TAKUM Currently Facilitating Three Betei Midrash

Beit Midrash TAKUMEngaging community professionals and grassroots volunteers in Israel and abroad through a nine-month, international social justice program integrating in-depth Jewish learning with activism.

TAKUM is a partnership with Yeshivat Talpiot, an egalitarian yeshiva committed to facilitating critical, open engagement with Jewish text and social crisis as a means of influencing activism. TAKUM, hosted at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, seeks to bring Torah study to the streets in ways that urge action on behalf of others in need. This year, the project’s third, study and public service are focused on aiding Israel’s refugees and asylum seekers, as well as victims of prostitution and human trafficking.

This spring brings new energy to Beit Midrash TAKUM with the launch of two new cohorts: one in Jerusalem for established, experienced young professionals already involved in fields of social change, and the other for young students from Tel-Aviv University.

The Jerusalem cohort of 13 Fellows from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds work as teachers, social workers and community organizers. Some have previous experience in Beit Midrash learning.

The Tel-Aviv cohort of eight Fellows from Tel-Aviv University is quite different. All come to the Beit Midrash without experience with Jewish text study. All Fellows in this cohort volunteer in three Tel- Aviv NGOs working with refugees and asylum seekers, including:

Simultaneously, TAKUM’s first Jerusalem cohort of religiously diverse university students and recent graduates with minimal activist experience began in October 2015. Fellows in this cohort (as in the Tel- Aviv group) receive a modest stipend for their participation; undertake serious volunteer roles in lieu of tuition; and assist with refugee relief efforts and as part of ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution. This cohort is currently deeply involved in its volunteer work.

In March TFHT Fellows collaborated with student activist groups to organize a Hebrew University hosted public debate on prostitution in Israel society. Panelists included MK Shuli Mualem from Bayit Yehudi, a religious Zionist political party, and three speakers from NGOs dedicated to stopping prostitution. The event enabled recruitment of new Project 119 activists. (Project 119 is TFHT’s weekly campaign pairing individual MKs and Government Ministers with volunteers urging passage of Nordic Model legislation. The time commitment is minimal; the campaign’s impact is considerable.) The panel event effectively demonstrated to the TAKUM Fellows who organized the evening how they might impact public discourse.

Photo:  Avi Dabush, a community organizer and activist, addresses two TAKUM cohorts at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem in March 2016.

Photo: Avi Dabush, a community organizer and activist, addresses two TAKUM cohorts at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem in March 2016.

TFHT: Progress Towards Passage

It is a difficult process to move the Knesset and Israel’s political machines to recognize the urgent need to pass Nordic Model legislation, but THFT has made much progress. Our recently drafted legislation, more comprehensive than previous, leaner versions, has garnered wide support across party lines, only to be frustrated twice by the disbandment of the Knesset and new elections. After recent months of arduous meetings with MKs Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) and Zehava Galon (Meretz) and others, we have now reconstituted and expanded that base of support in advance of the pending re-submission of the legislation.

We are cautiously optimistic: the bill’s cross-party sponsors are adamant in seeking the coalition Government’s approval; public awareness of the evils of trafficking and the abuses of prostitution has grown exponentially; and high-profile instances of the suffering and suicide of prostituted women have attracted much media coverage, as have the instances of the sexual abuse of women by public figures. And, as this report is being prepared, it was announced that Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked called for the formation of a special committee to examine the possibility of making the purchase of prostitution a criminal offence.

Despite the forward motion, we remain aware of very resistant opposition to such legislation: an annual 1.2 billion NIS enterprise has well-connected attorneys; the Ministry of Justice is hesitant to add another offence to the penal code; and the constant distractions of terror attacks, Iranian threats, and the Government’s fear-mongering produce a climate less inclined to see the priority of at-risk citizens’ concerns.

Countering these challenges is the support and inspiration which comes from our donors, pro bono partners, and volunteers who join us in insisting on the betterment of the status of women and their well-being. Together our voices bellow in protest of the daily rape of thousands of prostituted and trafficked women and girls on our streets.

TFHT: Public Discourse

This year, ATZUM is increasing its reach by joining the human resources connected to two of its initiatives, TFHT and Beit Midrash TAKUM. The former, as noted, is focused on passing legislation based on the Nordic Model; the latter is a nine-month, international social justice program integrating in-depth, Jewish learning with activism.

On March 22, 2016, three TAKUM volunteers – two law students and one social work student – collaborated with two different Hebrew University student union groups to organize a panel event attended by 50 people. The event was chaired by Adv. Michal Leibel, TFHT Director. Speakers included Tali Koral, CEO of Machon Todaa (Awareness Center), who spoke about the need to expose the actions and responsibilities of the customer in the abuse and demoralization of girls and women; and Re’ut Guy, Director of Youth in Distress at Elem, who focused on teen prostitution.

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Photo: TFHT-sponsored panel discussion at Hebrew University, March 2016.

