"... "It's easier being a trafficker than being a plumber ..." -- Nomi Levenkron
Sunday, December 30, 2001
Selling Sex in Israel
Selling Sex in Israel
By Paula Amann
Washington Jewish Week/Jewsweek - 2001
They come to Israel from the Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova looking for freedom. Instead they are sold as sex slaves. And you thought Israel was holy.
Jewsweek.com | Their names are Natalya, Oxana or Svetlana. They come to Israel, as immigrants do, for a better life. But their dreams of working as a waitress, nurse, or au pair turn nightmarish upon their arrival.
Their fellow countryman who met them at the airport, speaking the language of home, takes them to a locked apartment with barred windows and a phone that only takes incoming calls, where they are forced to provide sexual services to strangers.
Those who rebel risk being raped, beaten, or starved. Even those who knew they were going into prostitution are shocked by the stark conditions, the pay of roughly 20 shekalim ($5) a day or less for their labor.
This disturbing story unfolds all too often at the hotline for Migrant Workers, a Tel Aviv agency founded in 1998 to protect the human rights of foreign workers, victims of sex trafficking among them. The hotline takes as its motto the familiar line from Exodus 22:20: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Agency director and co-founder Sigal Rozen, along with the group's counsel, Nomi Levenkron, were in Washington, D.C., last week to give a lecture at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, to network and to speak with supporters. Among them are the New Israel Fund, which has given the hotline a total of $19,000 during the past year and a half.
In an interview, Rozen called sex trafficking an "unorganized crime," based largely on personal networks of immigrants from the Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova.
Those three countries alone accounted for 91 percent of the 474 women arrested in brothels and deported from Israel in 2000, according to figures compiled by hotline volunteers during visits to the Neveh Tirzah women's prison.
These statistics represent only a fraction of the problem. Police spokespersons have set the number of women brought into the country to work in the sex industry at 2,000-3,000 annually, the number of brothels at 250, Rozen said.
"It's Misha that knows Sasha that knows Vladimir," added Levenkron, noting the economic incentive to be a pimp or work with one. "It's easier being a trafficker than being a plumber."
One day she got a phone call from a rape crisis center where a woman pleaded to be arrested and deported.
This young Moldovian had twice tried to escape her pimp and at 18, was burned out on prostitution and just wanted to go home.
"She's so young and sweet," reflected Levenkron. "She came to Israel to be a waitress."
A year ago this month, Israel passed the Law Against Trafficking Women. Before that time, other laws existed against soliciting, pimping, and running brothels.
Yet hotline staff point out that few pimps involved in trafficking ever face a judge, with the majority of prostitutes deported without ever facing a trial that might involve their testimony against their pimps. Out of 459 women deported in 1998, only 35 cases went to trial; out of 253 in 1999, a scant five ended up in the courtroom.
Judicial indifference is compounded by police complicity, Levenkron argued.
The 18-year-old Moldovian, it turned out, had at one point in her misadventures, found herself in a Tel Aviv police station where some of the officers, who were her clients, recognized her and moved to call her pimp.
Overhearing their plans, the woman fled and moved in with a client-turned-boyfriend.
But somehow the pimp found her again, threatened the boyfriend. The young woman, with no place to go, went back to the brothel. Now the case hangs in the courts, where Levenkron has faint hopes for a positive outcome.
The police role in such trafficking ranges from casual to highly serious, she alleged.
"There are police who just come as clients, those who get special discounts because of their good relationships with the owner of the place and those that inform the owner about police operations," explained Levenkron.
One young Beersheva prostitute told the attorney she was forced to work seven days a week unless a police raid was expected.
Widespread fear of violence from pimps has muted the public outcry, say hotline staff. When Levenkron filed a suit on behalf of a Beersheva-based woman, a 20-year-old Moldovian who had survived six pimps and multiple rapes, several of the lawyer's friends came to her home to bid her a final farewell, in anticipation of her imminent death, she said.
Worldwide, trafficking in persons for domestic service, forced labor, and prostitution ranks third after drugs and guns among the activities of international crime, according to a congressional service report released May 10, 2000. For comparison, about 50,000 people are brought to the United States annually, the report stated.
The rise in trafficking seen over the 1990s was fueled by feeble economies in source countries, such as the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia, along with weak penalties for traffickers, said a government official familiar with these issues.
Last October, the United States passed its own law addressing this problem, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which calls on the State Department to report annually on the scope of trafficking in various countries and measures taken to combat it. The report was due for release on June 1, but its publication has been delayed.
In Israel today, official policy on trafficking is to arrest and deport foreign sex workers. The women are held for an average of 30 days under crowded and sometimes harsh conditions, longer if they testify in court against their pimps, according to hotline data.
Rozen and Levenkron take issue with this approach. "Deporting women doesn't make things better," said Levenkron. "I'm tired of shouting this all over Israel so I've come here [to the United States] to shout about it."
Rozen contends that a one-year work permit in specified fields such as home health care or child care, before their return home, would put the former prostitutes in a stronger position to take care of themselves.
Gruesome albeit unsubstantiated stories abound, she says, about revenge attacks on returning women and their families by the original trafficker in the home country.
A nest egg from a year's legitimate work, Rozen suggests, would allow victims to re-establish themselves in a new community and stay out of the clutches of traffickers in the future.
Meanwhile, Levenkron is seeking professional back-up in her job representing the victims of trafficking.
"I am the [hotline] legal department," laments Levenkron. "We need lawyers and we need public awareness."