Sex is not a Commodity, Women are not Objects

Photo: Eliav Lilti לילטי אליאב

Photo: Eliav Lilti לילטי אליאב

A few weeks ago we wrote about the suicide of “Jessica” (previously referred to as G.) a young woman, prostituted for 15 years, who hanged herself at 98 HaYarkon Street brothel in Tel-Aviv rather than endure one more night’s repeated rapes.  

Immediately following this tragedy, THFT posted public notice of her death, as is customary following the loss of a loved one; co-authored a letter to government and municipal authorities calling for immediate closure of the brothel; and was at the helm of organizing a memorial event attended by 900 people in front of the brothel.

Following that gathering, we sensed public opinion was shifting, that people were beginning to understand the prostituted woman as a target and the john as a perpetrator of paid rape. Jessica’s life and death brought to the forefront the widely held, convenient and long-disproved myth of prostitution as a chosen profession. People now better recognize prostitution is most often systematized, sanctioned abuse, exploitation and rape. 

Last week, an urgent petition was issued to the Tel-Aviv Magistrate’s Court, requesting participation as Friends of the Court (Amicus Curiae) in the Attorney General’s proceedings requesting closurer of the brothel. Member organizations of the TFHT facilitated Coalitzia l’ Ma’avak Bznut (Coalition for the Fight Against Prostitution) as well as the following Members of Knesset (MKs) joined the petition:

  1. MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu)
  2. MK Merav Ben-Ari (Kulanu)
  3. MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid)
  4. MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz)
  5. MK Yael German (Yesh Atid)
  6. MK Aliza Lavi (Yesh Atid)
  7. MK Merav Michaeli (Hamahane HaZioni)
  8. MK Shuli Moalem Refaeli (HaBayit HaYehudi),
  9. MK Michal Rozin (Meretz)
  10. MK Nahman Shai (Hamahane HaZioni)
  11. MK Aida Toma Suleimann (HaReshima Hameshutefet)
  12. MK Revital Swed (Hamahane HaZioni)
  13. MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)

The petition asserted that the space on 98 HaYarkon Street, far from being the innocent motel its owners’ claimed it to be, served as a prison for women in prostitution forcing their subjugation under grueling psychological pressure leading to extreme measures of last resort and suicide. The fact that the brothel has operated for years in plain sight of the public and law enforcement reveals the unbearable ease with which such a place can exist and women can be abused, despite Israel law prohibiting pimping, renting, and maintaining a brothel.

The petition was heard and the presiding judge, Ronit Poznanski-Katz, rejected the owners’ claims they did not know a brothel was operating at the location. The judge issued an order barring operation of the property by its owners until her final determination is heard October 19.

Comments regarding the issuance of the petition…

MK Toma Suleimann:  “The brothel on 98 HaYarkon Street must be closed immediately. It is a hub of hard-core offenses against women, of their mental and physical abuse, a prison from which their only escape is suicide. We will no longer accept the feeble contempt with which the police and law enforcement system confront these places. The women in this building are the weakest in our society and we must voice their cry of anguish, protect them and protect our entire society.”

Adv. Michal Leibel, Director of ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking“The coalition congratulates the decision by the prosecution and the police to bring to justice the owners of the house on 98 HaYarkon Street. The goal of the petition to participate as Friends of the Court is to highlight the public interest and voice an unequivocal statement against the abuse of women and the prostitution industry in Israel.”

Another tragic situation is now making headlines. While the incident occurred a few months ago, video footage of its unfolding was recently leaked on social media and aired on Israel television. The video showed a young woman, extremely intoxicated and unaware of her surroundings, being sexually abused by many men at Tel-Aviv’s popular Allenby 40 night club, in full view of the other customers, some cheering the abusers on.  This is not an isolated situation. Drugs and sexual violence and abuse, are notoriously part of the Tel-Aviv Thursday nightclub scene.

With public anger over the incident growing, two young women formed a group and organized a protest.  After opening an event on Facebook, thousands of people from around the country immediately showed interest in the event that took place on October 6, in front of the night club.

The group, knowing of TFHT’s recent experience organizing a large scale evening in memory of Jessica, approached us. TFHT’s Director Michal Leibel advised them on how to secure police permits and facilitated the event’s technical arrangements. She also addressed the participants with widely reported effect. The Middle East Eye cited Michal’s assertion that such exploitation of a young woman was a consequence of living in a society where sex is an easily stolen commodity. Below is an excerpt from her address:

There is a connection between what happened at Allenby 40 and 98 HaYarkon.  In both instances, the female body was taken and used.

The Task Force on Human Trafficking opposes the exploitation of all people – men and women – in prostitution and other situations. This is not a fight against sex, sexuality or sexual freedom. This is a struggle against exploitation, against the use of people, against the common perception it is OK to abuse others for sexual gratification.

We do not want to live in a society where it is permissible to buy sex. Sex is not a commodity. Sex is not a product. 

