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Rabbi discusses human-trafficking trade in Israel

Published: September 16, 2011
Section: News


“In the state of Israel, someone does not have sex with prostitutes but rapes sex slaves.” Rabbi Levi Lauer, the founding executive director of ATZUM-Justice Works, reiterated this point repeatedly Tuesday at a lecture he gave at Brandeis University titled “When Hope Ends in Slavery: Human Trafficking in Israel.” The lecture was sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

ATZUM is an Israeli nonprofit organization with four goals: helping Israeli survivors of terror attacks; assisting non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust; educating and assimilating Ethiopian youth; and ending the sex-trafficking trade in Israel.

ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking has been working for six years with the Israeli law firm Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar to change Israeli policy to prevent the trafficking of women and the slavery of women once within in Israel. The law firm’s pro-bono work with ATZUM allows ATZUM to spend “more time and less money” on this project, according to Lauer.

For their work, on May 8 Lauer and ATZUM received Hebrew Union College’s 2011 Roger E. Joseph Prize, which grants $10,000.

“There are 3,200 women annually who are going to be raped daily and brutalized in ways unimaginable,” Lauer informed the audience of about 40 people. Approximately 3,200 women—although there are no official statistics on this—are forced into Israel, stripped naked, sold on the block and distributed to pimps, mainly in Tel Aviv, Lauer said. “After 12 months, many of them are physically and emotionally useless. They are dumped on the street, arrested and deported.”

The first group of men responsible is the slavers. These men lure women, mainly from the former Soviet Union, to Israel, where they sell them to pimps. “Some [women] came expecting to be pole dancers or lap dancers; they were not told they were going to be raped 15 to 20 times a day,” Lauer said. “And even if they were, should they be left to be brutalized?”

The second group of men responsible is the pimps. These men run the brothels and strip clubs.

The third group of men responsible is the customers. Of these men, 8 percent are foreign workers; 20 to 25 percent are Arabs; 30 percent are Haredi, ultra-Orthodox Jews; and the rest blur all lines.

The biggest aid to sex trafficking in Israel is lax border patrol in the south and the airports. While Israeli officers patrol for terrorists and weapons, they turn a blind eye to enslaved women. The northern border is well-patrolled due to Hezbollah; the Jordanians patrol their own border, according to Lauer, “because the Jordanians were smart enough to dump the Palestinians in our lap and now they don’t want anyone coming back their way”; and trafficking via the Mediterranean is possible due to bribery but is expensive.

This leaves Egypt and the airports. Soldiers used to allow women smuggled over the Egyptian-Israeli to be picked up by Bedouins to be sold in Israel due to a tacit agreement that the Bedouins would not traffic in weapons. But now, with the political climate in Egypt changing, the non-compliance of the Bedouins and the imminent completion of a border fence, the Egyptian border is a less viable option.

This leaves the airports, where many women are brought in with fake identities in order to claim citizenship. “If [the airports become guarded], Bibi [Prime Minister Netanyahu] will get the Nobel Peace Prize for being the first country in the world without sex trafficking.” According to Lauer, it is that easy.

While working to lock down Israel’s borders, Lauer and ATZUM are also working to institute a Nordic law, currently in place in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which would “decriminalize the person providing services and criminalize those paying for services.”

ATZUM has matched 119 lobbyists with Knesset members to advocate for this change in the laws because, ultimately, this change would be more effective than closing the borders. Firstly, not all sex slaves are foreign. “Increasing numbers of Israeli young girls and women, as young as 16, are more vulnerable to the sex trade,” Lauer said. “While we are trying to dry up the supply side externally, we have been unable to dry up the demand side.”

Additionally, a law like this “would allow the press to publish the names of those convicted—a column of ‘caught with your pants down,’” Lauer explained. “Ninety-five percent said that if there was a chance of family finding out, they wouldn’t do it because of the shame.”

