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Jonathan Simmons
Hope over hate. Trade with Israel & Palestine

Sex trafficking in Israel: Dispelling some myths

Prostitutes in Tel Aviv, often subject to horrendos living conditions. Photo Credit  Aviv Ministry
Prostitutes in Tel Aviv, often subject to horrendos living conditions. Photo Credit Aviv Ministry

10 Myths around Israel’s Sex Trafficking and Prostitution Problem, and How You Can Help Victims in Tel Aviv- Part 1 – Israel’s Social Investing Series

The coronavirus pandemic and the new legislation have created an impossible financial reality for women trafficked into Israel, according to Naama Rivlin, the director of Saleet, a treatment and aid centre for women caught in prostitution in Israel.

In Israel, organized criminals smuggle vulnerable young women from primarily Eastern Europe, and East Africa to work in brothels, conditions that most Westerners and Israelis would deem uninhabitable.

Last year, the seriousness of the situation was noted by the US State Department, which downgraded Israel from Tier 1 to Tier 2. The decision was made since Israel did not “meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”

Homeless Woman in Tel Aviv. Photo Credit Aviv Ministry

“The government [of Israel] maintained woefully inadequate efforts to prevent human trafficking and government policies towards foreign workers increased their vulnerability to trafficking”

The women, often young and from disadvantaged backgrounds, are lured by smugglers with the promise of a legitimate, well-paid job in Israel. But as soon as they arrive in Israel, only exploitation and a life of suffering await them.

Some estimate that there are 14,000 active in prostitution, but critics have said it is significantly more.

The law has created a situation where women are not recognized by the National Insurance Institute and are not eligible for aid.

Still, Israel is plagued with many myths about the life of prostitutes. Myths that make out that these vulnerable women ‘earn a good life’

Stay with us while we unpack just 10 of these damaging myths…

MYTH 1: These women make good money. I wouldn’t mind having that kind of income!

Fact: Trafficking is modern slavery. The only money makers are the traffickers and pimps. During their first months of “work,” most trafficking victims earn nothing. All profits are passed along to the pimp and trafficker, to repay the cost of their “purchase.”

Often the initial debt is enhanced and increased immeasurably as the pimps impose fines on these women for perceived “misbehaviour.” The debt is ever-growing and often impossible to repay. This well-known enslavement tactic is called debt bondage.

Even after they succeed in repaying this debt, women receive only 20 NIS on average per client, while their pimps take in between 100-600 NIS. The trafficking victim is defenceless and vulnerable in her “workplace” — she is forced to work through sickness and while menstruating, at weekends, and on holidays.

MYTH 2; She knew exactly what she was coming for, what right does she have to complain now?

Fact: The majority of trafficking victims did not work as prostitutes in their home countries. While many women were aware they would be working in prostitution in Israel, when interviewed, they did not and could not imagine the conditions under which they would be held.

Photo Credit Aviv Ministry http://avivministry.com/en/

Some of these women are told that they will work as house cleaners, babysitters or aides for the elderly, while others knew they would be involved in prostitution. However, even a woman who knows she will be working as a prostitute has been deceived: she is promised huge earnings in a short time, told she will be free to come and go as she pleases, and responsible for her own work schedule.

But instead, the dream becomes a nightmare: she finds herself alone in a foreign country, financially bound to pimps and traffickers, enslaved and trapped with no rights, and a victim of daily threats and violence.

MYTH 3: She can get up and leave whenever she wants.

Fact: The trafficking victim is TRAPPED.

Victims are often physically caged in brothels with guards there to prevent their escape. Most victims have been forbidden to leave by their pimps and traffickers – dangerous criminals who threaten the lives of the victims and their families. Victims often have nowhere to turn.

Most believe that they will be prosecuted as illegal aliens and put in prison if they turn to the police.

“I tried to refuse, asked them to leave me alone, and they said.. ..you are our slave – if you refuse, you will die very young, you will not return home. Understand, if you want to live you must work for us”.— Yelena, from Belarus

MYTH 4: Trafficking only happens in the seediest of places. The brothels I know would never exploit women that way.

Fact: The overwhelming majority of prostitutes in Israel, including those involved in “escort services” and the pornography industry, are trafficking victims.

It is estimated that over 80% of the women involved in the sex industry in Israel are victims of human trafficking. They are objectified and treated as cheap labour lacking any dignity or rights.

This form of modern slavery is found in every corner of the world. Sadly, Israel is no exception.

MYTH 5: Trafficking victims like it here so much, that they sometimes return even after they’ve been deported.

Fact: Trafficking victims suffer unspeakable harm and irreparable emotional injury. Nearly all victims suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to the daily abuse they experience.

A support worker from Aviv Ministry helping a homeless man in Tel Aviv, Photo Credit http://avivministry.com/en/

Trafficking victims are raped, beaten and even starved. It is therefore perhaps surprising that some women do in fact return to the cycle of trafficking after they’ve been deported.

Women who return to their home countries after being exploited as sex slaves often find that they are shunned by family and friends.

They are unwelcome by people who feel disgraced by these women, thus adding severe insult to unspeakable injury. These women become easy bait for criminals who exploit their weakness and send them back into the world of trafficking and sex slavery.