Prostitution is the most extreme example of sexual exploitation – and the change has to start from the extreme.  Why the most extreme?  Because in allowing prostitution, we accept sexual exploitation; we allow paid rape. 

If we want to say no to rape – we must say no to paid rape.

Help us pass a Nordic Model in Israel.

So that the next generation will know buying sex is not an option.

So that the next generation will know taking sex is not an option.

So that the next generation will know that using women is not an option.


Michal’s speech (in Hebrew) can be heard and viewed here: CLICK.

For more information on how to get more involved in TFHT’s work and to support our efforts, please contact

TFHT’s International Reach

Michal_Leibel_picTFHT Director Michal Leibel spent much of the Sukkot holiday attending an international conference in Nicosia, Cyprus.  The “International Best Practices in Combating Human Trafficking” Conference was organized by PRIO and hosted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in partnership with the Swedish and Norwegian Ministries for Foreign Affairs. Researchers, funders, direct service providers, policy makers and activists from Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, UK, USA, Germany, Austria and Sweden, Israel and the Palestinian Terriroties gathered to discuss issues such as victim services, public policy, legislation, the allocation of resources towards law enforcement and rehabilitation and the need for close collaboration between the authorities and civil society.

Michal was the only Israeli invited to speak at the conference.  In her presentation she related to Israel’s current position on trafficking and prostitution; the Task Force’s tireless commitment to pass Nordic Model legislation designed to criminalize johns and protect prostituted women; and TFHT’s recent efforts to author more comprehensive legislation than that considered by any previous Israeli government.  

Her lecture was exceptionally clear, impassioned and thoughtful as she spoke about the link between trafficking and prostitution and the need to always remember the person behind the label. She related to her many experiences working both at the policy level and in her face-to-face contact with women who have managed to escape both prostitution and the notion of victimhood, as they begin to see themselves as survivors. 

In her concluding remarks she noted: “…I think we should be wary of seeing prostituted people only, or mostly, as victims, not because they weren’t harmed, abused and wronged, but because by treating them as mere victims we risk ignoring their agency, life experience and strength. No one wants to be a victim, and most people don’t want to be looked at as victims. Therefore, I believe that we should see prostituted women – both survivors and those still in prostitution – as partners worth listening to, even though it sometimes mean to compromise and change our ideas about prostitution.”  Her words remind us all to move beyond stereotypes and bring this group of women back into society’s fold.

On Losing G, on Losing Our Way


By Lauren Dellar, ATZUM’s Grants Coordinator

On August 13, 2015, a young woman, G, took her life at the 98 Hayarkon Street, Tel-Aviv brothel where she was prostituted. She could no longer bear the torture and torment of being brutalized nightly. I spoke with Michal Leibel, Director of ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, to discuss this tragic event.

Why do you feel that G’s suicide struck so responsive a chord with Israel society?

ML: G, who made aliyah from the former Soviet Union at 15, led a life of humiliation and agonizing pain as a prostituted/trafficked person. She had to drink and drug herself each night to steel herself in preparation to “service” 20-30 of the brothel’s johns who paid to repeatedly rape her. Given the fact that she was a prostituted woman and an addict, both carrying tremendous social stigma, it is really astonishing the Israel public has sympathized so deeply with her pain and mourned her death.  

Why such public outcry at this particular time? 

ML: It’s hard to know exactly, but first, the public has been exposed to increasing coverage of the sordid story of Einat Harel, 51, known as the Tel-Aviv Madam, who ran a brothel for a decade.  In July, 2015, she was indicted for pimping, soliciting for prostitution and money laundering on an unprecedented scale.  Soon after, Israel’s daily Yediyot Ahronot published an article about her which was followed by an interview with Guy Peled on the August 31 segment of Channel Two’s highly popular Friday night program regarding her most recent indictment.  Without compunction, Ms. Harel stuck to her story – prostitution empowers women and enables independence – and suggested the police pursue “real criminals” instead of hounding those who seek to facilitate free enterprise.

The public, however, wasn’t having any of it. There was huge online response, slamming the interviewer for giving this woman a platform to glamorize and legitimize prostitution as simply a lifestyle choice.  I am glad to say viewers saw through the lie and are starting to engage the evil of prostitution in a serious manner.

Second, the much respected Jerusalem Film Festival recently screened an important documentary – “Strung Out” (English title) or “Bat Zona” (“daughter of a whore”). The movie, exceedingly painful, relates in a very sensitive manner the story of a group of young women living on the streets of South Tel-Aviv, victims of heroin and prostitution.  Again, the public was challenged to consider their preconceptions about prostitution. The film went on to win the Van Leer Award for Israeli Cinema – Documentary Film.

What was TFHT’s initial response?

ML: When G’s story broke, we understood first and foremost the need to recognize her passing in a respectable manner. (G is a moniker initially used by the press; we continue to refer to her as G as she has family in Israel, including a sister she helped support, whose identity we seek to protect.) The Task Force initially posted a public death notice (customary practice in Israel upon the passing of a loved one or revered member of the community) in Hebrew, English, and Russian on social media platforms. We also wanted mainstream press to step up.  We asked Elem, Israel’s leading organization working with troubled youth, including prostituted teens, to approach Ha’aretz and use their influence to urge them to post the notice pro bono. They did. This was extraordinary, the first time notification of the death of a person identified as a prostitute was published.



