‘Modern slavery’
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‘Modern slavery’

RAMAT GAN – In Israel, an estimated 15,000 individuals are involved in prostitution, including 5,000 under the age of 18, according to reports shared with the Task Force on Human Trafficking by Knesset member Orit Zuaretz of the Kadima Party, as well as other experts and activists. The reports say that the average age of entry is just 14 and that more than 90 percent of those involved in prostitution in Israel are subject to severe physical abuse, often by their clients.

Justifications abound for having prostitution be legal. Some claim that prostitution is a source of easy money, or that its lengthy history points to its inevitable continuity. There is even the dubious claim that it is a necessary conduit allowing men to fulfill their biological needs. Such myths clash dramatically with the truth and conceal a sordid underworld of violence, rape, and the worst forms of abuse.

Merely utilizing terms such as “employment” and “profession” to describe prostitution lends credence to a system that preys on women who have faced severe physical and emotional oppression. More than 80 percent of women in prostitution have been sexually or physically abused in their youth, often by family members, according to reports shared with the task force. Entry into prostitution is not a matter of choice, but an unwitting endpoint in a cycle of abuse and despair.

Even with its recent decline – attributed to pressure from civil society organizations and the United States – Israel remains a destination country for human trafficking. The industry thrives on the vulnerable and exploits the troubled past of victims of abuse.

So why, especially if the negatives are even more disturbing than we had imagined, is this practice allowed to continue – with emphasis on the word “allowed”? For in the most basic sense, not enough has been done to combat an “industry” that thrives on the degradation and abuse of women and is supported by human traffickers. Allowed because although it is illegal to traffic in human beings, run a brothel, or work as a pimp, becoming a “consumer” of prostitution is still legal in Israel.

Essentially, although it is illegal to sell women, buying them is deemed acceptable. Although the world of prostitution is a hub for physical abuse, the transmission of fatal diseases, and the restriction of freedom, it is still legal to fuel this horrid practice. The result should come as no surprise.

With no attempt to reduce demand, there is a constant incentive for criminal bodies to provide the supply. Targeting pimps and brothel owners is simply not enough, as evidenced by an average of more than one million brothel visits every month in Israel and a trade that accounts for more than $500 million each year, according to the reports.

Some argue that regulation and control of prostitution is needed, not prohibition. It’s a route that could provide for safer environments, less criminal involvement and an end to human trafficking. However, when such laws were enacted in Germany and Holland, conditions for women failed to improve and the laws were proven to be abject failures.

On Feb. 12, Zuaretz brought a law to the Knesset that places criminal responsibility on those who purchase sexual services. What is more, the legislation, which was proposed in 2010 to a ministerial hearing and is based on a law that has been enacted in Sweden, Iceland, Norway, and, most recently, France, would allow Israel to join the ranks of those nations working tirelessly toward a world free of modern slavery.

The result of this legislative action speaks of far more than simply whether Israel will choose to punish individuals who perpetuate these crimes. It will ask Israel to determine where as a society it stands in a debate centered on how it appropriates human rights. Does Israel feel that all individuals deserve liberty and justice, or has it set criteria that ultimately strip those less fortunate of the opportunities that freedom entails?

The challenge has been issued, but whether Israel decides to place itself on the right side of history has yet to be determined.

JTA Wire Service

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