Of the thousands of women brought to Israel each year
to work as prostitutes, many are enslaved, beaten and raped
by their pimps. Now, one of them is fighting back...
If you were to pass her on the street, there's nothing particular
about Victoria that would catch your eye. She could be your
daughter, your sister, or your wife. In fact, before her ordeal
began, she was a law student in the small Republic of Moldova,
and she still has hopes of resuming her studies there. It
is only when she begins to speak - barely above a whisper,
in grammatically tortured Hebrew picked up "on the job"
- that you sense, even become infected by, the fear in her
voice, the sadness in her eyes, the exhaustion broadcast by
her very posture. And only when you hear her story do you
understand that this intelligent, un-assuming 21-year-old
- one of the millions of people around the world who have
been trafficked as prostitutes this year (see box) - is a
heroine, not of some abstract international struggle for human
rights but of a very private struggle to rise above the status
of victim and take charge of her life again.
Ironically, it was a similar impetus that led Victoria (who
asks that her last name not be published) into the nightmare
she has been living for the past 16 months. In mid-1999, when
she ran out of funds to continue her studies and found that
her family would not help her, she was lured by the offer
of a job in Israel as a masseuse. The promised monthly salary
was $1,000 (astronomical compared to the $30 a month she was
earning in Moldova), and she was assured that she could return
there whenever she chose.
Victoria's suspicion that something was awry arose at the
last moment, when the "job recruiter" equipped her
with a false passport to travel via Romania. But it was only
after she arrived in Israel, in August 1999, that she learned
the truth about her new "job" from the man who met
her at the airport, took the passport from her, and drove
her to a town in the Negev. And the truth was harrowing: The
"recruiter," she was told, had sold her into prostitution
and debt bondage - meaning that she would have to work off
her purchase price ($6,500) before she could be released or
even start earning a wage. She would also be required to have
sex with her "owner" and his friends for free. The
best she could expect for herself was tips from satisfied
clients, which she soon discovered averaged $4 to $8 per john.
"We were locked in an apartment or under guard every
time we moved from place to place," Victoria explains
when asked why she didn't flee. "And even if I could
get away, I had no passport, I had no money for a ticket to
go back." Because she had entered Israel illegally, Victoria
feared the law. She also had reason to suspect that local
policemen were in cahoots with her "owners," because
they were among the clients being "serviced" in
one of the places in which she worked. ("They showed
up in uniform," she relates, "with a squad car parked
outside waiting for them.") But most of all she feared
reprisal by her pimps. "They threatened that if I ran
away, their people would track me down in Moldova and make
sure I was punished."
AND SO, OVER THE COURSE OF 11 months, Victoria worked in
various brothels, apartments and hotels in Beersheba and Tel
Aviv from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, "servicing"
between 10 and 20 clients a day. Five times she was sold by
one pimp to another, each new "owner" requiring
her to work off her purchase price. Along the way, she was
raped and sodomized by three of her "owners" and
one's son, as well. When a brothel in which she was working
was raided and she was taken to the police station, she produced
the forged Israeli identity card given to her by her "owner"
and claimed - as she had been instructed - that she had been
in the country for three years. Seeing the identity card,
the police asked no further questions, and Victoria was released
back into slavery.
It was only on July 27, 2000, the second time she was arrested
in a raid, that the police bothered to interrogate Victoria.
"I showed them the forged identity card again, but this
time they asked me detailed questions about my family - the
family I supposedly had, according to the forged card - and
I couldn't answer them. So although I was frightened, I told
them the truth," she recalls.
Thus ended one ordeal and began another. As an illegal alien,
Victoria was held for about a month in a local lock-up and
then another two in the Neveh Tirzah Women's Prison in Ramlah,
awaiting deportation, before she was discovered by the Hotline
for Foreign Workers, a Tel Aviv NGO that focuses on the plight
of illegal foreign workers. At first all she wanted was the
Hotline's help in obtaining a proper travel document so that
she could leave the country. But at some point Victoria also
remembered that wronged people have a right to be angry.
"After more than a year of absolute hell, I'm going
to be going back without a penny to show for everything that's
happened!" she grumbled to Sigal Rozen, the director
of the Hotline. So Rozen promptly suggested an idea she had
been promoting to women in a similar situation for two years
- without any takers.
"Why not get your deportation postponed - with the Hotline's
help - so that you can stay and fight for your due?"
Rozen proposed to Victoria. "Not only justice for those
who have victimized you but just compensation for your labors."
So were born the three court cases currently being waged
in Victoria's name or with her help. The first is a criminal
case against three of her six "owners" and the errant
son. The charges against them, it turns out, do not include
trafficking in women, as Victoria was last "sold"
a month before the amendment to the Penal Code made trafficking
in human beings a crime in Israel. They do, however, include
crimes equally as evil: rape and sodomy, in aggravated circumstances,
The second is a civil case filed in the Beersheba District
Labor Court in which Victoria, represented by the Hotline's
energetic legal adviser, Nomi Levenkron, is suing all six
of her "owners" for a combined total of almost $200,000
in back wages, interest, and compensation for the pain, suffering,
and anguish she endured while enslaved by them.