The keynote speaker was MK Shuli Moalem who addressed the moral imperative for Israel society to adopt binding legislation to render prostitution and the commoditization of women unacceptable. She related to data from a multi-year study of prostitution in Israel presented to the Knesset the same day. As reported in “Haaretz” on March 6, “The first-ever government survey into prostitution in Israel found…annual payments to sex workers amounted to an estimated 1.2 billion shekels ($308.2 million) in 2014. The survey by the [Social Affairs and Public Security Ministries] found there were between 11,420 and 12,730 prostitutes in Israel that year, 95 percent of them female. The data…showed that each sex worker had approximately 660 clients a year [and] as many as 1,260 minors were employed as prostitutes or at risk of [entering] prostitution.”

MK Moalem praised the TFHT event, emphasizing the importance of public discourse on a subject too rarely discussed. Indeed, before the event, most people admitted to being unaware that prostitution is legal in Israel. Most are now unwilling to allow it to continue under society’s radar.

TFHT: International Update

In 1999, Sweden introduced groundbreaking law, the first country to criminalize the john rather than punish the prostitute. Gunilla Ekberg, the Swedish government’s lead official on prostitution, described the model as looking at prostitution as a form of male sexual violence, noting her country’s law focuses “…on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not…flourish and expand.”

Other countries have since adopted that Nordic Model: Norway in 2008, Iceland in 2009, Canada in 2014 and Northern Ireland in 2015, not long after the European parliament approved a resolution calling for the law to be adopted throughout the continent. In April 2016, the French Parliament also adopted such legislation. TFHT lauds France’s government for stepping up and doing the right thing, yet another country reinforcing the message that societies need to reach out to prostituted people as victims and not treat them as social pariahs.

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TFHT: Another Step Forward: Will Israel Follow France?

Earlier this month, France became the fifth country, after Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Britain, to pass law based on the Nordic Model, the international standard designed to criminalize the purchase of sexual services and protect the prostituted person, nearly always a girl or woman forced into sexual servitude. Countries that have adopted the Nordic Model have seen a considerable reduction in prostitution.

Urging passage of such legislation in Israel has been one of the primary functions of ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution (TFHT). TFHT lauds France’s government for stepping up and doing the right thing, yet another country reinforcing the message that societies must see prostituted people as victims, not as social pariahs.

As hoped, this move motivated Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, at the urging of MKs Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) and Zehava Galon (Meretz), to call for the formation of a committee to examine the possibility of making the purchase of prostitution a criminal offence. The bill currently under consideration, authored by TFHT Director, Adv. Michal Leibel, is the most comprehensive piece of legislation proposed to date, outlining annual costs for support services, enforcement, and income to be derived from fines from johns.  You can read more HERE about the formation of the committee.

Though there is a still a long way to go, this is good news.

What can you do?

If you are not already a P119 volunteer, sign up HERE today to become an online activist in urging Israel’s Knesset members to support Nordic Model legislation in Israel.

If you are already a Project 119 volunteer, thank you. Please remember to complete your assignment. This is a fast moving campaign requiring we all do our part.

As we ready ourselves for Hag Pesah, let us also pledge to rid society of the plague of prostitution and abuse of those still in bondage


You can read more about the French law HERE and HERE.

TFHT and Ofek Nashi

On a daily basis, Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution (TFHT) Director Michal Leibel can be found in the halls of the Knesset and offices of government ministers and Members of Knesset in an effort to secure cross-party support of TFHT authored Nordic Model legislation. Last August, she added one more task to her already busy agenda. For four months Michal made a weekly four-hour round-trip bus ride between Jerusalem and Haifa to facilitate an unusual discussion group in collaboration with Ofek Nashi (Women’s Horizons), a program that provides support and shelter for women who have left, or are in the process of escaping prostitution. An initiative of the Municipality of Haifa and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services, Ofek Nashi seeks to rebuild the lives of women who, as a result of being prostituted, have suffered substance abuse; mental, sexual, and physical violence; and family, health and legal problems. Over the course of one year, participants receive individual counseling, take part in group therapy, undergo job training, and meet women leaders in an effort to prepare themselves for independent life off the streets.

The discussion group formed in August 2015 at the request of Ofek Nashi participants who were curious about the Nordic Model and TFHT’s legal process to protect prostituted people. A core group of five women participated in each session and another five contributed as they were able.

Many of the sessions centered on the challenges and progress in the cause of shifting public opinion about prostitution and the role of the media in such effort. Of particular note was a session with Limor Pinhasov, a representative of Ta Ha’Itonayot (Israel’s “Chamber of Women Journalists”), a collective formed in 2012 to advance the representation and scope of women in the media, perhaps best known for its campaign to tackle sexual discrimination and harassment of women journalists.

