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How was Sex Trafficking “Eradicated” in Israel?

In the 1990’s and 2000’s Israel was a destination country for sex worker migration and trafficking. Every year since the early 1990’s thousands of women entered Israel for the purpose of prostitution, many of whom were trafficked. Trafficking in women into Israel was first documented by a report of Israeli NGOs in 1997, yet it can be dated to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when transnational crime networks took advantage of the waves of migration of Soviet Jews to Israel, to smuggle mainly non-Jewish sex workers into the country. Trafficked women and migrant sex workers from the early 90’s arrived with false documentation, either as tourists or using falsified documents of Jewish immigrants. Due to tightening regulation, migration routes have changed. Since 2000 women were mostly smuggled/trafficked in through the Egyptian border, crossing the Sinai desert, in harsher conditions.

Given this grim backdrop it is surprising that today, and for the past several years (approximately since 2006), there is wide agreement among both the police and women’s groups that sex trafficking of non-Israeli women was successfully combated.  How did this happen? In a short and fascinating new essay, that was published earlier this year at the Swedish Magazine Neo, Israeli political scientist Gadi Taub explains why and how “it became increasingly difficult to employ trafficked women, or for foreigners to find employment in prostitution in Israel.” Taub’s main thesis is that the Israeli anti-trafficking policy was effective due to a combination of strict immigration policy and a tolerance of brothels.

The key to Israel’s effective policy, Taub argues, was slack enforcement of the criminal code’s formally abolitionist approach. Instead of closing brothels, police monitored them, and raided them on a regular basis, focusing its attention mostly on under-aged girls and on non-Israelis working at brothels. Police activity affected the economy of the Israeli sex industry. As Taub puts it

“forced labor and kidnapping require a complicated illegal organization – security, housing, enforced discipline, secret premises and probably bribery – and therefore finds it hard to compete economically with regular brothels. This is not to say that the regular brothels are entirely free of criminal elements, which often extort protection money. But they are not underground, and the regular police raids and relative visibility, have made them generally safe for the prostitutes themselves: they are free to enter or leave the profession, they can choose their shifts and clients, and many of these places have private security personnel. Not least, owners and prostitutes can call the police in case of emergency.”

Taub’s account suggests that while it is often argued that harsher enforcement and deeper criminalization is an effective method of combating trafficking, in fact, in the Israeli case, it was the opposite the brought about significant change. Some Israeli Sex workers suggest that an aspect missing from Taub’s story is the importance of their collaboration and trust relations with the police. They argue that in an attempt to improve working conditions in the sex industry (and fend off competition) Israeli sex workers used to call the police and disclose where undocumented migrants worked. They claim that their inside information was crucial in changing the Israeli sex industry.

It is interesting to note that the “eradication of sex trafficking” brought about a new emphasis on prostitution in policy discussions. As soon as trafficking and migration of migrant women into the sex industry subsided, Israeli NGOs moved to emphasize the perfectionist goal of eradicating the sex industry as a whole, suggesting that all prostitution is trafficking. This radical/dominance feminist position now provides steam to a Swedish style “end demand” bill that is being considered by the Israeli parliament. Moreover, the Parliamentary Committee on Human Trafficking operating since 2001 changed its name and is now titled “The Committee for the Combat Against Trafficking in Women and Prostitution.” Unfortunately, as the name suggests, the sole focus of Israeli anti-trafficking activity remains dedicated to exploitation within the sex industry, while trafficking into other industries is mostly ignored. Finally, in response to all this, Israeli sex workers are organizing for the first time. Earlier this year a group of sex workers established the “Association for the Regulation of Sex Work” that seeks to de-criminalize sex work. It remains to be seen whether the voices of sex workers themselves will be heard in a political arena over-crowded with feminist organizations who claim they speak on their behalf.

Related posts:

  1. A Battle Half-Won: India’s New Anti-Trafficking Law
  2. Daphna Hacker and Orna Cohen. “The Shelters in Israel for Survivors of Human Trafficking.” US Department of State (2012).
  3. The Unintended Consequences of Nick Kristof’s Anti-Sex Trafficking Crusade, Aziza Ahmed
  4. From the International to the Local in Feminist Legal Responses to Rape, Prostitution/Sex Work, and Sex Trafficking: Four Studies in Contemporary Governance Feminism