Original sponsors say emasculated legislation cannot accomplish the goals that prompted the bill in the first place
A new bill penalizing those who hire sex workers, which was passed by the Israeli Parliament on January 2, is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough, some legal experts are contending.
Jointly sponsored by three female legislators: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (New Right) and members of parliament Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (New Right), The Prohibition of Consumption of Prostitution Services Bill passed its final readings in the Knesset earlier this week.
Attorney Nick Kaufman, a former longtime prosecutor who now practices as a defense attorney, explained to The Media Line that “the legislation criminalizes two acts: consuming prostitution and also being present in a place which offers sex services. The offense is for someone using her body. What is new is that people who consume sexual services are now guilty of a criminal offense, as are the people who are present in a place which offers sex services.”
The law carries penalties ranging from the equivalent of $500 to $20,000.
In addition, the government will allocate some $8 million each year over the next three years to rehabilitate sex workers who want to leave the industry. The Justice Ministry will also be permitted to send offenders to “john schools” – institutions intended to reeducate those arrested for soliciting the services of a prostitute.
Israel is the tenth country to implement what is known as the Nordic Model – an approach which decriminalizes sex workers and instead makes buying sex a criminal offense. The effectiveness of the Nordic Model has long been a subject of debate, with some health professionals and sex workers arguing that only full decriminalization can effectively reduce harm to those involved, including lowering the spread of HIV.
However, Lavie, who heads the Subcommittee on Combating Trafficking in Women and Prostitution and who helped write the original legislation, maintained that the new law stops short of what she had originally proposed to fellow parliamentarians over a year ago.
“This legislation is not enough and it’s not like my legislation, which included a budget for rehabilitation, education, public housing and therapy for women [involved in sex work],” Lavie told The Media Line, noting that effective bills against prostitution must offer an “out” for the women involved. “You can’t do this without a budget and the tools to help the women. But we have to start somewhere.”
While prostitution is legal in Israel, brothels and pimping are not. The legislation is slated to come into effect in roughly 18 months in order to give law enforcement ample time to prepare.
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“We passed the law but we need time to learn together all the tools and prepare society and the ministries to work together,” Lavie noted, adding that she had wanted to push for full decriminalization of prostitution but that Justice Minister Shaked preferred to move forward with fines for johns.
Shulamit Almog, a Law Professor at the University of Haifa and Co-Director of the Gender, Law and Policy Center, called the new law “disappointing.”
“The message the law sends is a striking slap in the face to those it is intended to serve,” said Almog, who has researched law and prostitution in Israel for over a decade. “The law is not strong enough to properly address needed educational or practical reforms. Moreover, it does not offer enough support to the victims.”
One of the main points she took issue with in the legislation is that it classifies the purchasing of sex as a civil rather than a criminal offense, something she argues “sends a message of sympathy to johns.”
“Sexual harassment is an offense which is often much less serious than the hiring of a prostitute, in terms of the damage it inflicts on the victim,” Almog explained. “But sexual harassment has severe criminal repercussions for first-time offenders. It was never proposed, and justifiably so, that it would be a civil offense.”
She insisted that the State of Israel should provide a generous budget and supply a wide range of tools and services to women involved in sex work, but said that the law lacks the necessary budget and services.
“Ultimately, this law is sending mixed messages: It’s saying it’s no longer legal be a client, but on the other hand it’s watered down in terms of how it addresses the problem.”
Kaufman opposes the bill, arguing it denies reality. “Is the object of the law to clean up the streets?” he asked The Media Line. “I’m not in favor of it. If the law is meant to end ‘curb calling’ and activity in the public eye, there are less draconian ways to accomplish this. Should you deny a woman to do what she wants with her body – which is her right?”
According to the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services, more than 14,000 women, men and transgender people work in prostitution, including 3,000 minors. It also found that 62 percent of female prostitutes are mothers of children under the age of 18 and 76 percent have expressed an interest in leaving the sex-work industry if they could.
In fact, the World Health Organization has argued that decriminalizing the industry could lead to a 46 percent decrease in new HIV infections in sex workers and would decrease violence in that sector.