Modern slavery in Israel: The women victims of human trafficking

The US State Department TIP report states that Israel does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so

 Women with price tags on their hands are displayed in the window of a store called Woman To Go in a shopping mall in Tel Aviv to raise awareness about and protest against the trafficking of women. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)
Women with price tags on their hands are displayed in the window of a store called Woman To Go in a shopping mall in Tel Aviv to raise awareness about and protest against the trafficking of women.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)

This year Israel celebrates 75 years of independence, just weeks after the Jewish people celebrated Passover, the annual holiday commemorating the emancipation of the Hebrew people from Egyptian enslavement. The Jerusalem Report did a deep dive into who in today’s society is considered free – and who, on the contrary, remains in shackles. According to Israel’s Anti-Trafficking Law (2006), a slave is a person who may be “ostensibly free” but is not actually the master of his or her own fate by being restricted extensively. Today, many of those who fit the description include migrant workers, field hands, fishermen, illegal construction workers, caregivers and women who are sold for sex. 

“Prostitution is not freedom. Or a celebration of sexuality. It’s a cage. It’s addiction. It’s self-harm.”

Naama Goldberg

“Prostitution is not freedom. Or a celebration of sexuality. It’s a cage. It’s addiction. It’s self-harm,” says Naama Goldberg, CEO of Lo Omdot MeNegged (Not Standing By Idly, which assists women in the cycle of prostitution). 

Her extensive research and daily work experience show that prostitution is never a choice. She says it also only differs from “sex trafficking” on paper. 

Sex trafficking and prostitution: It's never a choice

Shilla Ezra is a survivor of sex trafficking who lives in Israel and is now an advocate. She and her friends were kidnapped from Hungary at age 18. 

“For more than 20 years that I have been in the sex trade myself or helping others, I have met almost no women who did not want to go out. Nearly all of these women remained in prostitution years after their first attempts to get out…. If what keeps you in prostitution is the post-traumatic stress disorder that you developed in prostitution, you are captive,” Ezra says. 

 (From left) US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Jim Gilmore; Israeli National Trafficking Coordinator Dina Dominitz; and Ambassador Talya Lador-Fresher. (credit: USOSCE) (From left) US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Jim Gilmore; Israeli National Trafficking Coordinator Dina Dominitz; and Ambassador Talya Lador-Fresher. (credit: USOSCE)

Goldberg explains that “prostitution” is the term used for women who are working in their own country of origin, whereas a person who is a victim of human trafficking is usually someone who is operating in a foreign land. 

“Most of the human trafficking now to Israel is not by force. It’s by scam,” Goldberg says. 

While selling sex has always existed, its most recent form in Israel comes on the heels of the violent war in Ukraine. Many of Israel’s victims of sex trafficking today come by invitation from men of all nationalities. Goldberg tells The Jerusalem Report that when she reviews the names of the sponsors, she finds surnames to be Arabic, Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian, among others. 

“They tell people they will be prostitutes making tons of money, needing to sleep with three men a week. But they will actually be in an apartment in Bat Yam (for example) and won’t earn that much money and will sleep with 10 men a day,” Goldberg says. 

According to literature published on the topic, most people doing prostitution were violated in childhood with incest or other sexual abuse. That is why as the head of her organization, Goldberg asserts that there is never any legitimacy in prostitution anywhere on the spectrum.

Others in her organization mirrored that sentiment by sharing stories of women who thought they would be “high-end” prostitutes, who were promised safe, clean and even luxurious housing while earning sizable paychecks. That is never the case. 

“There is no way to do prostitution without being hit or humiliated,” Goldberg says. 

Naama Sabato also works for Lo Omdot Me’negged. A year ago, she added something new to her role as a social worker – airport mediator. Sabato makes visits to Ben-Gurion Airport several times a week to meet and comfort women who have been flagged by authorities. Recently, two women arrived from Ukraine, thinking they were accepting the role of assistant for an Israeli man who invited them to come and find safety from their unstable lives in Ukraine. 

This story is just one of many. Men meet and invite vulnerable women, using platforms like Instagram and Telegram. There are even Israeli advertisements circling throughout Instagram calling for “beautiful women” to “work in Israel and make a lot of money” or “make money from home.” The relationship often starts with a video chat or the promise of a free flight. Some women are pressured by their parents to accept the invitation.

“The big issue is when you don’t have a right to stay. The owner is the one who can help you and also hurt you. He controls you totally. You can’t get help because you are not legal, and then you are afraid,” Sabato explains.

Sabato connects with the police and the hospitals in order to offer training so that people working in critical roles will understand what to look for and how to help. A woman who’s been in Israel for a number of years may enter a hospital only once and be silently desperate while being treated. 

“In their stories, they have chosen this somehow, and what I try to tell them is there’s a line between ‘I want to do it, I love this job’ and ‘I don’t want it, but someone kidnapped me.’ In the middle there is ‘I don’t really want to do it, but what choice do I have?’”

When Sabato meets with the women at the airport, she offers them a chance to go to a shelter with her. She has a community of translators who volunteer their time via phone to help women understand their rights and their options after landing. 

Aside from flying in, women are being trafficked into Israel from every border, including those in the West Bank. A lesser-known and recently revealed issue of sex trafficking includes Palestinian women who are kept by their pimps in brothels around the State of Israel. The operators are both Palestinians and Israelis. Women are promised better lives in Israeli cities and are then shamed and threatened into continuing to work. 

