Two private bills setting out jail sentences for those who hire prostitutes were approved unanimously in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday in their preliminary readings, in a move cheered by female lawmakers.
Seventy-one MKs voted in favor of Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie’s proposal, with none opposed, while 74 lawmakers backed a similar bill by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and Meretz MK Zehava Galon, again with no opposition.
The private legislation, which also calls for fines for “johns” and rehabilitation programs from Israeli sex workers, will not be advanced until the Justice Ministry presents its own version of the proposal. The bills require three more readings in the plenum before becoming law.
Addressing the plenum on Wednesday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked admitted she had changed her mind about the legislation after meeting with teenage prostitutes on Tuesday in south Tel Aviv.
“It’s no secret that I am not in favor of legislation that reduces individual rights or, in general, of excess legislation,” said Shaked. “But something happened to me yesterday on the tour.”
After hearing the abuse the sex workers have endured and about their drug use, “I asked nearly all of them what they thought about the law,” she said. “It’s pretty clear that those in the cycle [of prostitution], the women there, don’t want this law. The law will discourage normative clients and leave only the violent ones. But when you speak to those who left, they are convinced the law is correct.”
“This law is first and foremost a declaration that going to a prostitute is immoral and must not be part of our society,” said Shaked. “This is not a matter of coalition or opposition, this is a moral issue that we want to impart to society and to our children.”
The coalition and opposition lawmakers behind the various bills welcomed the passage of the bill in the initial stages of the legislative process.
“The law will primarily create the awareness that prostitution is a phenomenon of violence and continuous rape,” said Moalem-Refaeli, hailing the proposal as a “Jewish, humane, and moral statement.”
Galon said it was “an emotional moment after a fight that lasted over a decade,” while Lavie called it a “historic day.”
On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to lend coalition support to the bill, marking the first time the government signaled its willingness to combat the phenomenon through legislation, after nearly a decade of efforts by female lawmakers to spearhead legislation to criminalize the purchasing of sex services.
While the lawmakers’ private legislation called for the offenders to be sentenced to jail, the Justice Ministry has indicated it will seek other penalties for those caught hiring prostitutes.
“Eradicating prostitution is an important goal with broad support across the spectrum of Israeli politics,” Shaked said in a statement following the ministerial vote on Sunday. The government proposal on the issue, which has yet to be formulated will “be based on fines, and will include preventive aspects, aid, welfare and rehabilitation,” she said.
Advocates of the measure argue the new penalties against clients will help eradicate prostitution in Israel while offering rehabilitation services to sex workers. Critics maintain it could drive prostitution further underground and would likely not be rigidly enforced by police.
While prostitution itself remains legal in Israel, pimping, sex trafficking, and running a brothel are punishable by law. A Justice Ministry committee was formed in April 2016 to evaluate the possibility of criminal penalties and will submit its conclusions to Shaked this week.
Last Monday, Justice Ministry Director-General Emi Palmor ruled out leveling fines against those who paid for sex, saying it was not legally viable. However, Palmor said she was “very, very much in favor” of instituting gradual criminal penalties against those who pay for sex, beginning with a warning and building up to court-ordered “John school” attendance, and other criminal punishments.
Addressing the Knesset’s Subcommittee on Combating Trafficking of Women, Palmor said she was set to present an overview of studies, laws in different countries, and the “complex” legal issues to Shaked, but resisted describing the report as recommendations.
She did express a preference for seminars for offenders, or “john school,” as an effective “shaming” tactic.
“Social shaming is very significant,” she said. “It would be enough for a prostitution consumer to meet his friend from the military reserves or work just once [during these seminars] and he would think twice if he wants to be caught again purchasing prostitution [services].”
Even if the bills soar through the Knesset and become law, it remains unclear whether such a law would be rigidly enforced by police.That was an issue also raised by Palmor last week, who noted that although Israel has existing laws against purchasing sex services from minors, just 18 cases were opened in the past three years, and just three ended in convictions.
According to a Welfare Ministry report from 2016, the first of its kind, there are an estimated 11,420-12,730 sex workers in the NIS 1.2 billion ($318 million) industry in Israel.
Some 95% of prostitutes are women, 89% of whom are over 18. Between 970 and 1,260 (11%) are minors. The figures place the number of prostitutes per 100,000 Israelis at 121-128 — less than countries such as Austria, Belgium, Hungary andSweden; more than the Czech Republic, Ireland, Norway and Denmark, according to the ministry.
Some 97% of the women hold Israeli citizenship, and 86% are Jewish. Most are over 30 (70%), have at least one child (62%), and a slim majority (52%) were born in the former Soviet Union. The majority entered prostitution due to financial woes (66%), and 7% due to drug addiction. One-fifth have a college degree.
Punishing prostitution clients was first introduced by Sweden in its 1999 Sex Purchase Act, which has since been adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, France, and Northern Ireland, and requires consumers to pay a fine or face up to six months in jail. Defending the apparent contradiction in making buying sex illegal but selling it legal, Sweden contended that prostitution is essentially an act of exploitation and violence by the customers, who hold a position of power and should bear the brunt of the penalty.