Trafficking into Israel is not simply a story of economic migration; it is a modern slave trade.[1]
— Martina Vandenberg

Worldwide, the socio-economic forces driving labor migration are at the root of most cases of trafficking in women. In Israel, however, a particular set of circumstances not only facilitates the trafficking of women into the country, but also encourages it, transforming trafficking into a genuine slave trade. “Isolated, held in debt bondage and forbidden to quit until their contract is completed, the women have little or no control over how they work.” [2] Women who migrate to Israel for sex work are subject to diverse pressures, including migration laws, Israeli migration policies, prostitution laws and victimization by organized crime. [3] This article employs a labor migration perspective to analyze the trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union to Israel for forced prostitution.

“The group of migrant women that we are concerned with works cheaply, does not lay claim to legal or social protection — because their legal situation is too precarious — and generates significant private and criminal revenue,” [4] writes Marjan Wijers, head of the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking of Women. Although it refers to women who have been trafficked to countries in Western Europe, Wijer’s account describes precisely the situation in Israel. Every year, approximately 2,000 women are trafficked from Russia and the former Soviet Union to Israel. [5] Regardless of their original intentions, most end up in debt-bondage prostitution.

Even before the women leave their countries of origin, traffickers take away their passports, often replacing them with fake identity cards procured from Jews who wish to make a profit on Israel’s Law of Return. [6] Upon arriving in Israel under false pretenses — without proof of their actual identity or any knowledge of Hebrew — these women are vulnerable to abuse by brothel owners; traffickers sell women to brothels for $5,000-15,000 each, depending on their age and beauty. The women will make many times that amount annually for their pimps. [7] Threats, isolation, beatings and rape constitute the chief methods of preventing their escape.

Rather than acknowledging and countering the exploitation of foreign sex workers as a human rights violation, Israel expels these women as if they were illegal immigrants. The process of labor migration in Israel is bleak for its 200,000 legal foreign workers. Israel fosters a thriving market for laborers while treating them as second-class persons. Not surprisingly, Israel regards its migrant prostitutes — who are, as a rule, compelled to work in debt bondage — with the same disdain usually shown to those who work in the sex industry. Legal factors, such as the marked absence of a law banning the sale of persons and traffickers who abuse Jewish immigration rights derived from the Law of Return, make Israel an especially fertile ground for this type of exploitation. In fact, one government official recently described Israel as a “paradise for traffickers.” [8]

Why Women Come to Israel

The original intention of most women who end up being trafficked to Israel is simply to make a living. [9] Trafficking is an international labor migration concern because it exploits and abuses vulnerable individuals seeking to escape from dire economic circumstances. Traffickers thrive on the rigidity of most nations’ labor and immigration policies. Because women are frequently unable to migrate and find work in traditional regulated sectors, they are forced to take their chances with offers of uncertain — and often treacherous — work abroad.

In Russia and the former Soviet Union, where the economy is in freefall, sophisticated networks of employment agencies and recruiters disseminating false advertisements lure women into sex work. Alexandra, an inmate at Neve Tirza, Israel’s only women’s prison, was initially recruited when she “responded to an ad on cable television for girls between the ages of 18 and 35 to work abroad as models, masseuses and waitresses.” [10] Once in Israel, she was sold to the owner of a brothel. But not all women come to Israel intending to work. Natasha, a tourist from the Ukraine, came on vacation and decided to stay. “A Russian-Israeli man visited me and told me that it was possible to work. He took me to a massage parlor. I have to feed my son, I have to work,” she explained. [11] Although Natasha was not directly forced to work at the massage parlor, her decision was compelled by her young son’s hunger. Once inside the brothel, she was still subject to all the rules of its world, regardless of her route of entry.

Out of the Frying Pan…

A very fine line separates consensual from forced sex work. Most women come to Israel fully aware of what profession they will be working in. Although prostitution is legal in Israel, many of the activities surrounding it are not. Pimping, for example, is forbidden by Israeli law. The traffickers’ crime lies not only in employing women as prostitutes but also in the control mechanisms they use to keep them working. In parlors providing the services of Israeli prostitutes, foreign women are kept in isolation. Guards prevent them from interacting with Israeli sex workers.

Prostitution is recognized as a form of labor by UN agencies. The Standard Minimum Rules for Trafficked Persons Draft states that “trafficked persons shall be treated as migrant laborers and therefore be protected by the International Labor Organization.” [12]

Simply by coming to Israel, women incur an average debt of $20,000, comprising the costs of their voyage and false papers. This debt can be broken down into four categories: travel expenses, cost of forged documents, fees to the employment agency and the cost of the woman’s own purchase price. Employment contracts usually state that a woman will work one year to cancel her debt. Brothels promise a payment at the end of the first contract year, after which women begin to earn a daily salary. These contracts, both written and verbal, serve no other purpose than to create a legal fiction holding women in debt-bondage. As Leila explained, “I worked in Eilat for two weeks and then ran away from the pimp. The pimps tell us such stories and promise money. It was very dangerous because he can do whatever he wants — he bribed the police and beat the girls and took all of our money. He never paid the women any money.” [13]

… And into the Fire

“Raids are de facto immigration sweeps; the major outcome of any raid is the deportation of young women,” writes researcher Martina Vandenberg. [14] The primary way that women “escape” from brothels is through police raids, which usually take place in the eleventh month, just before the women’s one-year contracts expire. “The pimps use the police for their own purposes: They call the police to their establishments when they are finished with the girls and the women are sent back from Israel as they came, while the pimps are twice enriched,” says reporter Dov Kontorer. [15]

According to other newspaper reports, police allow some brothels to operate because their owners are key informants on mafia underworld activities. Women from the former Soviet Union have an instinctive mistrust of Israeli police and officials. They have heard the traffickers’ threats and have bitter experience with corrupt institutions in their home countries. Sadly, their fears of not being helped prove all too true when they finally encounter the Israeli legal system.