Many Palestinian women have been working in forced prostitution for years underground. Experts say the networks that organize and control their lives are deep, highly criminal and highly lucrative. Women typically work in the brothels for a month at a time, and are then sent back to the West Bank for a one- or two-day break. Often, there are female secretaries organizing it all. 

Around the country there are many places where sex trafficking is carried out that don’t necessarily follow the old stereotypes of a pimp lurking around the corner, waiting for the woman to finish her business. In Tel Aviv, all types of prostitution is being executed in residential buildings. Residents of a building to the south of Ben-Yehuda Street have been dealing with what they say is an ongoing and unsettling issue of prostitution. 

Emma, a building manager, has been pushing out prostitutes since she purchased and moved in three years. She tells The Jerusalem Report of a tenant in her 70s who was tormented by the ins and outs of men to the apartment next door, as well as loud, terrifying sounds of fighting and glass-breaking by a couple in the apartment upstairs. In the first case, the alleged prostitute was operating out of her personal apartment. In the other, neighbors say they believe the man was sending his wife out for sale. 

“She was afraid to leave her apartment after six p.m. Can you imagine? You buy an apartment for NIS 1.8 million and then, because you are in your seventies, you’re scared to leave?” Emma asks. “It was quite shocking for her when she looked through the peephole and saw a guy with a shtreimel knocking on her neighbor’s door. What’s a guy with a shtreimel doing knocking on the door at 10 o’clock at night?”

Tenants have been writing to Emma privately, reporting “weird people” in the building.

“It’s normally the women who flag it because they feel unsafe. They see men, and they are leering at them. They never greet you or look you in the eye or get into the elevator with you. They hang back. I ask them where they are going. They get nervous,” Emma says. 

Emma shares her appreciation of a recent law which Israel adapted in 2018. It put a new penalty on the “John,” or the consumer. Since the law was added, only 2,500 fines have been given to men, and most of them are specifically identified in brothels during raids. But when it comes to dealing with the issue in the building in Tel Aviv, Emma knocks on doors herself to ask women if they are prostitutes. One Russian woman said she was living in the building for another month while waiting for her Israeli citizenship to be finalized. She moved out of the apartment three days after the confrontation. In other cases, Emma has called landlords to complain about the tenants they selected to stay in their rentals. And all of that because she says the police do nothing. 

“We called them several times. They weren’t interested in looking at surveillance or finding out anything deeper. They came, left, and said there was nothing to report,” Emma says.

Israel is currently ranked at level two out of three tiers for human trafficking in the US State Department’s 2022 TIP (trafficking in persons) Report. The report was first published in 2001 and applied pressure on Israel to open its eyes to trafficking within its own borders. The document is not just for reputation. A country’s status on this scale indicates how much financial aid it will receive from the US. 

The report states that Israel does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so by operating shelters and providing victims a wide variety of immediate and long-term care and rehabilitative services. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards and has not done enough to investigate and hold labor traffickers criminally accountable. 

Aside from the issue of punishing perpetrators, advocates could not stop talking about their struggle to get Israel’s Population Authority to recognize certain people as victims of slavery. Not only do people need to know and understand their right to state-funded rehabilitation, but they would have to come forward and show that they meet the criteria. Those who are attempting to work the system are usually undocumented, defeated and making the effort in a foreign language. Advocates say the authority has an agenda, which is to simply push out non-Jews from the country and not deal with their issues. That sentiment, while it does exist today, has drastically changed since 2001. 

Attorney Dina Dominitz, who coordinates the National Anti-Trafficking Department within the Ministry of Justice, says that sometimes the authorities must convince victims to stay, finish their programs, and wait for their trials to conclude, lest their captors have a good chance of continuing to live free. That could take up to five years. 

Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, has been fighting trafficking for 24 years. She tells The Jerusalem Report that her biggest struggle is knowing that not one person has been penalized with the maximum sentence of 16 years for human trafficking in Israel. 

Rozen has spent endless time detailing the stories of those she has advocated for and met behind bars. This includes migrant workers who sleep in the fields they tend while their bosses hold their passports hostage. Women from India who spend upwards of $10,000 to come to Israel to care for an elderly often learn on their first day that they actually must tend to two infirm individuals without ever taking a break (caretakers get one day per week off and are sometimes threatened from even taking that). There are fishermen who were brought from abroad and are now living on Israeli shores in their work boats because they are technically not permitted to live and work on Israeli land. And newly, Ethiopian women escaping the war-stricken Tigray region are being shipped off to Jordan to do housework. They eventually realized they had been forced into full-time servitude. Many are now fleeing into Israel. Rozen hopes that human traffickers will start to be sentenced to jail time. 

“Only then will the public be aware. When they are not charged, no one knows about it,” Rozen says. “Not enough people know or recognize victims when they meet them, either.” 

When asked what is the latest trend she’s seeing in her work, Dominitz from the government’s Anti-Trafficking Department says there are many. She reports that the trade changes rapidly. 

“They have developed more clever ways to bypass the law. They will use psychological control. Threats. Subtle threats. They won’t be violent but will threaten violence or withhold something [from the worker]. All of these ways are loopholes that make it harder for us as the state,” Dominitz says. “If you don’t have the woman standing up in court with the black eye and the broken arm or if they [the women] don’t see themselves as victims.… it can be much more difficult to convince a judge. The subtle means are the new weapons.”  ■