The third is a petition to the Supreme Court for an injunction
ordering the minister of internal security, the interior minister,
and the Israel Police to pay for Victoria's upkeep ($1,500
a month, though there are legal precedents for demanding twice
that amount) until she can testify in the criminal case.
Since being released from the Neveh Tirzah Prison early last
November, Victoria has been living, in hiding from her former
enslavers and with no police protection, off the kindness
of strangers. She is not getting the medical attention she
wants. She is not receiving the psychological counseling she
needs. "There are times when I'd just like to go window
shopping in a mall to cheer up a bit," she says. "But
that would only remind me how utterly destitute I am."
"The terms of her release from detention prohibit Victoria
from working during the remainder of her stay in Israel,"
Levenkron explains. "So who's taking care of her? Well,
if having our volunteers stand up at the end of a law class,
tell Victoria's story, and pass around the hat is 'seeing
to her needs,' then yes, I suppose you can say we're taking
care of her."
VICTORIA'S CIVIL SUIT AND Supreme Court appeal for maintenance
are unprecedented in Israel. But many aspects of her plight
are so common to the thousands of trafficked women engaged
in prostitution in Israel that one must wonder why the phenomenon
has been allowed to continue for so long.
Indeed, Chief Superintendent Avi Davidovich, head of the
Investigations Division in the national headquarters of the
Israel Police and head of a new interministerial committee
on trafficking in women, notes that the problem has been growing
since the beginning of the 1990s.
"Four factors have fostered it," Davidovich explains:
"The rapid growth of Israel's population and thus the
number of men who seek sexual services; the growth in the
number of foreign workers, mostly single men, who have become
major consumers of such services; the opening of borders and
freer movement worldwide, especially migration from the Commonwealth
of Independent States (CIS); and an erosion of social norms
"Israelis have simply grown used to the idea that women
can be bought," concurs Leah Gruenpeter-Gold, co-director
of the Awareness Center in Tel Aviv, which specializes in
research on trafficking in women and prostitution. "I
wouldn't say sex trafficking has burgeoned here largely because
of the foreign workers - show me one who can afford $60 an
hour for a prostitute. It's far more because of the changed
norms of young Israelis - both married men and single men
who don't want to enter into a relationship so they purchase
The influx of 1 million immigrants from the CIS over the
past decade has also made it easier for the crime syndicates
operating there - whose tentacles reach deep into Israel -
to traffic women with forged documents. "Some prostitutes
come in under the forged identities of Jewish women in Russia
and the Ukraine," explains Hagay Herzl, an advisor to
the internal security minister on foreign-workers issues.
"They even receive the rights and benefits accorded to
immigrants by the Law of Return."
Yet even though the problem is a veteran and particularly
ugly one, trafficking in women has only hiccupped its way
through the discussion of Israel's struggle with a growing
population of illegal foreign workers. "It crops up from
time to time, the press gives it a blast of coverage - like
when the four Russian prostitutes were burned to death in
a locked brothel, with bars on the windows, in Tel Aviv last
August - and then it goes back to sleep again," says
One reason for the lack of sustained attention by the government
and media is that prostitution, per se, is not illegal in
Israel (and neither was trafficking in human beings until
last July). What is criminal is "procurement," which
the law defines as taking some or all of the profits of a
woman so engaged. In short, it is pimps who stand to spend
up to five years in prison (seven under aggravated circumstances)
for their actions. Yet in the case of trafficked women, it
is the prostitutes who have been consistently punished by
Israel's law-enforcement agencies - as illegal aliens - by
being arrested, detained for weeks, and deported, while the
owners of brothels have gotten off scot-free.
Another reason for the lack of vigor in attacking the problem
is that Israeli officials, to this day, seem somewhat ambivalent
about just how victimized the trafficked women are.
"From talks with hundreds of women awaiting deportation
in Neveh Tirzah, I can tell you that only an isolated number
claim they were deceived about what awaited them here - meaning
they had answered an ad for a job as an au pair or a model
or something similar," says Herzl. "The overwhelming
majority came here knowing what they would be doing and how
much they were likely to earn," which is an estimated
$700-$1,000 a month. Many of these women, Herzl concedes,
failed to anticipate the harsh physical conditions or how
hard they would be required to work. "But the great majority
of the women who have come here to work in prostitution do
get paid for it," he stresses. "Before being deported,
quite a few have even told me that they intend to come back,
as this is the only way they can improve their economic situation."
Activists dispute this overview, saying that while they simply
don't know what proportion of the women are here against their
will, it's a far from isolated phenomenon. Still, testimonies
like those cited by Herzl
probably made it easier to turn a blind eye to the egregious
violations of human rights often entailed in the sex trafficking
business. And typically, perhaps, it took an outside party
to rub Israel's nose in this problem.
