Ready for prime time?

Activists bring the fight against sex trafficking to your television set with a new ad campaign. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'Three thousand women in Israel: raped, beaten, trafficked," the caption reads. "Is aid on the way?" As images of forlorn-looking women flash on the screen, the 30-second television spot praises Israel's humanitarian efforts worldwide - including the rescue and support of southeast-Asian tsunami victims and Pakistani earthquake survivors. Why then, the message implies, would Israel neglect to prevent an epidemic of violence and despair affecting women within its own borders? Called "Tifereth Israel," the clip was the brainchild of student filmmakers Assaf Israel, Gil Hod, Liam Sharf, Navah Oren and Shikma Erdman. It was selected for broadcast throughout Israel to raise awareness about the scourge of human trafficking. The campaign was initiated by the Jerusalem-based Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT) - a project of the non-profit ATZUM, founded by Rabbi Levi Lauer, and the law firm of Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar - which joined forces with the two largest broadcasting schools in Israel, ACC and Jump Cut in Tel Aviv. Together, they commissioned students to create 17 public awareness campaigns. These advertisements were screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in early December, at an event so packed there was standing-room only. The screening was also a competition: Just one of the commercials would be chosen to air on national television. Milling about after the screening, it was clear the favored clip was "Tifereth Israel." The clip is scheduled to screen shortly on Keshet and Reshet television networks, both of which donated the airtime. Tamar Yaron, the founder and director of the Jump Cut broadcast school, was intrigued by the project as a way of using her program as a "platform for contributing to society." When Tirtsa Granot, the director of the ACC school, came to her a year ago after being approached by her old friend Roni Aloni of the TFHT, the women agreed the campaign was an opportunity for both her students and for Israel as a whole. "We like to give students something that will be meaningful both for their own growth and for society," she says. "The goal of ads is to influence. I want to see the day when the exploitation of women is not legitimate here." Nava Oren, a 28-year-old student at Jump Cut, was part of the team that created the winning clip. "We wanted to show that it is the government's responsibility to help the way they have helped with other human plights. The government needs to do more on this," she says. "We wanted to be very clear that sex trafficking is something different than prostitution. It is slavery," Oren added. Tamar Adelstein, coordinator for the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women, thinks the winning clip is a powerful statement. Still, she worries that the ad campaign may not address the core obstacle: "I think that the main problem of women trading is that it has a demand. And where there is that demand, there will be a supply. "I think that the men in Israel need to be educated that what they are doing is damaging," says Adelstein. Her concern is not simply that Israel chooses to ignore the crisis - it's that too many people don't think it's a problem at all. According to pollster Mina Tzemach, 65 percent of Israeli men do not see the trafficking of women as a human-rights violation. Prior to 1990, Israel had no known involvement with the sex trafficking business, and prostitution activity was relatively low. Since that time, activists estimate that 3,000 girls and young women have been shipped each year from the former Soviet Union. Today, women in 80% of Israel's brothels are victims of sex trafficking, according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers. While Israeli men make an estimated 1,000,000 visits to these brothels monthly, the Israeli government did little to respond to the issue throughout the 1990s - leading the US State Department to rank Israel among the worst countries worldwide in a 2001 report on global trafficking. Since that time, Israel has begun investigating into and taking some action on this issue. But, for many activists, the efforts simply aren't enough. IN SOUTH Tel Aviv, as in other parts of the country, men in search of illicit sex need only look for one of the ubiquitous pyramid-shaped icons that mark the entrances to brothels. "What more obvious lead to a crime scene do the police need?" challenges Nomi Levinkron, a leading expert on the subject of sex trafficking in Israel and head of the legal department of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Just up the street from the downtown shouk, Levinkron stops and points at a dark room with bars on the window, on the top floor of a yellowing building. "I remember one time when I walked past this building and looked up at the window," she recalls. "A girl was standing there, peering out. She had this haunting sadness in her eyes. She was literally trapped. I will never forget the expression on her face - total despair." Levinkron pauses before passing the butcher shop next door - "One butcher next to another," she says. Much of the debate in Israel centers around the women's choice in entering the sex trade. If prostitution isn't a crime in Israel, and many of the women choose to come of their own volition, why should Israelis be concerned? "The women simply don't understand the situation," explains Yasmin Keshet, a legal advocate for victims of sex trafficking. "They don't realize they are being taken into slavery. They are led to believe that they will work as