Sexual Trafficking in Israel

January 11th is Global Human Trafficking Awareness Day.  The statistics are overwhelming.  Sexual trafficking makes up a significant percentage of these numbers.  No country is immune.  It happens in Germany.  It happens in Thailand.  It happens in the United States and the United Kingdom.  It happens in Israel.

The exact numbers of sexually trafficked persons, including children, varies from organization to organization.  Sexual trafficking is now the world’s second top crime, tied with the illegal sale of guns. The drug trade is number one.

Individuals are taking personal steps to get involved and lobby for change.  Some are coming out of the faith-based arena.  One of them is Peggy Sakow, the U.S. Outreach Coordinator for Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a Canadian Reform congregation.  The synagogue has partnered with the Israeli group ATZUM, and their Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT).  Jointly, they have launched a North American letter writing campaign directed to prominent cabinet ministers of the Israeli Government.  It urges the leaders to pursue tougher measures against human trafficking and sex slavery in Israel.

Sakow, who definitively identifies herself as an “abolitionist,” was in New York City on January 7th, the day before she was scheduled to leave for Israel.  She is traveling as part of a group that is advocating for the passage of a bill drafted in 2008, but not yet approved. It is The Prohibition of the Use of Paid Sexual Services Law, now languishing in the Israeli Knesset.  It calls for criminalizing the clients of the sex industry, with punishment consisting of six months’ imprisonment—or an education program for first-time offenders.

The legislation is based on the “Nordic model” (laws which have been enacted in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland), which targets the demand for paid sex. The Swedish law has a ten-year success record.  Framed within the context of gender equality and an explicit human rights perspective, Sakow told me that after passage in those countries, “demand had dropped by 45 percent.”  On the buying of sex, Sakow said, “Where there’s men, there’s trafficking.  It has nothing to do with religion.”

Norma Ramos, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, commented by telephone on what the passage of the bill would mean.  She said, “It would be a beacon of hope.  It would represent a huge human rights stand in that part of the world, signaling the seriousness with which Israel takes ending human trafficking.”

Founding director of ATZUM, Rabbi Levi Lauer, has noted that the human trafficking industry in Israel is a $500 million dollar industry.  Sakow, speaking in the context of Jewish activism, told me, “We are commanded to do this.  We have a partnership with Israel.”  She e-mailed me the Temple Committee Against Human Trafficking booklet, written by Rabbi Leigh Lerner.  In it, a range of points brought up in the sexual trafficking conversation are addressed within the context of Jewish law.  They include:

  • Gender equality
  • Prostitution as a human rights abuse constituting violence against women and girls
  • Victimization through deception and kidnapping
  • The inability of victims to free themselves
  • Prostitution as a “choice of no choice”
  • Human traffickers, pimps, men who buy sex—and criminality
  • Disputation of prostitution as a victimless crime
  • The relationship between pornography and prostitution

Tackling trafficking in Israel from another angle is the Boston-based filmmaker iLan Azoulai.  Currently working on the documentary Holy Ghetto, he spoke with me at length by telephone on how his commitment to this cause evolved.

Three years ago, Azoulai was part of a film project detailing the sexual traffic flow from Nepal to India.  He was shocked to learn about young women and girls being lured into leaving their homes for what they anticipated would be a “better life.”  It seemed like a news story from a far away location.  The revelation that confronted him when he next visited Israel on his annual trip, was that he recognized his hometown neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv as “a major hub for slavery, drugs, and trafficking.”

Azoulai decided to track down the truth behind the women living on the streets and those who were being forced into prostitution.  He connected with an American running a shelter for homeless women in prostitution and volunteered at the facility. Many of the women he met there had been illicitly brought to Israel, primarily from the territories of the former USSR.  Several were facing deportation by the state of Israel, despite the fact that they have children who are considered citizens.

The story line of Holy Ghetto centers around three women who are trafficking victims.  Two were introduced to Azoulai through secret sources.  The narrative of the third includes her addiction to drugs.  Israel’s policy is to deport women who have been trafficked into the country after they receive one year of rehabilitative services.  They are then sent back to their countries of origin— despite whatever dangers await them.  Azoulai is closely monitoring the potential ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court on the fate of these women and their children.

Having spent over $40,000 of his own money, Azoulai is trying to raise the additional $300,000 he needs to finish his account—which he believes will bring light to a woefully under-reported story.  His goal is to make a final visit to Israel to shoot remaining key scenes and interviews, and to be present to cover the judicial hearings that are integral to the narrative.  Once that is completed, he will face the hurdle of post-production expenditures.  Despite the obstacles, Azoulai believes that raising awareness is at the root of having the public understand this vast international problem.

Why is sexual trafficking such an epidemic?  Ramos emphasizes, “You can’t end sex trafficking without ending commercial sexual exploitation, which is the end point of sex trafficking.

As Rabbi Lerner points out in the final section of “Jewish Teachings on The Crime of Human Trafficking,” where he posits that the demand for paid sex fuels human trafficking for prostitution:

“Everyone knows that it is a sin, a crime against religious ethics and law, to steal.  But not everyone knows that in the matter of theft, Judaism also holds the receiver responsible.  If no one were willing to receive stolen goods, crimes of theft would drop markedly.  It’s a function of the free market.

Comparably, if no one bought sex, virtually no sex would need to be for sale.  Human trafficking for prostitution would come to a near standstill.  Those who buy sex must reckon with the fact that their presence in that “market” gives unscrupulous and violent men cause to dominate, enslave, and abuse women and children, moving the enslaved across the country or across borders in order to profit from willing buyers of sex.”

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1 Response

  1. Barbara says:

    There is a book by Isabel Vincent entitled Bodies and Souls, which tells of three young Jewish women, among others from 1860 to 1939, who were lured away from their Eastern European shtetls. The traffickers were not above going through sham marriages and, after getting their new “bride” onboard a ship heading for the Americas, to repeatedly rape her and then begin selling her to other passengers. It is a tremendously heartbreaking story, and it hasn’t ended. An Israeli friend told me that she heard of several young women kidnapped into sexual slavery, and transported to another country. More needs to be done to stop this, and the notion of laws finding the “customers” guilty would help. The traffickers themselves must be thrown in jail and the women helped to regain a life.

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