What happened next?

Soon the notice attracted social media attention. In response, the Coalitzia l’ Ma’avak Bznut (Coalition for the Fight Against Prostitution), facilitated by TFHT, sprang into action.  The Coalition is comprised of women who are victims of trafficking and have escaped prostitution, and NGOs working on issues related to ending prostitution and aiding prostituted persons. Our initial intent was to issue a collective statement to the authorities and appeal in writing for closure of the brothel on 98 Hayarkon Street, the decrepit brothel where G worked and took her life.

Did the Coalition make any formal appeals in this regard?

ML: A letter penned by the Task Force in the name of the Coalition was addressed to Gilad Erdan, Minister of Public Security, Shlomo Lamberger, Tel-Aviv District Prosecutor, and Benzi Sau, Tel-Aviv Police Commissioner. In it we called for immediate closure of the brothel. The letter further demanded prosecution of its owners and management on charges of pimping and owning and running brothel. We also urged the authorities to consider adding another charge, negligent homicide, for inducing a person to commit suicide as there is precedent for such a charge in Israel.  

How else did the Coalition respond to the public outrage over G’s death?

ML: The Coalition partners also wanted to organize a public commemoration ceremony to give voice to people’s grief, and pay tribute to G and other women brutalized through prostitution and trafficking. We sought a public permit to gather in front of the brothel and were granted permission to assemble in a garden two houses away. Having opened a Facebook event, public interest grew at an amazing pace. Within hours, conventional media sought interviews with TFHT and Coalition partners for current commentary and insights. 

We thought 50-100 people would show up. However, once we understood that the death announcement had reached the Facebook accounts of more than 97,000 people, we saw that it was going to be a different type of event.  Requests to help started pouring in and we included everyone.

There has been so much written about the event which seemed to galvanize so many. Can you share more about it?

ML: TFHT facilitated the evening, which began with a minute of silence and was followed by a somber reading of a list of 42 people and their ages at the time of their deaths, all of which were related to being prostituted and trafficked. These women, and one young man, lost their lives over the last five years through murder, suicide, STDs, drug and alcohol addiction, and the physical and emotional toll of unrelenting abuse and exploitation. Some were killed by cars as they stood on the street to attract clients in order to meet their nightly quota required by their pimps. This practice of reading names in memoriam is an important Jewish tradition. People’s names are important. Their lives were important.



Partial list of those who have lost their lives to the violence of prostitution since 2011

All who so desired, spoke. Included were women who had escaped prostitution, Coalition members, MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union), and mayoral advisors. Beyond the speeches, the evening gave platform to those who sang and shared their poetry. Well-known artist Yuval Goldenberg sang some of her original pieces;  Adi Arnon sang the haunting “Alfonsina y el mar” in homage to one who has taken his or her life; and Michal Givony sang “Lean on Me” and “Blackbird”.  Two Israeli poetesses read their work created for the evening. Marva Zohar recited “In memory of G” and Inbal Eshel Cahansky read a poem about the experience of prostitution.  It was very powerful.

In the end, how many people attended?

ML: Nearly 900 men and women joined.  Others have since learned about the event, as it was filmed by Chen Peter of Social TV. Yuval Feder made a beautiful video of the evening.  After the ceremony, the crowd and passersby gravitated toward the brothel, blocking entry and protesting.  Two women prostituted in that brothel told one of the other organizers: “Kol hakavod, good that you woke up. It really says something to us that so many people came to honor G. You just can’t imagine how many other Gs there are.”


What was the initial outcome of the event?

ML: I’m glad to say that the police issued a closure order to the brothel two days later and we hope that will hold and the relevant people will be charged. But much need be done: 98 Hayarkon, a place well known to the police, is but one of 200-250 brothels and “discrete” apartments in Tel-Aviv where women and girls are prostituted daily .

How will you pursue this goal and how will you continue to bring the press and public more deeply into the cause?

ML: There was a remarkable amount of media attention, which is great given how powerful the press is in shaping public opinion. People are beginning to understand that a civil, caring society cannot tolerate the systematic rape of women, men and transgender people.  Since G’s suicide, TFHT and other NGOs have been approached by print, radio and television journalists on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. The question is what will happen after this is no longer headline news? [List of links is available below.]

ATZUM, in partnership with the law firm of Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar, will continue to assert the urgent need for Israel to pass Nordic Model legislation, the international standard designed to criminalize pimps and johns and protect the prostituted person, nearly always a victim of past sexual abuse.  Since 2003, the Task Force has lobbied and called on all Members of Knesset and government ministers to pass such legislation, the best means of saving people from the brutality of prostitution and trafficking. In each successive government, the Task Force has secured increased support. However, given Israel’s unscheduled elections, we have had to remount our campaign every few years. I am hopeful that people, now outraged, will join in demanding that Israel’s lawmakers protect the prostituted person and support their reintegration into the workforce.

