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Ironically, it was a similar impetus that led Victoria (who asks that her last name not be published) into the nightmare she has been living for the past 16 months.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, among others.
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 in Israel."
"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 sex."
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 Gruenpeter-Gold.
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 Amnesty Report.
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 adopted.
"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."