Israeli police asked to probe treatment of mail-order brides

JERUSALEM — Israeli police have been asked to investigate several Israeli companies that are allegedly providing mail-order brides from the Ukraine and treating the women as virtual slaves.

The New Family organization, which regularly advocates for couples who can't marry legally in Israeli, called for the police probe. New Family wants to know whether the companies allow the women to retain their passports and maintain their freedom, or turn them into virtual slaves wholly dependent on the men who "ordered" them.

New Family chairwoman Irit Rosenblum filed the complaint last week after the Ma'ariv newspaper published a story about several companies providing Israeli men with "young, pretty, domestic" wives from the Ukraine for approximately $4,500.

According to the article, the men select a wife from the agencies' photo albums and fly to the Ukraine to meet and marry them, and then bring them back to Israel. If they are not satisfied with the women when they meet them, the agency offers them others.

The mail-order bride business is an international phenomenon, according to Rosenblum. She began looking into it about six months ago after seeing a Web site advertisement.

The mail-order bride business is new in Israel, and there are probably several dozen such brides here.

Between 100,000 and 150,000 women a year are sold as mail-order brides, Rosenblum said, adding that the industry generates $17 billion a year. According to statistics compiled in the United States, only 10 percent of these marriages work out; in some, the women become prisoners.

Most of the women are from the Philippines and Ukraine, and enter the marriages willingly, seeing matrimony as a ticket out of poverty, Rosenblum explained. But they often don't realize the problems they can face, and are often powerless to fight them.

"The test is whether the women can leave the marriage [if she is unhappy]," she said, adding that the phenomenon raises complex moral and legal issues.

"The police and the Interior Ministry have an obligation to investigate what is happening" before the phenomenon increases in Israel. "And if it becomes clear that the women are being abused and imprisoned, it must be stopped," she said.

While the agencies are partly a matchmaking service, they exploit the fact that the women are impoverished, said Ronit Lev-Ari, who is awaiting the cabinet's approval to become chairwoman of the Prime Minister's Office's Authority for the Advancement of Women.

When the women arrive in Israel they find themselves financially, socially, and legally dependent on their new husbands — a situation that is hardly a good start for a marriage, she said.

She noted that the man quoted in the Ma'ariv article made it clear that he wanted a wife who would care for and cater to him in a way that is not exactly suitable to modern Israeli society. While the women may initially agree to this, Lev-Ari wondered whether they feel differently once they become acclimated to Israeli society.