But not everyone supports Nordic Model legislation.

ML: The proposed law based on Nordic Model legislation is not a panacea and has its detractors. I was interviewed on August 23 by Attila Somfalvi on Ynet’s online news program with another lawyer, Noga Wiesel, who opposes Nordic Model legislation. She argued that entering prostitution is a personal choice. I understand the logic of such an argument yet it does not take into account that the vast majority of prostituted women are indeed victims of incest, rape and abuse in childhood and through adolescence. Further, too many young women may be drawn to prostitution, assuming it to be “easy money”, not comprehending its dreadful personal costs.

The notion of personal choice as a major factor discounts the massive number of women who are coerced, tricked and trafficked into prostituting themselves. In many cases, these young women are literally sex slaves, raped nightly with no means to change their situation. This is happening in our midst and, in some cases in plain sight of law enforcement officers. I can tell you, it’s easy to get into prostitution, nearly impossible to get out.

How easy is it?

ML: On August 20, Tzinor Lila, a TV show that examines trending social media issues tested it. On air, journalist Noa Zlotnik, identifying herself as someone with no prior experience in prostitution, answered an ad looking for women. When she asked about how she might find out more, the pimp responded, “I’m a little short on girls today.  Come now.  The others will show you what to do.” The entire conversation took a few minutes!  It’s about time we all understand that purchasing sex is not legitimate, that for every hour a john pays for sex with a woman they are financing a tragic exploitation of another human being’s body and soul.

What do you take away from these past few weeks?

ML: The cause itself has greater credibility, more legitimacy. TFHT, the only Israel NGO solely focused on legislative change (and other NGOs working to shelter prostituted women and seek their reintegration into society) has increased public support.  For the first time, the individual and social cost of prostitution is now part of the public discourse.  In Israel, where political and existential crises demand our daily attention, it is not easy for issues of social relevance to become and remain part of the public agenda.

Also, it seems that something had changed. If three years ago ninety percent of media talkbacks were hostile towards prostituted women, judging them and assuming prostitution to be a profession one chose on par with being an accountant, a nurse, or a lawyer, we now see a shift. We are starting to realize the fruits of our long sustained efforts (with thanks to those who have supported us with their time and financial resources) and believe that together we now make a stronger case addressing the critical issue of demand, and gaining ground in passing legislation to protect women from G’s fate.

Public comments like, “G was a person…she doesn’t deserve our condemnation and judgment.” “I am so sorry for this poor woman who was prostituted out of distress. We should all respect her memory – RIP” suggest we are entering a new era.

The Knesset is now in recess so we don’t have an immediate opportunity to lobby its members and government ministers. However, we are in ongoing contact with Shuli Moalem Rafaeli (Ha Bayit Hehudi), Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) and Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union), who support our cause and are dedicated to promoting the bill TFHT recently authored.

Additional Links



Important Update from ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking

TFHT-rally for G

For the last two weeks, Israel society has been deeply engaged in a dialogue about the evils of prostitution. The intensive public discourse on the exploitation of vulnerable, prostituted girls and women was triggered by a tragic event.

On August 13, G, a 36-year-old woman who made aliyah from the FSU at age 15 and had been prostituted for half her life, committed suicide in the brothel in which she was raped and abused nightly by 20-30 johns, six nights a week.

The place where this tragedy took place, located at 98 Hayarkon Street in the heart of Tel-Aviv, and in operation for a decade, is one of the area’s 200-250 brothels and “discrete” apartments well known to law enforcement agencies. It is also where nearly 900 Israelis gathered on August 22 to mourn G’s death, urge society to confront the brutal cost of prostitution, and act to assure its abolishment.

The event in G’s memory was organized by ATZUM-TFHT and a national coalition of NGOs working on related issues. The aim was to bring public awareness to the many other nameless, faceless women suffering the same debasement, who too often feel that they have no choice but to take their own lives in order to escape.

The evening began with somber reading of a list of 42 women who died in the last five years due to prostitution and trafficking. A moment of silence followed. NGO coalition members, Members of Knesset (MKs), and mayoral advisors spoke, as did women who had escaped prostitution. The mourners eventually moved to block the entrance to the brothel where G died and where johns were seen still entering the building. Two women prostituted in the same brothel joined the memorial service and told one of the other organizers, “Kol hakavod, good that you woke up. It really says something to us that so many people came to honor G. You just can’t imagine how many other G’s there are.”

TFHT has been in the Hebrew and English-language news (print, radio, and television) daily since publishing a public death notice in G’s name, a customary practice in Israel upon the passing of a loved one or revered member of the community. This itself was extraordinary—the first time that respectful notification of the death of a person identified as a prostitute was published.

G’s tragic end is important, a defining moment which insists Israel society open its eyes and take action. Her death lifts the veil that cloaks the public’s misconception that women choose prostitution, a falsehood perpetrated by those who claim it to be a harmless personal choice, and one that facilitates a woman’s independence. And who is actually claiming this to be true but the johns whose demand for sex finances prostitution and the pimps and traffickers who are the true beneficiaries of the flesh trade.

