Prostitution in the Holy Land has a long history that stretches back to before Israel’s founding in 1948. At the start of World War II, Tel Aviv was known as a “Holiday City.” Soldiers and men throughout the region poured into the city to partake of its burgeoning flesh trade and, according to complaints filed during the British Mandate, prostitution flourished in cafes, apartments, and various public spaces.
After World War II and with the creation of the State of Israel, new immigrants, who were occasionally forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive, fueled Israel’s sex trade. As in countries all over the world, Israeli sex buyers readily exploited economically and socially disadvantaged populations. Yet, as Israel developed into a wealthy nation, it became economically viable to sustain a sex trafficking industry, and international organized crime quickly recognized a financial opportunity.
By the 1990’s Israel was established as a destination country for trafficking, and international sex trafficking victims had replaced the local market. Israel’s flesh trade was booming and making between half a billion to three quarters of a billion dollars a year. It was a particularly desirable market for traffickers because the purchase of sexual services was, and still is, legal in Israel. This protects traffickers because it makes it difficult to prosecute them and to identify their victims. Throughout the 1990’s traffickers acted with impunity and, according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, smuggled 3,000 women annually into Israel.
The women arrived largely from the former Soviet Union, but a small percentage came from South America and Asia. The countries of origin shared two common denominators: a dire economic situation and women desperate to provide for themselves and their families. Traffickers promised women work as au pairs, waitresses, or medical masseuses. A few were told that they would work as exotic dancers and fewer were told that they would be prostituted. No one was told that upon arriving in Israel their documents would be confiscated and they would be bought, raped, and transported to brothels where they would service between 15 to 20 men a day.
By the late 1990’s, sex trafficking to Israel had reached such dizzying heights that the world began to take notice. In 2001, the US State Department released its first Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and ranked Israel as a Tier 3 Nation – the report’s lowest possible ranking. A Tier 3 country is defined by its high level of trafficking and its failure to take significant strides to combat it.
Israel’s ranking was a public shaming at the hands of its most prominent ally. Moreover, it carried potentially massive economic consequences. According to the U.S.’s Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, Tier 3 nations would be subjected to strict economic sanctions. As Israel receives $3.1 billion in annual assistance from the U.S., the fallout would have been explosive.
The TIP Report and increasing pressure from NGOs, such as ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, served as a catalyst for change. Since its Tier 3 ranking, Israel has passed a comprehensive anti-trafficking law, which imposes a maximum 16-year sentence upon traffickers. The Ministry of Welfare also began to operate two shelters for trafficking victims and Israel established SAAR, an anti-trafficking police unit.
Thanks in part to these measures, government and non-governmental sources agree that sex trafficking in Israel has been reduced. Yet, though Israel was recently awarded Tier 1 status, many would argue that it has not gone far enough in its efforts to reduce sex trafficking and prostitution. In 2011, SAAR was disbanded, and many victims of trafficking find themselves in prison instead shelters because the two state-funded shelters are overflowing.
Moreover, while Israel recognizes sex trafficking as a serious crime, it still considers prostitution to be a choice made by some women. This attitude flies in the face of reality. According to Saleet, a hostel for prostituted women in Tel Aviv, the average age of entrance into prostitution in Israel is 14, and “coincidentally” 90 percent of prostituted persons are victims of incest, rape, and abuse. This past February, Israel’s Ministerial Committee nearly brought Israel one step closer to eradicating prostitution when it unanimously approved legislation that would have prohibited the purchase of sexual services and decriminalized the provider. This legislation had the potential to drastically reduce demand and assist the 15,000-prostituted persons, a third of whom are children, trapped in Israel’s sex trade. However, it was ultimately not passed into law.
Prostitution and trafficking have been a shameful part of Israel’s narrative for far too long. In order to continue to move forward, Israel must recognize prostitution, as well as sex trafficking, as the form of modern slavery that it is.