MYTH 6: There is no great risk of being infected with sexually transmitted diseases when sleeping with prostitutes. Besides, I used a condom.

Fact: Men who visit brothels and solicit call girls expose themselves to tremendous public health risks.

They are likely to contract diseases and transmit them to their wives or girlfriends. Trafficking victims are forced to sleep with between 10-15 clients a day on average, 7 days a week. Often women are required to have sex without any contraceptives, according to the client’s wishes.

Women who work in prostitution are exposed to sexually transmitted diseases daily.

MYTH 7: Only lonely and unsatisfied men visit these brothels.~~

Fact:  Clients of trafficking victims represent a cross-section of Israeli society. Men from all backgrounds, ethnicities and ages exploit trafficking victims every single day. Many clients are married with children. Prominent clientele are bachelor parties and even young boys, receiving a bar mitzvah present from their fathers!

Most clients are not aware that the women are trafficking victims and believe they are engaged in prostitution of their own free will. In reality, the overwhelming majority of women working in prostitution are victims of sexual slavery. It is estimated that there are 1 million visits to brothels in Israel, every month. That means 12,000,000 visits a year! 

Support worker from Aviv Ministry helping a homeless community in Tel Aviv, Photo Credit http://avivministry.com/en/

MYTH 8 It’s fine for men to pay for sex, it does no damage to wider society and relationships.. It even improves relationships.

Fact: Purchasing sexual services has a negative effect on other relationships. Men who visit Israeli brothels are likely to be exploiting victims of human trafficking without knowing it. Does being a “real” man mean abusing another human being?

These women smile because otherwise they will be punished by their pimps. But after the clients leave, they are left with the pain and humiliation of the sexual abuse they have suffered.

Prof. Sven-Axel Mansson: “Men who buy sexual services develop greater difficulties in holding normal relationships with women. In addition, there are more divorces and break-ups among men who purchase sexual favors. …prostitution does not solve the men’s problems, on the contrary – it increases their fear of developing normal relationships with women”

MYTH 9: Israel takes all necessary measures to fight this injustice

Fact: There is no doubt that there are those in the Police, Prosecutors’ office, Knesset and the Courts who make an effort to solve the problem. But should we diminish our own responsibility to fight this evil by relying on them alone..

Israel is constantly fighting for its security but its southern border with Egypt is permeable and women are smuggled through the Sinai every night.

The problem of Human Trafficking is not ranked high enough on the national agenda. Insufficient resources are allocated toward eradicating this evil.

Despite the recent passing of a penal law sentencing traffickers to a maximum of 16 years imprisonment, many cases are settled in plea bargains and lenient sentences.

Sadly, the State of Israel considers trafficking victims illegal aliens and is focused mainly on their deportation rather than on taking responsibility for their emotional well being and legal care.

Living conditions of many of Israel’s homeless caught in drug addictions. Image Credit Aviv Ministry.

MYTH 10: There is nothing that I can do about it.

Fact: Israel supporters around the world have the responsibility for this atrocity. We can invest in Israeli business, and trade with Israeli companies, but we aren’t willing to support the most vulnerable in society?

One of the most important ways you can help is to educate others. The sex industry grows in response to demand.

BUT HOW CAN YOU HELP?

Tel Aviv citizen, formally a substance misuser whose life was transformed through rehabilitation. Credit; Aviv Ministry

There is an organization in Tel Aviv, founded by reformed drug misuser and Russian Israeli Dov Bikas. Aviv Ministry was established in 2005 in south Tel-Aviv, they help Israelis, often recent emigrants, caught in addiction to meet their basic needs like food and clothes. Their main purpose, however, is to help these people get fully restored and to build a functional and meaningful life. Aviv Ministry has many documented cases of addicts having a complete transformation.

Post pandemic, the need to help Israel’s most vulnerable is growing, particularly with new waves of migrants coming from Ukraine and Eastern Africa that are often open to exploitation.

You can help Israel’s most vulnerable by donating to the work of Aviv Ministry and becoming a financial partner today.

Acknowledgements, and further reading:

About the Author
Jon is the director of israelinvestment.org, and co-founded of I61collective, a movement in the UK that facilitates grassroots creative projects in Israel and the West Bank. In the spring Jon supported the opening of the International Prayer Room in Bethlehem. The aim is to encourage Westerners visiting Israel to spend time in the West Bank, and find creative space for sanctuary. During the spring tour, Jon met with Palestinian businessmen and women in the West Bank, to try to understand what they need from Western consumers and businesses to help them and other Palestinians build a financially independent and prosperous future. This inspired Jon to write the series of articles called Partnering for Palestinian Prosperity. The aim of the series is to demonstrate that under very challenging circumstances, Palestinians have persevered to build businesses and viable ventures that are worthy of active encouragement and investment from the West. In 2018, Jon co-lead a group of international and local musicians as part of Music on The Wind tour, performing live to communities on ‘both sides’ of Israel and Palestine. The aim was to invest in the people through the healing and restoration power of live music, regardless of their background. Jon is passionate about the power of using business to bring cohesion between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
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