Einat Harel, 51, known as the Tel-Aviv Madam, who ran a brothel for nearly a decade, was interviewed on the August 31 segment of Channel Two’s highly popular Friday night program regarding her most recent indictment on charges of pimping, soliciting for prostitution and money laundering.  Without compunction, Harel suggested the police pursue “real criminals” instead of hounding those who seek to facilitate free enterprise. The public outcry was tremendous.  The interviewer was slammed for giving this woman a platform to glamorize and legitimize prostitution as a simple lifestyle choice. 

“I am glad to say viewers saw through Harel’s lie and are starting to engage in a serious manner,” said Michal Leibel, a lawyer and TFHT Director. Speaking in an August 24 interview in Media Line, Leibel argued that “Legalization has been shown to increase demand for prostitution, as the trade becomes legal and therefore no longer taboo…[failing] in its attempts to improve the lives of [the prostituted person]…Violence and sexual attacks towards [the] prostitute[d], and women as a whole across society, may increase in a culture where women can be purchased freely.”This is intolerable.

ATZUM, its TFHT co-founder the law firm Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar, and our philanthropic partners mourn G whose suicide prompts us to redouble efforts to ensure passage and enactment of law based on Nordic Model legislation, the international standard designed to criminalize pimps and johns and protect the prostituted person.

As the Knesset is currently in recess, our continuing lobbying efforts of MKs and government ministers must wait a few more weeks. However, we are in ongoing contact with Shuli Moalem Rafaeli (Ha Bayit Hehudi), Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) and Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) who support our cause and are dedicated to promoting the bill the Task Force recently authored.

Hopefully, G’s death will be written in Israel history as the pivotal moment in the cause of criminalizing johns and supporting survivors of prostitution; hopefully, one day her real name will be known as a source for pride and respect.

Note: An in depth interview with Michal Leibel will follow in the coming days and an update from P119 will soon be issued. Recent English-language posts:

Paying the Price


July 15, 2015

By Rebecca Hughes

At least once a week, someone mistakes me for a prostitute. It started two years ago when I moved to south Tel-Aviv. At first I didn’t understand why cars were pulling up alongside me as I walked home, trailing me for a few moments and then driving away. After a few months I casually mentioned this strange behavior to one of my neighbors.

“They think you’re a prostitute,” she stated matter-of-factly. I must have looked offended, because she quickly added, “Don’t worry, it’s not just you. It happens to me too.”

Suddenly, many odd interactions began to make sense. For instance, the man who stopped me on street, insisting that he knew me.

“Don’t I know you?” he asked, looking me up and down.

“I don’t think so.”  I responded.

“Ahh…” he hesitated.

“Can I help you with something? Do you need directions?”

“Yes, yes. I need directions.”

“Where to?”

“Ahh…never mind,” he mumbled over his shoulder as he walked quickly away.

paying-the-priceMen would approach me in the middle of the day when I was on my way to a meeting, or at night when I was coming back from the gym. Sometimes I was able to laugh about it, but mostly I was annoyed and angry. Annoyed that I had to interact with sex-buyers who just assumed that a woman walking alone was a prostitute, and angry that they were permitted to purchase the sexual services they felt entitled to from women who lacked my privilege. Yes, I was annoyed and angry. But I wasn’t frightened until March 19, 2015.

It was a perfectly ordinary Thursday morning in south Tel Aviv. People were going to work, or walking to the market, or on their way to the bus stop.  On the corner of Har-Zion and Salame, less than 100 meters from my apartment, a 37-year-old woman was walking her dog. Suddenly, a man ran up to her, slammed her against the wall of an apartment building, threw her to her knees, pulled down his pants, and sodomized her.

The attack lasted for ten minutes. For ten minutes, the woman tried to fight him off. For ten minutes, she struggled and screamed as people walked by, glanced at her and then looked away, and continued along their way. For ten minutes, dozens of people who passed her on their way to work and school paid her no notice. Taxis pulled up next to where she was kneeling and then drove off. Buses drove by.

After ten minutes, one person stopped and called the police. As the sirens approached, the attacker pulled up his pants and casually strolled away.

Now let us consider why, in the warm daylight of an ordinary Thursday morning, dozens of people witnessed a vicious sexual assault in progress, but averted their gazes, closed their ears to the victim’s screams, continued texting or talking on their cell phones, and kept walking. Let us consider why no one called out to the woman to ask if she needed help. Why no one shouted at the attacker, even from a distance. Why the rape continued for ten long, horrific minutes, before one person decided to call the police.

I’ve asked a lot of people this question, and it made all of them uncomfortable. Several surmised that it was due to the “bystander effect,” a theory which proposes that when there are many witnesses to an attack, people tend to assume that “someone else” will help, or are afraid to be the first to intervene; and thus watch but don’t act, or walk away.

