Israel’s law against slavery

A revolutionary law recognizes prostitution as violence against women, a significant achievement for a country under permanent siege.

by Phyllis Chesler

Bravo, Kudos, every kind of Kol Ha Kavod, to all those Knesset members, on both the right and the left, especially former Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, and Gilad Erdan, then-Minister of Internal Security (now Israel’s new Ambassador to the United Nations), who worked on the new legislation that criminalized customers (“Johns”), not prostitutes; who understood that prostitution is violence against women; and who were wise enough to also pass a funded enforcement provision which has just gone into effect.

This is a revolutionary law because it recognizes that prostitution is violence against women.

Although the issue is hotly debated, especially among feminists (“sex workers have to eat, they can’t starve’), I stand with Knesset member, Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) who stated: “The war against prostitution is like a war to free the slaves.”

Oddly enough, many anti-capitalist feminists rarely glorify mind-numbing factory, agricultural, or low-level office work. They are clear that the “workers” are being oppressed. When it comes to prostitution, the alleged “work” is often viewed as a form of resistance, rather than as a forced choice, as a “job” which they actually say allows women greater independence than marriage ever can.

If caught, the newly criminalized customers (“Johns”), will have to pay a fine of 2,000 shekalim ($580.00). Repeat offenders might face criminal charges.

Dr. Anat Gur is a pioneering Israeli therapist, the founder of the Women’s Wisdom Center, a professor at Bar Ilan, and an author (Women Abandoned: Women in Prostitution, Foreign Bodies: Eating Disorders, Childhood Sexual Abuse, and Trauma Informed Treatment), has worked with women prisoners, incest and eating disorder victims, and prostitutes since 1984.

According to Dr. Gur: “Prostitution is not a job or a livelihood for women. In addition to the severe violence, humiliation, and ongoing rapes, it is not ‘easy money’ for anyone but the pimps and traffickers of women, not for the girls and women who are exploited as prostitutes. Prostitution is the direct continuation of the exploitation of the most vulnerable women in society, those who have already been ‘groomed” by childhood incest, and are ready to be exploited as prostitutes.”

Dr. Gur independently confirmed the important, and also long-time research of Dr. Melissa Farley, namely that the complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorders among prostitutes are more severe than the Stress experienced by many combat veterans of more recognized wars. Dr. Gur told me: “While exploited in prostitution, they are completely disassociated and disconnected and cannot afford to tell what is really happening to them.”

Poignantly, Dr. Gur described the rehabilitation process, which included working in “simple jobs at minimum wage. But I remember how when each of them got the first poor salary they said it was the first time they could enjoy the money because it was unpolluted money, money not obtained through humiliation and torture and violence. The money they made in prostitution was wasted on drugs and harmful things and they did not really earn or support their children with prostitution.”

Dr. Gur hopes to begin operating more “government funded apartments” for mothers and children by this fall. In her opinion, this law has achieved two things: “both a significant budget allocation for the rehabilitation of people, and an accompanying budget to criminalize the clients of prostitution.”

Such legislation is not an insignificant achievement for a small country under permanent siege.

This is not the first time that I’ve been called upon to write about the Israeli heroes who were and still are fighting violence against women in Israel.

In the summer of 2003, Leah Grumpeter and Nissan Ben-Ami, of the Israeli Awareness Center, contacted me about one artist’s very personal boycott against Israelis.

For a decade, Grumpeter and Ben-Ami had been fighting legislation that would have legalized and normalized prostitution. They had organized a conference on this hotly debated subject and wanted to show a particular film, one that exposed the nature of prostitution and what it does to girls and women.

However, according to Grumpeter and Ben-Ami, the Swedish filmmaker, Lukas Moodysson, had “personally bought back the distribution rights for Israel” and would not allow its showing at their upcoming conference about such trafficking in Israel.

The hit film, Lilya 4-ever, is a relentless and lyrical work about female sexual slavery. Professor Donna Hughes, who had testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee about global trafficking, compared the film to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Moodysson’s film depicts the abandonment and betrayal of Lilya, a teenage Russian girl, by her mother and maternal aunt, leaving her vulnerable to a sweet-talking pimp who traffics her into Hell and death in Sweden. The film had been shown in many countries where trafficking, brothels, and other human rights abuses flourished. But he would not show the film, not even once, not even to assist a conference that wanted to expose the extreme danger and harms of prostitution.

What could I do? Well, I published a piece about the anti-Semitic prejudices of great artists and about the nature of boycotts. Within 24 hours, Moodyson was all over my email confronting me. Unbeknownst to me, a Swedish journalist Louise Eek, had also just written about the matter. Within 48 hours Moodyson had relented and allowed the conference to show his film, once, non-commercially, at the conference.

Amazed but humbled, I once again understood that, sometimes, the pen is as mighty as the sword.

First published in Israel National News