A key ministerial panel on Sunday approved two private bills criminalizing johns who hire prostitutes, but will hold off on advancing the proposed legislation until the Justice Ministry presents its own version of the proposal.
The vote by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday to extend coalition support to the anti-prostitution proposals — one by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and Meretz MK Zehava Gal-on, the second by Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie — marked 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.
“Eradicating prostitution is an important goal with broad support across the spectrum of Israeli politics,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in a statement following the ministerial vote. 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.
The issue earned overwhelming support in the Knesset in recent months, with 71 lawmakers from both the coalition and opposition lending their backing to criminal action against “johns,” as is the practice in Sweden, Norway, and France and other countries.
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.
“History [is made]! Unprecedented public support allowed for the dramatic step to reduce prostitution in Israel, to rehabilitate many women, and most of all, to a dramatic social reform,” Lavie tweeted after the ministers supported the bill.
In giving the initial approval to the bill, “the government has made a moral statement: Purchasing prostitution is the exploitation of women who need rehabilitation,” said Moalem-Refaeli.
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.
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, 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 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].”
The panel also voted to give coalition backing to an initiative to monitor suspected abusive spouses by forcing them to wear electronic tracking tags, following a spate of murders of women this year, allegedly by their spouses.That bill — presented by Lavie and backed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan — would allow courts to order the tags placed on a suspect after a complaint of domestic violence has been lodged against them, even without a full trial and conviction.
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 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.
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.