It’s an interesting theory to ponder. But let’s consider something even more interesting: people witnessing an attack are less likely to intervene if they think the attacker is the victim’s husband or boyfriend. In controlled experiments, researchers found that when the woman yelled, “Get away from me; I don’t know you,” onlookers intervened more often than not. But if the woman instead yelled “Get away from me; I don’t know why I ever married you,” most people just walked by. The assumption is that there are circumstances in which a man has a right to assault a woman.

And, of course, if the passers-by assume the woman is a prostitute…well, then, it’s to be expected. Normal. All in a day’s work. It’s an understandable assumption, because paying for sex is legal in Israel; and researchers have long demonstrated that in areas where prostitution is legal or tolerated, a “culture of prostitution” takes root, strengthening the idea that men’s “needs” entitle them to women’s bodies. It’s no surprise that in areas where prostitution is tolerated, rates of gender-based violence rise. A man may have to pay for the right to sexually assault a woman today, but tomorrow he may just assault her.

In Israel, the law and the associated culture have helped to create and sustain an enormous industry built on human trafficking. Thousands of women and girls—poor immigrants, runaway teens, women fleeing abusive homes, Jews and Arabs alike—are lured by traffickers. They’re recruited personally by individuals, strangers or friends, or they respond to newspaper ads promising high-paying jobs. When they meet with the prospective “employer,” they’re sold to pimps and brothel owners. Hotels provide special deals to the pimps, who hire drivers to transport the women to and from “clients.” Impoverished and imprisoned in brothels and discreet apartments, the typical victim is forced to submit to being raped by as many as 15 men a day.

For the past three years, I served as a coordinator for the Task Force on Human Trafficking, a joint project of ATZUM – Justice Works and Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar law firm.  TFHT works to engage and educate the public and government agencies, lobbies for reform in the areas of prevention, border closure, protection of escaped women, and prosecution of traffickers and pimps. The effort to confront and eradicate modern slavery in Israel has proven to be an uphill battle. Recent allegations that a member of the Knesset has been involved in pimping and drugs only underscore the complexity and deep roots of Israel’s human trafficking industry.

On March 19th a woman was violently attacked in broad daylight, and dozens of witnesses did nothing. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised. Israelis in general, and residents of Tel-Aviv in particular, have determined that the monetized sexual assault of prostituted women is acceptable. But it is not just the women in prostitution who suffer society’s callousness and apathy. All women will pay the price. What happened that Thursday morning in March in my neighborhood happens every day, and in many neighborhoods: people looked at a woman, and saw a commodity.


Rebecca Hughes, an avid blogger whose work has been published in the “Times of Israel” and the “Jerusalem Post”, served as Coordinator for ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking Project from 2012 – 2015. She is now studying towards a Master of Science in Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from where she coordinates TFHT’s international online lobbying initiative, Project 119.”

Rabbi Levi Lauer: Condemning recent violence, translating words into deeds

ATZUM mourns with every decent person the murder of the infant Ali Dawabsheh and decries the arson which destroyed his family home and severely injured three of his family. With every decent person, and with all force words can muster, we call upon the State of Israel and its enforcement agencies to find the terrorists who perpetrated this murder. We urge the police, army and intelligence services to apply to them, and to their families if complicit, and if they be minors, to their instigators, the same standards of arrest, interrogation and lengthy imprisonment applied to all terrorists, for this terror threatens the fabric of Israel society no less that that which claims the lives of its Jewish citizens. 
We mourn too the death of Shira Banki (zihrona livrakha) and hope and pray for the healing of body and soul of those gay pride participants stabbed on the streets of Yerushalayim by a proponent of ultra-Orthodox sinat hinam/senseless hatred. We urge the State of Israel redouble its surveillance of those individuals, and the organizations which advocate and support their hate and violence, and apply to them the same standards of restraint and sentencing brought against all who murder and who urge violence against citizens of the State.
For today we have only words. Tomorrow and beyond, every decent person will ask how to translate those words to deeds in demanding justice be served.
Rabbi Levi Lauer
Founding Executive Director of ATZUM

Eye on Education

If Jews exclusively devote themselves to even the best Torah study, they risk becoming recluses within universities, libraries, classrooms and the beit midrash. Alternatively, if they only seek to become social activists without grounding such activism in traditionalist learning, their voices and actions often lack Jewish resonance.

To remedy social injustice and inequity in Israel society and encourage individuals to become agents of change, ATZUM-Justice Works synthesizes formal learning with activism towards resolving severe community crises. Whether working in Israel, locally or around the globe, ATZUM urges those committed to Jewish learning to take the Torah to the streets and act decisively to help “the other”.  

In this issue of our newsletter, we focus on the following educational and service-learning programs.

TAKUM logoBeit Midrash TAKUM

International Street Torah: The TAKUM (tikkun u’mishpat/restoring justice) International Social Justice Beit Midrash is a ten-month program combining in-depth study of Jewish texts with social activism. The initiative was founded by ATZUM in partnership with Yeshivat Talpiot, an Israel NGO that encourages engagement in critical and open discussion of religious life and politics as a means to enrich activist endeavor.