Understandably, most survivors of prostitution work hard to protect their privacy and that of their families, rather than revealing their history providing sexual services. Most simply want to disappear into society and leave their past behind. However, among the participants was one exceptionally brave woman, Vika, who was willing to be interviewed and photographed without concealment on a special Channel Two news story. The Hebrew broadcast can be found here. (TFHT is in the process of having English subtitles added.) In addition to appearing within the media, Vika attends discussions about prostitution with the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality and speaks to groups about her personal experiences and the abusive reality of prostitution.

TFHT hopes to continue facilitating such groups with the goal of empowering survivors of prostitution to help advocate for social legislative change vis-à-vis prostitution. Such involvement carries a potent message to the public and to decision makers. At present, there is no organization of survivors who work openly to change the landscape and reality of prostitution in Israel. SPACE, (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment), an international organization was formed in 2012 as a coalition of women survivors of prostitution from France, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Canada, the US and the UK , who chose to forgo their anonymity for the purpose of speaking out against prostitution in the public arena. Its purpose is to give voice to women who have survived the abusive reality of prostitution. We hope Israel may one day soon follow suit.


The Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution (TFHT), an initiative of Israel NGO, ATZUM-Justice Works, aims to eradicate human trafficking across and within Israel’s borders and ensure passage of Nordic Model legislation to criminalize the purchase of sexual services and protect the prostituted person, nearly always a girl or woman coerced into sexual servitude. 

TAKUM – A Jewish Service Learning Program

TAKUM (Tikkun u’Mishpat/Restoring Justice) is an international service learning initiative linking Jewish learning with social activism by facilitating open discussion of Jewish text and humanitarian crisis.  TAKUM’s goal is to bring Jewish study to the streets in ways that urge thoughtful action on behalf of vulnerable others. TAKUM Fellows, in addition to learning, provide weekly volunteer hours to combat the declining respect for human rights Israel society has witnessed for far too long. 

This year, TAKUM’s third, 26 Jerusalem TAKUM Fellows are focusing their learning and service on aiding Israel’s refugees and asylum seekers and victims of prostitution and human trafficking, urgent concerns requiring our collective action. Cohort I includes university students and recent graduates with minimal activist experience.  Cohort II includes more established, experienced young professionals deeply involved in fields of social change. An additional 20 Fellows participating in a London-based, TAKUM-initiated cohort will focus on related human rights issues. 

Below are the reflections of two current Fellows learning and volunteering in Jerusalem:


Weekly learning with my TAKUM colleagues is like finding sane and safe haven — critical time to think deeply in the midst of life’s craziness.  Most of us are busy students and young activists, pre-occupied with our own lives. Coming to the beit midrash strengthens and inspires us toward action through weekly vibrant and open-hearted discussions.

In our first unit we focused on the subject of aniyei irkha, the poor within our midst. Delving into Biblical and Talmudic texts, and learning from contemporary thinkers, we discussed who is the ani/  the impoverished, and how we as a community relate to them. We studied Emmanuel Levinas (a 20th-century French Jewish philosopher who suggests ethics and respect for the other are “the first philosophy”); considered the concept and reality of Jerusalem as sacred and earthly city; and met with seasoned and visionary social activists.

We just finished a second unit which focuses on gender issues, particularly those which relate to women, virginity, prostitution and rape. In addition to dissecting traditional Jewish teachings, we studied modern feminist theory and considered data regarding the trafficking of women into and within Israel. We debated the role and limits of the judicial system in combating sexual assault versus the impact of education and educators on these issues.

Why is TAKUM learning important to my studies and humanity? The beit midrash consists of an intimate cohort of diverse and creative people willing to engage in brave, value-based conversations regarding Jewish culture and tradition, deeply relevant for our times.

Frima works and volunteers in Israel’s third sector


TAKUM: Tikun and Mishpat, repairing and securing justice – These are constructs and realities which resonate deeply. Our TAKUM cohort aspires to identify messages regarding justice and just action embedded in Jewish tradition and classical texts. We are committed individually and as a collective to revive their different meanings. As a law student at the Hebrew University, I feel my studies would be incomplete had I not joined the TAKUM community. The learning invites each of us to contribute to group discussions which consider the relevance of ancient texts to our lives.

However, there are difficult moments. The Torah does not only discuss social justice and aiding the poor. Many times, the text speaks to us in a language we do not want to hear; it proposes notions and values we do not want to accept. But actually, those are the moments of discomfort that create opportunities to really get to the heart of the matter.

Learning is not enough, and in TAKUM we act and volunteer. I chose to devote my time giving legal aid to refugees who are summoned to Holot (a forced detention facility). Here, as in the beit midrash, I hear the voices of our traditions: “And a stranger you shall not oppress, for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23, 9)

Evyatar studies law and cognitive science at Hebrew University.


TAKUM is a joint initiative of ATZUM – Justice Works and Yeshivat Talpiot. It is funded by the Kathryn Ames Foundation, Elizabeth Scheuer, Peter Joseph and other donors wishing to remain anonymous. To support TAKUM, please CLICK.

 

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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 michal.atzum@gmail.com

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.

death-notices

 

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.

 

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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.”

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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.


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