Tuesday, November 24, 1998

We must address Israeli prostitution as our problem

By Leonard Fein
Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, San Francisco - November 24, 1998

It came as a shock: Jewish "women of the night."
That was all the way back in 1960, glimpsing the streetwalkers as I was driving through Jaffa. Instinctively, I did what just about all Jews who cared for Israel had long since learned to do: I made excuses and developed relatively benign rationales. File under goy k'chol hagoyim, a nation like all others, and just hope that file stays much, much smaller than the or lagoyim -- the lamp unto the nations file.
But before I'd had the time to tuck the matter away, a second and untuckable problem tumbled in. If there are Jewish whores, then Jewish pimps cannot be far behind. Jewish pimps? How can such a thing be? For the women they exploit, one can feel sympathy. But for the pimps? Vile, unacceptable. Where in your Zionist files do you lose them?
The answer is, of course, that you don't. The answer is that life is complicated, and Judaism is not a vaccine. The answer, if you hang around long enough, is Jewish arms merchants and Jewish bank robbers and Jewish wife-beaters and all manner of Jewish miscreants -- not, heaven forbid, in greater proportion than the foul of any other people, perhaps even, here and there, in smaller proportion. So why not Jewish pimps, too?
And you live with that answer and learn to handle all the bad stuff along with the decisive good. Your theory of Zion becomes more sophisticated, expansive enough to include Zion's manifest imperfections.
But then, suddenly, you learn that it's not garden-variety pimps you're encountering, petty hustlers out of Israel's underside. No, suddenly you learn that Israel has become a routine destination for the global trafficking of women, women coerced into prostitution.
The thousand such women brought into Israel annually derive principally from the countries of the former Soviet Union, and the way they get to Israel is that they are "purchased," each one costing between $10,000 and $20,000. And they are, of course, expected to repay the cost to their masters through what amounts to indentured servitude -- or, if you prefer the simpler and more straightforward, slavery.
Most of these women, these slaves, are in their early 20s, but some as young as 15, and even 12, have turned up in Tel Aviv. They are, according to the Haifa Police commander, routinely beaten, tortured, raped and drugged. They are isolated, deprived, threatened, their documents are destroyed. Indeed, they are told that if they are disobedient or seek to contact the police or the courts, their families back home will be punished.
How can such a monstrous crime persist? The answer, one supposes, is the same answer to the question asked about any country that makes room for trafficked women. Each woman earns between $50,000 and $100,000 a year for her pimp; the total turnover of the prostitution trade in Israel comes to some $450 million a year. And some Israeli experts believe that the Israeli police allow the pimps to operate because they make good snitches, they provide the police with information about other and presumably more serious crimes.
Chaim Nachman Bialik, the poet of the Hebrew renaissance, once said that he yearned for the day when there would be in (then) Palestine a Jewish jail, with a Jewish guard on the outside and a Jewish prisoner on the inside. But this? There is such a thing as "too normal."
The Israel Women's Network, Rabbis for Human Rights and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are all "on the case," and the Supreme Court and Knesset may soon intervene to inhibit the trade. But no one predicts an early and genuinely comprehensive effort to put an end to it.
We are told that we should not wash Israel's dirty linen in public. But when the dirty linen is hanging out there for all to see, is it not proper that its energetic washing also be visible -- along with efforts to prevent the linen's soiling in the first place? After all, this is not a hawk vs. dove problem, nor an Orthodox vs. everybody else problem. It is about as basic a problem as you can have.
For those who operate in a traditional context, perhaps Purim, with its obvious references to the exploitation of women, will suffice. For all of us, we can now see the underside of globalization. Even if we are less emotionally engaged with the issue of women's slavery when it plays out in Kuwait or in Germany than when it plays out in Israel, our response to the Israeli manifestation cannot be successful if it is compartmentalized.
And anyway, those other women, the ones who are sold off to countries outside our scope of concern -- they, too, are women, girls really, and someone has to stand up for them, too. No?
The writer is founder and former editor of Moment magazine and a Boston-based writer for American Jewish newspapers.

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