TAKUM was launched in 2014 in Israel, the U.K. and the U.S. In 2015, 58 TAKUM Fellows are participating in two cohorts in both Jerusalem and London. TAKUM is also teaching a small group working with the Gabriel Project Mumbai, an NGO providing hunger and medical relief and basic education to vulnerable children living in that city’s most deprived slums.

What’s in a Name? By claiming Jewish text as a touchstone for improving society, TAKUM brings together learning and action. TAKUM embodies the following principles:

  • Takum (raising consciousness and engaging street activism): TAKUM inspires young activists to wake up to the resources available within Jewish tradition to inform grassroots outreach. Be it working to protect human rights or the environment; eradicating poverty or illiteracy; or assisting at-risk individuals who lack power or a voice to act and speak for themselves, TAKUM motivates activists to address social problems and stand up for others.
  • Tikkun (forging a connection between learning and action): How do I prioritize projects? Where do I spend my energies? Who most needs my help? Though constantly asked by activists, if not systematically confronted, such questions can blur focus and frustrate the search for best practices. TAKUM’s program of text study helps activists clarify issues of power, privilege, responsibility, gender politics, and community boundaries. By learning while doing, TAKUM encourages the individual to enjoin rhetoric with action.
  • U’Mishpat (restoring justice and sustaining social change): Studying classical Jewish sources helps activists imagine creative solutions to contemporary problems such as how to divide water resources, secure gender equality, or integrate “the other,” such as asylum seekers, within society. Through learning, TAKUM participants arrive at new ideas and acquire the language and structures necessary to re-frame the issues dealt with in the field. Attention to Jewish law, in particular, provides TAKUM Fellows radical mechanisms for deep and lasting change.

ImageTAKUM Fellows: The TAKUM community consists of experienced social-change professionals and grassroots volunteers. Fellows learn weekly in havruta (partnered learning) and in formal shiurim (group lessons) in TAKUM’s open, respectful and critically engaged environment.  In lieu of tuition, Fellows are obligated to volunteer five hours weekly on behalf of some of their communities’ most at-risk residents.

Current participants include individuals who have already taken to the streets to address local and global issues, among them educators; lawyers; local and visiting rabbinic students; musicians (including one professional involved in Heartbeat, a music dialogue organization for Israeli and Palestinian youth activists); and those aiding girls and women in distress, including one Fellow who spent two years working with Ultra-Orthodox girls with eating disorders, now a volunteer at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center. A number of Fellows have volunteered their time helping distressed populations around the world working in a rural village in Nepal, and as part of the American Jewish World Service volunteer corps in La Ciudad Romero, El Salvador.

To find out more about becoming a TAKUM fellow, or to invite Rabbi Levi Lauer of ATZUM and Shoshana Cohen of Yeshivat Talpiot to your community, please contact Kayla Rothman-Zecher.

Related Blog Postings:

From Mumbai: In the words of Rose Pollard, Gabriel Project Mumbai/JDC Entwine Fall 2014 Fellow.

From London: In the words of Maytal Kuperard, JHub Communications and Community Animator.

Working with Visiting Diaspora Young Leadership

In the fall of 2014, ATZUM launched a year-long service-learning program for a group of students in their 20’s and 30’s affiliated with the Jerusalem-based Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. In addition to their formal learning, these young adults from different Jewish backgrounds and Diaspora communities are volunteering with ATZUM’s  Task Force on Human Trafficking.

Participants take part in a weekly course focusing on the connection between human trafficking and sexual servitude through prostitution with the aim of encouraging informed activism towards their abolishment. ATZUM’s Rebecca Hughes, who developed and teaches the course, notes its objectives are: “…to provide future Jewish leaders with the tools to intelligently and thoughtfully discuss and act upon these issues.”   Like their Israeli counterparts, most students had no idea that trafficking and prostituting girls and women are part of the narrative of the Jewish State. 

Hughes adds, “I’ve been impressed with the group’s willingness to learn about and discuss these difficult, abhorrent issues and bring them to the attention of their peers at Pardes and beyond. For them, studying the issues have not been enough; they want to act, to be a part of the solution. This is a huge part of what we hoped would transpire. I’m confident that at the end of this year they will continue their activism on these issues.”  Indeed, one participant who blogged about the program notes: “I think my newly acquired knowledge and that of my fellow volunteers can only help the world as we seek to further educate our communities.”  Most recently, participants organized an evening of learning at Hebrew University in partnership with Rabbis for Human Rights and Hillel.

Related Blog Postings: 

In the words of Darya Watnick, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies program participant and Task Force on Human Trafficking volunteer.



Human Trafficking Into Israel: The Return of a Trend in the Guise of Tourism?

While Israel changed its policies at the urging of the international community and NGOs such as ATZUM, distancing itself from its previous disregard of cross-border human trafficking, trafficking in persons into and within Israel continues.