It is shame that Lauer hopes will eventually end the sex-slave trade in Israel. It is shame that has kept the sex slaves primarily female. “The stigma associated with homosexuality and lesbians in Israel is still very strong,” Lauer said in an interview with The Hoot. Israeli men fear being caught with male prostitutes and Israeli women rarely buy sex.

Lauer has faced many barriers, however, in this fight. A common mantra he hears as he tries to enlist help is, “But Levi, you’re asking us to wash the dirtiest laundry of the Jewish people at this particularly sensitive time.”

He admits that this is true but always counters, saying, “The state of Israel is in trouble. There will never be a time when there isn’t trouble for Israel. I say, let’s once and for all wash it and hang it out to dry.” He added, “Something worse than washing the dirtiest laundry of the Jewish people at this particularly sensitive time is wearing it.”

The fight against sex trafficking in Israel is not the same fight found in other countries, particularly the United States. The issue in the United States is ignorance of the problem. In Israel, “The only people that say they don’t know are either the men who compulsively rape sex slaves and say they are having sex with prostitutes or those who don’t want to know.”

A big problem in Israel is that the police do not enforce the laws. “Israel has some of the toughest anti-trafficking laws on the books but they are unenforced—most laws are,” Lauer said. “Too many people come from too many cultures where the laws never helped them, so [they think] ‘why should I follow them now.’ … Routinely the Supreme Court tells the police to enforce them and they don’t.”

Lauer spoke of an incident in which he gave a list of the names of 40 slavers to a high-ranking police officer in Tel Aviv and the officer asked him how he had found these men’s names and personal information. He replied, “We did our job. We went out on the streets and asked.”

The men named on the list were not arrested.

Another problem Lauer faces is preconceived notions about Russian women. When he goes to officials to lobby for sex-trafficking law reformation, “at some point in the conversation they would ask ‘Levi, are any of these women Jewish?’ All they care about are Jewish women. They think, all those women are Natashas, all Russians are loose,” said Lauer. “They, excuse my language, they really don’t care about these shiksas, these non-Jewish women.”

Another question Lauer frequently hears is: “What do they look like?”

“These are people’s daughters and sisters,” Lauer stressed. “They’re not Russian whores or Natashas who don’t deserve our respect.”

The first sex-trafficking case brought to Lauer’s attention six years ago was that of an Uzbek woman, who had escaped her pimp and slaver and wanted to go home to her mother. She was dying of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, weighed 36 kilograms and had been raped 15 times in the preceding 36 hours—she died 72 hours later.

Lauer has been working to get justice for her but continually runs into red tape and officials who don’t care. A judge even threw out a lawsuit against the state of Israel on the grounds that the victim was not there to appear in court. “By that criteria, you can’t convict anyone of murder,” Lauer said.

Recently, however, after six years, ATZUM and Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar won 525,000 shekels and sent it to the woman’s mother. They now plan to sue the pimp and slaver.

The largest project ATZUM organizes is Woman To Go, which brings attention to the issue and seeks signatures for a petition to criminalize buying women. Woman To Go was featured on CNN after they placed actresses wearing revealing clothes, black eyes and bloody lips in storefront windows with price tags attached to them in a Tel Aviv mall.

Woman To Go may soon be seen in the United States as well. Karen McLaughlin, formerly of the Massachusetts Task Force on Human Trafficking and currently an adviser for Demand Abolition, praised Lauer’s initiative at the end of his lecture and asked his advice in bringing Woman To Go to Boston. “I want to bring sex slavery in Massachusetts—in the United States—to people’s attention,” McLaughlin told The Hoot. “After this lecture, I also want to bring attention to how it works internationally—here, in Israel, all over.”

This is exactly what Lauer hopes for. Lauer wants to destroy the sex slavery industry in Israel “and then let’s tell the whole world how we did it so they can emulate our success.”

This event was cosponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute; International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life; the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies Program; the Social Justice & Social Policy Program; the Women’s and Gender Studies Program; and the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.