Israel can teach about ending trafficking, too

Israel can teach the world about a lot of things: solar power, water scarcity, security, high-tech innovation. Here’s another area where Israel has achieved remarkable success, to very little fanfare: combatting sex trafficking.

I sat down recently with Merav Shmueli, a lawyer with Israel’s Ministry of Justice who is the country’s national anti-trafficking coordinator. She was in California addressing the state Assembly, speaking to the public, and meeting with religious and political leaders to describe what Israel has done to address the problem and learn how we approach it here.

Sharing knowledge and best practices is key, she said, because even in countries with very different political systems, trafficking exhibits the same characteristics, from victim behavior to evidentiary difficulties. Israel often invites experts from other countries to speak to Israeli peers, and now Shmueli was invited to speak in California.

The timing of her visit was not coincidental. With the Super Bowl coming on Feb. 7, concerns have been expressed. Not addressing the Super Bowl specifically, she said, “I do know that wherever there are big games where lots of young men gather to have fun — the Olympics, football games — there is always a supply of sexual services.”

When I was a reporter at the Jerusalem Post in the 1990s, the Israeli media was full of stories about the explosion in sex trafficking that accompanied the Russian aliyah. Young blond women were being lured from the crumbling Soviet empire with false promises of riches awaiting them in Tel Aviv; then when they got to Israel, their passports were taken and they were kept under lock and key, forced to have sex with numerous clients until fictitious debts were paid back.

That problem, Shmueli told me, is now virtually nonexistent.

“We have practically eliminated what you saw in the ’90s,” she said, “the young women from the FSU in debt bondage, locked inside, pimps controlling them 24/7, not getting paid — that doesn’t exist today in Israel.” From thousands of women sex-trafficked each year in the early 1990s, Israel has moved to almost no cases today. For example, no new victims were identified in 2010 at all, she said: “It’s an amazing achievement.”

That doesn’t mean women aren’t arriving from abroad, mostly from the former Soviet areas, and becoming prostitutes. They are. The difference, Shmueli said, is that these women enter legally, as tourists, specifically for the purpose of engaging in paid sex. They stay for three or four months, make money and go home. “They’re not smuggled in through the Sinai Desert on forged passports, like before.”

But that’s still a serious problem. Israel does not recognize prostitution as a career choice. Neither does Shmueli believe that any woman can really choose such a life — not without something awful propelling her toward it. “If you dig deep, you find the reasons,” she said.

Israeli law treats prostitutes as victims; they are not prosecuted. But those who enable the process are prosecuted, aggressively. The big guns are sitting in prison now, including Rami Saban, sentenced to 181/2 years for managing an international corporation that trafficked more than 2,000 women from the former Soviet states. Israel passed a comprehensive law against all human trafficking in 2006, which is used today mainly in cases of labor trafficking — migrant workers from Southeast Asia, or domestic workers kept in virtual slavery in “good people’s” homes, for example, said Shmueli.

There are just “a handful” of such cases brought to Israeli courts every year. That’s because the definition of slavery in the 2006 law is very strict; it doesn’t include immigrants who aren’t paid what they’re owed, or domestic workers living in substandard conditions. There’s still much work to be done, she pointed out.

And what of her meetings in California? “I’m very impressed by the commitment of the people I’ve met here,” she said, noting that the local hotel industry is beginning to train employees to recognize and report suspected cases of trafficking.

“That’s very important,” she added. “Not everything is criminal — there are gray areas. But hotels have a responsibility to train their staff.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].