Indeed, Israel’s failure to address trafficking and prostitution within its own borders is clearly outlined in the American State Department 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which calls for increased investigation of prostitution of Israeli nationals and stronger sentencing for convicted traffickers.

However, after ATZUM helped lead a successful campaign to reduce trafficking into Israel over the Sinai border, a new phenomenon has emerged. Traffickers and pimps, undeterred by the obstacle of a 245-mile fence now dividing the two countries, are getting creative.

In April 2015, police investigated complaints of individuals suspected of raping and pimping young women in a Holon apartment. The investigation exposed a sophisticated network that systematically “imported” women from Eastern Europe to Israel to work as prostituted sex slaves. The suspects allegedly brought women from Eastern Europe to Israel on tourist visas, but soon forced them into sexual slavery. Often the case, such women are duped and at the mercy of their abusers. This incident comes on the heels of a 2014 extended undercover police operation which revealed the existence of an Israeli-Ukrainian-Russian crime ring that trafficked women into Israel to work as sex slaves. The cover story was that the women were arriving for medical tourism.

If Israel is serious about reducing sex trafficking, closing its borders is a critical but not exhaustive strategy. To be sure, trafficking and pimping are only profitable as long as customers are able to purchase prostitution services, making it imperative Israel criminalize such behavior. ATZUM will reassert its past efforts to assure public attention is redirected to this issue and those responsible for anti-trafficking enforcement are held accountable.

Post-Election Implications for Passing Nordic Model Legislation

Israel’s 20th Knesset was sworn in on March 31, 2015 with 40 first-time MKs, a record 28 women, and new political parties. Of particular concern to the Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT) is whether this government will support or thwart TFHT’S multi-year campaign to pass legislation based on the Nordic Model, the international standard designed to criminalize the procurers and purchasers of sexual services and protect the prostituted person.   

Unfortunately, two of TFHT’s dedicated partners in the 19th Knesset, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (HaBayit HaYehudi) and MK David Tzur (HaTnua), were not re-elected, though MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), unwavering in her commitment to eradicate demand for trafficking and prostitution, and a past sponsor of legislation based on the Nordic Model, was again elected.

Prior to the elections, TFHT partnered with Mythos and The Jerusalem Institute for Justice to survey political party positions on the Nordic Model: the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, HaBayit HaYehudi, and Meretz each publicly declared their support, signaling hope as we address the challenges ahead.

Between the folding of the previous Knesset and the formation of the current government, TFHT worked to redraft more comprehensive legislation than previously proposed. The new bill, more holistic in its approach to reducing sex trafficking and prostitution, calls for appreciable assistance to be provided to people exiting prostitution.

Simultaneous to our legislative activities, we are ramping up the work of our 383-strong Project 119 grassroots volunteer corps. Project 119 volunteers from around the world, who kept the issue front and center between governments, are now accelerating their weekly online advocacy campaign with MKs and ministers to push the new Knesset to act.

Having urged passage of Nordic Model legislation in Israel during three consecutive governments, TFHT remains the lead organization focused on bringing about sustained change at the policy level and holding accountable those tasked with implementing the bill when it becomes law. In this effort, we are pleased our long-term relationships with law firm Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar, TFHT co-founder, and advertising company Y&R-Israel remain strong. What we know for sure: however long and rutted the road to change, it is unacceptable for Israel society to accept the current reality in which the purchase of sexual abuse of girls and women continues.

NOTE: Those curious about how voting works in Israel can learn more here; results of the country’s March 2015 elections can be found here (English) and here (Hebrew).

ATZUM: Engaging Pardes Students in Service-Learning Program

For the past several months, a group of students from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies has been volunteering for the Task Force on Human Trafficking, an initiative of ATZUM-Justice Works whose professionals have prepared an informative orientation course for social activists. As newcomers to the issues of prostitution and trafficking addressed by the Task Force, we initially sought to understand and ultimately enlighten others about these problems.

Since the fall of 2014 we’ve learned and accomplished a great deal.  Our group prepared a short presentation for the Social Justice class at Pardes, screened documentary clips highlighting the issues, and facilitated a probing discussion for the larger Pardes community. Later this month we will be hosting a Trivia Night focusing on women’s issues.  Our most significant undertaking has been to create a series of lesson plans to help educators introduce students to the topics and to encourage them to work towards remedies. Many of us spent countless hours watching documentaries, reading articles and planning activities in order to compile the best resources and methods to teach about these difficult issues.

Tackling and digesting these issues has not been easy. I have come away from some meetings feeling thoroughly disheartened. Without initially realizing it, I now see that my discussions surrounding trafficking and prostitution have changed. I used to keep quiet, feeling as if I had nothing worthy to contribute to the conversation and no obligation to take a stance. But now, because of the course, I have the confidence to state my opinion and the language and statistics to back it up. Even if my short time working with the Task Force is only a blip on the screen of the larger struggle, I think my, and my fellow volunteers’, greater knowledge can only help further educate our communities. 

Darya Watnick

Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies program participant

Task Force on Human Trafficking volunteer