supply will reemerge and the places [whorehouses] will reopen."
Aviram's claim obviously contradicts his and Avi Meir's contention that in the Tel Aviv area the police have successfully reduced the number of woman actively involved in prostitution to a few hundred. In fact, last year there were only 166 men charged with trafficking in women, while at the same time 1,800 women were deported.
ONE WOULD hope that, armed with a new law that forbids the establishment of brothels and trafficking in women, the police will begin to systematically close whorehouses throughout the country and arrest those who operate them.
New York City's 42nd Street at Times Square was known for its pornography and sex industries; and yet within two years Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the area - without the supposed ratio of 200 to 1 brothels reopening elsewhere. On the contrary, virtually none were reopened.
But apparently, in Israel trafficking in women is a far more complex problem. It comes with security concerns that are rarely addressed publicly. The trade-off seems simple: Better that some in the Beduin community in the south should make their money smuggling women rather than smuggling arms. This stark reality may well explain the infrequency of police raids to release women from their slave owners.
Perhaps attorney Sheklar is right that current police operations are "nothing more than a display to promote police prestige and give the appearance of doing something."
Our country must not use defenseless women as pawns in a security game. If our borders are porous, then they must be sealed. The character of a state is determined not only by its ability to guarantee its security, but also by its ability to guarantee its morality. Allowing slave masters and their partners to continue to traffic in women - demeaning and dehumanizing them - will ultimately undermine the social and ethical fabric of a Jewish state.
The writer is a former head of Rabbis for Human Rights.