Female lawmakers on Monday announced they would present legislation punishing the clients of prostitutes on Sunday, as the Justice Ministry wrapped up a year-long evaluation of the issue.
While prostitution itself remains legal in Israel, pimping, sex trafficking, and running a brothel are punishable by law. The formation of the Justice Ministry committee in April 2016 followed nearly a decade of efforts by female lawmakers to spearhead legislation to criminalize purchasing sex services.
The issue in recent months earned overwhelming support in the Knesset, with 71 lawmakers from both the coalition and opposition lending their support to criminal action against “johns,” as is the practice in Sweden, Norway, and France and other countries.
On 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 and Prostitution, Palmor said the committee was set to present its findings to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked next week, who will then decide whether to pursue legislation that would both punish clients and set up rehabilitation programs for the sex workers.
A spokesperson for Shaked could not confirm when she would reach a decision. In the interim, Shaked’s fellow Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, Meretz MK Zahava Galon, and Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie said Monday they would present their respective bills to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation — which is headed by Shaked — on Sunday, calling for the criminalization of paying for prostitution services.
The justice minister’s spokesperson said it was “too soon” to know whether Shaked would back the private legislation in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation or delay it until a government ministry bill is formulated.
Palmor — who headed the Justice Ministry committee — said she was set to present the 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 the 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].”
Lavie, who heads the subcommittee, said the “ball from here is moving it to the legislator’s court.”
“Next week, we will bring the law to the Knesset,” she said. “The support for the law and the cooperation from across the political and civil society spectrum is unprecedented. Over 70 MKs are signed on to the various bills and I believe the upcoming year can be the year in which Israel joins the ranks of progressive countries and spearheads a social and historic reform.”
Even if the bills soar through the Knesset and become law, it remains unclear whether it would be rigidly enforced by police.That was an issue also raised by Palmor on Monday, 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, Sweden; more than the Czech Republic, Ireland, Norway, 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.
Some NIS 510 million ($135 million) is made annually in the 265 “discreet apartments,” 43% of the total yearly sum (1.2 billion in 2014) generated by the industry. Escort services racked up some NIS 220 million ($58 million) and massage parlors that offered sexual services NIS 190 million ($50 million). Street prostitution generated just NIS 70 million ($18 million) in yearly earnings, some 6% of the annual total. Some one-quarter of Israeli prostitutes see more than seven clients a day (the average is 5.5), according to the report.
Financial straits were found to be the force driving women to prostitution (66%), and for most (71%) it was the reason they stay (the remaining 23% said because “it suits them”). Most of the women said they want to leave (76%), 10% said they don’t, 7% don’t know, and 7% said “not right now.”
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.