Most people are surprised to learn that prostitution is legal in Israel, and all too often after discovering this people assume nearly every activity and business related to prostitution is legal. However, Israel’s laws regarding prostitution are complex and deserve further discussion. The government may have legalized prostitution, but it has also passed laws intended to restrict the sex industry. These laws reflect the government’s understanding of the role that coercion and exploitation play in the sex trade.

Israel has passed legislation outlawing any form of third party involvement in prostitution, including pimping, procuring, trafficking, and owning and operating a brothel. Yet the sex industry is not only dependent on traffickers, pimps, and madams. It also relies on industries we don’t necessarily connect to prostitution.

Hotels, taxi drivers, and advertisers play significant roles in the maintenance and expansion of the sex trade, and legislation outlawing their involvement in prostitution has been passed as well. However, many of these laws have not been enforced. Perhaps the most blatant example is a law stating that advertising sexual services is illegal.

For anyone who has been to Tel-Aviv it is clear that this law has not been enforced. Business cards featuring naked women are scattered on the windows of parked cars and across sidewalks, and mini-markets have stands crammed full of magazines whose only content are advertisements for “dates,” “massages,” and “phone sex”. As a result, Tel-Aviv is now known not only for its Bauhaus architecture and vibrant nightlife, but also for its booming sex industry.

Last year people began to push back. In May 2012 several organizations met with the Municipality’s Committee on the Status of Women about the sex-cards. This meeting was followed by a demonstration in front of the Municipality Offices, during which participants threw thousands of sex-cards at the building, demanding that the issue be addressed. “These cards are everywhere and they encourage prostitution. There is a law that forbids advertising prostitution and we want to wake the city and its leader up,” remarked Reut Gai of Elem/Youth in Distress.

Yet, the Municipality continued to maintain it did not have “…legal authority to act on the matter.” Furthermore the Municipality asserted that the police are responsible for finding and investigating distributors and printers. The police responded that they “…were dealing with the matter.”

Watching these events unfold was like watching a particularly frustrating game of hot potato. Everyone agreed that it was illegal to advertise sexual services, yet no one was willing to take responsibility for enforcing the legislation. However, over the past few months the attitudes of both the police and the Municipality have shifted significantly.

The Municipality agreed to take part in a series oflectures sponsored by ATZUM  and other organizations on sex trafficking and prostitution. The lectures featured presentations from Gili Varon, Director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking, Reut Gai of Elem, and Naama Rivlin, the Executive Director of Saleet, a shelter that assists women exiting prostitution. “There was a great spirit of cooperation at the seminar,” remarked Varon. “The Municipality was willing to come together with nonprofits to learn about and combat this phenomenon.”

The public outcry, demonstrations, and seminars appeared to have paid off. Late last month, the Tel-Aviv Municipality stated they would begin fining people caught distributing business cards advertising sexual services. While the Municipality may not have the authority to take action against the printing presses, the police have also begun to respond.

For the first time since 2011 police arrested and charged the owner of a printing press and a graphic designer with producing business cards for brothels. While this is clearly only the tip of the iceberg, it is encouraging that the police are taking this more seriously.

“We used to insist it be proven beyond a doubt that it was an advertisement for sexual services. Today it is enough to hint at the subject, it doesn’t have to be a naked woman on the card. It can also be a picture of a cherry. We know sexual services are what is really being advertised,” remarked Police Commander Gadi Ashod of the Central Tel-Aviv Police.

There is no one program, action, or law that will eradicate the sex trade; it is too big and complex for that. Although we cannot solely depend on any one group of people to combat this form of modern slavery, I would like to think our government would lead the charge and serve as an example. By beginning to enforce this legislation, Tel-Aviv’s Police and Municipality are establishing themselves as leaders and are sending an important message: “In Tel-Aviv women are not for sale.” Let us hope that this battle cry is heard by other cities in Israel as well.