prostitutes for a certain amount of time, make good money to support their families, then return back home. There is no way for them to imagine what really happens in the end. It is worlds away from what is described to them in the beginning." Victims, activists allege, can endure countless beatings and rapes each day, as well as captivity and sometimes even death. "It's a throwback," Keshet says, "to the slave trades of America, the Middle Ages, and ancient Greece - things we as a society thought we had moved beyond. These very things are happening today - right here in this country." While some trafficked girls and women are abducted, others agree to prostitution as a means of financial rescue. "The former Soviet Union is in horrible economic shape," Levinkron explains. "When women are making the equivalent of about 100 NIS a month there, 4,000 NIS a month seems worth prostitution." Not only do the women never see a shekel of the money they are promised, but they get trapped in a nightmare they never could have imagined. Numerous activists assert that classic attitudes towards prostitution - specifically, criminalizing the woman - exacerbate the nightmare facing sex trafficking victims. "Authorities will often say, 'Oh, she's a prostitute. She chose it, so this is what she deserves,'" says Keshet. For this reason, "interrogations often are done improperly, and authorities frequently treat the women in humiliating ways." According to Ayelet Lachmi, an activist with Amnesty International and the Coalition to Stop Sex Trafficking, "The government treats the women as illegal aliens who are criminals - punishing them far more severely than the pimps who bring them here," she says. "Israel thinks of sex trafficking victims as 'foreign workers,' which is why they are treated differently. The government thinks it can do anything it wants with them." Many times, Keshet believes, trafficking victims are forced to testify against their pimps. "Victim testimonies are the only way to collect evidence against and prosecute these criminals," Keshet explains. "Their testimony helps the state a lot, but it's at a very high risk to the victims. Associates of these pimps threaten these women and their families back home. That's why the shelter [for sex trafficking victims] was founded - to protect these women until they testify." Though the shelter is safe, Keshet says, "it is closed like a prison." As soon as victims have finished testifying, she continues, "the women are deported from the country. The deportation is legal, because the Ministry of Interior Affairs decides this. That's where I come into the picture: I represent them against the ministry. I say, 'Look, these women helped the state, give them at least a year to rehabilitate.'" Police investigator Raanan Caspi of the National Investigation Office stresses that compelling women to testify is the only way to effectively work on their behalf. "Our goal is to arrest as many of the pimps as possible," he explains. "When we find the victims, our top priority is to convince the woman to testify, because it is the only way to catch the perpetrators involved in buying, selling and transporting the victims." Caspi stresses that all women are given access to services of some kind. "If she is prepared to testify," he says, "we transfer her to a safehouse. If she's not sure, we transfer her to a different facility where she has time to think about whether she wants to cooperate." He estimates that 90% of the women eventually agree to testify. The police portray a very different assessment of the victims' future prospects in Israel than do most activists. Of the women living in shelters under government protection, Caspi says, 60% begin working "normal jobs" in Israel. They are also given access to lawyers and a small stipend from the government, according to Caspi. "If they don't want to [cooperate] they still can have services, but only for two or three weeks and then they are returned to their country of origin." Women who don't want to testify against their pimps don't deserve to stay because they have chosen not to "be part of the system," the police say. "The Israeli government is once again trying to downplay one of the most atrocious human rights violations of our time," responds Yedida Wolfe, Director of Advocacy at TFHT. The police, however, say the law-enforcement challenges are much harder than the activists admit. "The victims are often working in private houses," Caspi says. "The women working in brothels are now mostly Israeli women." According to the police, "the percentage of Israeli women is up, and the number of trafficked women is down." Wolfe, though, thinks the government simply isn't trying hard enough. "The official directive of the state attorney has been and remains that the police should only investigate the crime of pimping in extraordinary circumstances. Apparently, the state still does not view this crime worthy of police attention or government resources." Despite assurances given by the state attorney in response to a petition filed by TFHT in the High Court this year, there has been no change as of yet. "Instead of closing down brothels, the police simply raid them in search of illegal aliens," Wolfe alleges. "These women, trafficking victims, have been cruelly exploited by their pimps and traffickers who routinely abuse, rape and even starve them," she continues. "After a police raid, the women are transferred to a detention center - which is much like a prison - pending deportation from the country." Until Israeli government officials and citizens more closely examine the complexity and severity of the sex slave trade, Wolfe believes, the battle will continue - and young women will pay the price.