Analysis: Should prostitution be illegal in Israel?

Knesset dumps on judge’s permissive ruling, but will it finally act?

A prostitute waits for customers along a road. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A prostitute waits for customers along a road.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is hard to unite Knesset members from Bayit Yehudi, Meretz, Yesh Atid and the Joint List around just about anything.
But just about every lawmaker was ready to fight against prostitution at a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday in which they slammed a recent court decision for allegedly promoting prostitution.
The fight between the Knesset members and the court goes to the heart of whether the practice should be illegal, and if so, how to enforce its banishment in light of a myriad of complex challenges.
But first what brought all the diverse legislators together? The judge in their crosshairs, Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Itai Hermelin last week blocked the state prosecution from closing a residence where prostitution was occurring.
Hermelin based his decision on what he called women’s “freedom of employment” and right to do with their bodies as they wish in a democratic society, even if society may disapprove.
In other words, the government cannot tell an independent single woman what she can and cannot do with her body if it is not harming others, no matter how disturbing.
But Judge Hermelin’s phraseology got all of the MKs furious, as he sounded like he was endorsing prostitution and what most of them see as the enslavement of women.
That comes to the second statement which brought them together.
At the same Knesset hearing on Wednesday, Marina (a fictional name to preserve her anonymity) told them that “it took me a long time to understand that I was not working by choice. I had a mother who did not love me…there were debts in the family, so they decided to send me to work in prostitution.”
Marina went on to tell about being sent to Dubai and then to Israel and having trouble recognizing that she had not chosen her “profession.”
Instead of believing she could leave it, she thought frequently about suicide.
Her story not only pulled at the heart-strings of all the Knesset members, it sent them the message that there is almost no prostitution by choice, and that almost all prostitutes are “trapped,” even if technically they may rent their own residence.
A spokesman for the subcommittee explained that in many cases, pimps register a residence for prostitution in the names of prostitutes, who, like Marina, are one way or another enslaved or under duress. They often feel that they have no other choice but to continue working for the pimp.
So Knesset members viewed Judge Hermelin as naive in letting the pimps “work the system,” criticizing him for buying into official pretenses, such as in whose name a residence is registered, and believing that prostitutes are acting freely, when the reality underneath is the opposite.
But the Knesset members’ willingness to lash out at the court obscures the entirety of the court’s decision and their responsibility in not having addressed the issue.
Hermelin did not just block law enforcement and say everything was fine.
Rather, he frustratingly said his hands were tied by the very limited laws against prostitution, which focus on enslavement and leave loopholes for pimps to exploit.
He even called on the Knesset to pass new laws to fill the gaps.
None of this justifies some of the insensitive verbiage that he used, but it does put the ball back in the court of the Knesset.
It is true that as of April Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked had formed a bipartisan taskforce to tackle the issue with new legislation targeting those who pay for prostitutes with heavy fines, similar to a law which recently passed in France.
Yet, in 2012 a precursor of the current law passed an initial Knesset vote and then went nowhere. Also, some social workers who have been working on the issue say that the basis for the new bill has existed for even longer.
What is stalling the bill? This is where we meet another layer of complexity.
What happens to women whose residence for prostitution is closed? What employment do they find then? What happens to those women who are not even Israeli citizens but were brought here? Do the police have the manpower and budgets to follow up on this phenomenon – enough to make anything more than a dent? There are possible solutions to all of these issues which other nations have already explored and some of them have turned into law. But here, different government agencies disagree about how to move forward and their disagreements often lead to paralysis instead of arriving at a compromise solution.
Meretz party leader Zehava Gal-On has addressed this issue for years. But speaking to her spokeswoman – even as they say progress is being made – it is far from clear that decisive action is closer than years away.
So Hermelin’s ruling did not help in the fight against prostitution. But making more than a dent on the issue will likely only happen when the Knesset and the warring government agencies take a bold step forward together.