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August 19, 2012 3:59 am

Modern Slavery in Israel: It’s All Politics

avatar by Rebecca Hughes

Email a copy of "Modern Slavery in Israel: It’s All Politics" to a friend

Member of Knesset Orit Zuartez meets with student activists at the kick-off meeting for ATZUM's 'Project 119' in early January.

Several days ago, I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing off the hook.  A very annoyed man was on the line. “I’m calling from the Knesset,” he said. “You’ve been sending us letters.” His tone was accusatory, but I was guilty as charged.

Championing ATZUM’s “Project 119,” 127 volunteers – myself included – have been sending numerous e-mails to the Members of Knesset.  Over the last five months, we have sent 1,904 e-mails urging MKs to pass MK Orit Zuaretz’s proposed legislation to criminalize the purchase of sexual services.

Though he was clearly less than happy to be talking to me, I was pleased to be speaking with him.  Clearly, I thought, this was someone who realized that combating sex trafficking and prostitution belongs near the top of our government’s ‘To Do’ list, seeing as there are thousands of prostituted individuals in Israel, many of whom are children. Although procuring is illegal in Israel, 90% of these women and children are owned by others and experience violence at the hands of their pimps or their clients.

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A responsible society would ask, ‘Why are these numbers so high? Why are there tens of thousands of visits made every month to prostituted persons in Israel?’ The answer is simple – there is inadequate enforcement of anti-procuring and anti-trafficking legislation, thus allowing men to exploit one of our country’s most vulnerable populations without fear of punishment.

But there is good news. MK Zuaretz’s proposed progressive legislation to criminalize the purchase of sexual services is designed to eradicate this violation of human rights. Similar legislation passed in Sweden, Iceland, Norway, and France, has seen the rate of sex trafficking decline 45%-65% and has led to significant decreases in the prostitution of minors.  The idea behind the legislation is to place criminal responsibility on those who choose to participate in an industry that is responsible for kidnapping, rape, child abuse, violence against women, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

So, I proudly fessed up to my ‘misdeeds’ to my mystery caller.

“Yes, I have been sending you letters,” I said. “Thank you for being in touch with me. I wanted to ask…”  He cut me off.

“What you must understand is that it is all politics,” he began. “It can’t be moved forward. We don’t have the votes, and without the votes what is the point of putting the bill on the table?”

“Surely, this is about more than politics,” I protested.

He assured me it wasn’t.

His answer surprised me. After all, the hard part of getting this bill passed was supposedly behind us. In February, the Ministerial Committee gave the legislation its unanimous recommendation. Due to coalition obligations the rest of the process was supposed to be a mere formality. In fact, many Israelis we consulted with believe that the bill has already been passed. Yet the bill’s progress, once full of momentum, has slowed. Sadly, the momentum has been lost to partisan, socially regressive politics.

“There has been some legislation we have waited 60 years to pass. We have to wait until the time is right,” the man explained to me.

“Are you telling me we might have to wait 60 more years for this legislation?” I asked. “What about the women and children prostituted and trafficked right now? What are we supposed to do about that?”

“It’s not about that,” he said. “It’s really all about the politics.”

He then ended the call by simply hanging up, but not before leaving with me with the distinct impression that he’s had enough of my letters. Still, I’ve decided to stay in touch. I want a real answer, one that couples principles with politics. I want an answer as to why this legislation hasn’t yet passed, and I believe that the rest of Israel does, too.

Amos Oz has spoken of the “affront and outrage” Israelis are experiencing over the government’s indifference to the people’s suffering. To me, this conversation was an example of government indifference. Israelis deserve more than indifference. We deserve a government defined by its will to serve and protect its citizens. We deserve a government that understands that progress, however difficult to achieve, should be vigorously pursued.

Rebecca Hughes is the Assistant Projects Coordinator for ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking (www.atzum.org), an entity that aims to engage the public and government agencies to confront and eradicate modern slavery in Israel.

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