That service was provided last May by Amnesty International,
which issued a blistering 23-page report on trafficking in
women in Israel that slammed the government for "[failing]
to take adequate measures to prevent, investigate, prosecute
and punish human rights abuses against trafficked women"
from the former Soviet Union. The report included a list of
specific recommendations, among them: making slavery and trafficking
unlawful; establishing a special unit to deal with the investigation
and prosecution of abuses; treating women as victims rather
than criminals; opening a hostel for trafficked women (detaining
them in prison, pending deportation, only as a last resort);
and providing them with legal aid, counseling, and medical
services, as well as tools to request asylum when they face
danger if returned to their native lands.
Clearly, official Israel was stung by the reproof. On June
13, 2000, the Knesset established a special commission of
inquiry into trafficking in women, headed by Meretz Knesset
member Zahava Gal-On. At the end of July, the Penal Code was
amended to making trafficking in human beings a crime whose
perpetrators are liable to up to 16 years in prison (20 for
trafficking in a minor). And most recently, an interministerial
committee, composed of representatives of the Justice, Interior,
Internal Security, and Labor and Social Affairs ministries,
has begun to address many of the issues spotlighted by the
Perhaps most telling of all, officials like Davidovich and
Herzl are now clearly speaking of trafficked women as "victims"
and of the need to prosecute the traffickers and pimps, rather
than the women they victimize.
Expectations of what this thrust of interest and activity
can accomplish, given budgetary constraints, vary. "We're
not talking about eradicating [sex trafficking], just containing
its spread and reducing its scope," says Davidovich.
"And it's clear that the police cannot take on the establishment
of hostels or other aspects of a witness-protection program
to encourage these women to testify in criminal cases."
But Herzl is far more upbeat, saying that he intends to raise
the idea of a witness-protection program with the incoming
minister. He also reports that the police have been directed
to embark on "quality, in-depth investigations - not
against the women but against the importers, the pimps, the
people who run the whole business." And he promises that
"in the near future, you'll see the results of these
activities. We are determined to deal with the phenomenon
head on," he says, "with the aim of reducing it
to the point of elimi-nating it."
MEANWHILE, OUT IN THE field, the hue has yet to turn rosy.
The Knesset's commission of inquiry held only two sessions
before its six-month mandate expired, and now there are procedural
obstacles to automatically renewing it. A judge in Beersheba
has been known to assign trafficked women to be held in detention,
until their deportation, in the very brothel where they worked
- stipulating, of course, that they must not engage in prostitution!
And the Awareness Center has learned that the City of Rishon
Lezion, south of Tel Aviv, has been issuing business licenses
to brothels; the city had not responded by press time to an
inquiry on this from The Report.
Even more dismaying is the fact that the first trial based
on the new anti-trafficking clause of the Penal Code ended
in mid-February with a whimper: a plea bargain - proposed
by the prosecution - in which the offender received a mere
two-year sentence. The case would probably not have come to
trial at all had it not been for the fact that one of the
victim's johns - a kibbutznik - fell in love with her (and
vice versa), tried to redeem her from bondage by paying off
her "owner," shelled out an advance, and then got
stung by the greedy pimp, who proceeded to "sell"
her elsewhere. Only then - and after the love-struck kibbutznik
had managed to "kidnap" his prospective bride from
her captor - was the matter taken to the police.
"Evidently the State Attorney's Office also has to be
educated about the new outlook on trafficking," says
Gruenpeter-Gold bitterly, while the Hotline's Levenkron has
registered an official protest with the Tel Aviv district
attorney over the plea bargain.
Speaking of education, Gruenpeter-Gold suggests that the
Education Ministry also be represented on the interministerial
committee dealing with trafficking, and Levenkron would add
the Foreign Ministry to its list of members, explaining that
an Israeli information campaign in the CIS could go a long
way toward attacking the problem at its source.
All in all, press clippings over the past six months seem
to suggest a slightly heightened awareness of the problem,
and talks with officials suggest that the state is finally
beginning to address it. But the apparent change of attitude
is still nowhere near the energetic campaign that the organ-izations
grappling with the issue of trafficking would like to see
"Neglect, sheer neglect is why we've reached this point,"
says Levenkron, and Gruenpeter-Gold adds: "I wish I could
say that something has seriously changed since the law was
amended last July, but I can't."
"Just two months ago, we had a hard time getting the
police interested in even hearing Victoria's testimony,"
reports the Hotline's Rozen. "They said it would be her
word against that of her pimps, and they couldn't build a
case on that. It was only after I had testified before the
Knesset inquiry commission that the police called back to
say they would like to see her. They were shamed into it.
And we should all be ashamed that things like this exist in
our 'enlightened,' democratic society and we still prefer
to turn the other way."