Once arrested, a woman’s only prospect is deportation. Yet even this may not end her trafficking ordeal. Debt follows women home, and newly repatriated women are frequently coerced to return to Israel in order to work off the money that the traffickers insist they owe. Furthermore, women’s chances of being vindicated through the Israeli legal system are unlikely. Foreign women do not have the full support of the law, and officials at every level are misinformed and biased about the nature of sex work. Israel does not provide any protection, even within the country, for women who testify against traffickers. Foreign workers who do testify are deported at the end of a trial, thus rendering them vulnerable to their abusers once again. As one woman reported, “When I was arrested the police did not interview me. They asked if I wanted to do a criminal case, but then they immediately told me that it would be better not to. The pimp would have all of the protection…. They told me that the pimp always wins.” [16]

There are two reasons why “the pimp always wins”: Israeli law is not equipped to confront the most serious issues of the trafficking problem, namely, those related to violations of women’s human rights. There is no law against the sale of persons, nor are there any laws prohibiting the trafficking of women into Israel. The maximum sentence that a charge of pimping — even when compounded with the more serious charge of kidnapping — has ever received is 18 months, and the prosecution in that case considered this sentence a success. [17] In the words of Efraim Ehrlich, head of the Tel Aviv Vice Squad, “It is the court’s policy not to put the pimps in jail.” [18]

Secondly, women who choose to testify receive no support or protection of any kind. Women who testify must stay in prison for the trial’s duration. Even under normal circumstances, months of waiting in prison can erode an inmate’s desire for justice. One woman received a death threat taped to her bunk. The note threatened to kill her or harm her family. This woman seriously contemplated suicide, believing that death was her only escape from these harrowing circumstances. [19] It is virtually certain that any woman who testifies will bring great harm to herself and her loved ones.

Organized Crime: Another Dimension

Organized crime and the mal-industrialization of prostitution represent the dark side of a decade of mass migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Since the early 1990s, the “Russian” mafia has controlled the sex industry in Israel. [20] Crime rings originating in the former Soviet Union have gained a strong foothold in Israel thanks to the absence of laws forbidding the sale of persons, poor police work (which at times borders on complicity) and abuses of the Law of Return, which allows Jews from any country to migrate to Israel and acquire citizenship quickly. This “right” has been abused extensively. An official in the Ministry of the Interior allegedly granted citizenship to several mafia bosses in exchange for a large bribe. [21]

Backlash Against Women

Repressive strategies based on existing prostitution and migration laws are easiest for the Israeli government to implement. According to Wijers, “they fit very nicely with state interests and supply them with a tidy set of arguments, [i.e.], close the borders, deport illegal women and the trafficking will end.” [22] Recently, the Ministry of the Interior has limited tourist visas for Russian tour groups from three months to just a few days. These visa restrictions are useless given the ways that women usually enter Israel. The most common method of entry is by way of tour ships arriving from Cyprus and Odessa. Women leave their passports as a deposit for a one-day visa, but never come back to retrieve their documents. Women also arrive at the airport with forged papers, or are smuggled in via the Red Sea tourist city of Eilat. [23]

In some instances, airport police have detained random women whom they suspected of entering the country to work as prostitutes. These cases have ended in the public humiliation of some women, such as a noted Russian newscaster and a St. Petersburg medical student traveling to Israel to visit her family. [24]

What Can Be Done?

Before the summer of 1997, public and official awareness of Israel’s trafficking crisis was virtually nonexistent. In June of that year, however, American researcher Martina Vandenberg, in a joint project with the Israel Women’s Network (Israel’s leading feminist advocacy group), began to research the phenomenon of trafficking of women to Israel. Over three months, and after dozens of interviews with officials, police, academics and the women themselves, a report, The Trafficking of Women to Israel and Forced Prostitution, was issued.

This report constitutes the cornerstone of the Israel Women’s Network’s efforts to improve the situation of trafficked women. The campaign strives to highlight women’s human rights, rather than their illegal status in Israel. A series of grassroots social action projects — performed in conjunction with several Israeli NGOs — is now beginning. These include prison visits to Neve Tirza, an internationally advertised hotline and a public information campaign. IWN lawyers are now lobbying the Israeli parliament, urging the passage of a law against the sale of persons. Activists are also pressuring police to concentrate on activities that will help the women help themselves.

No one knows when the trafficking of women to Israel will end. But until it does, necessary measures — both social and legal — must be instituted to support these women, who have not simply overstayed their visas in order to work illegally. Trafficked women are the victims of mafia exploitation and forced prostitution, abuses constituting human rights violations of the first degree.


[1] Martina Vandenberg, Trafficking of Women to Israel and Forced Prostitution (Tel Aviv: IWN, 1997).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mosjan Wijers, “Women, Labor and Migration: The Position of Trafficked Women and Strategies for Support,” in Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Dozema, eds., Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition (London: Routledge, 1998).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Vandenberg, op cit.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] The comment was made at a December 1998 meeting of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, by Yaakov Kedmi, head of Nativ, an organization that forwards intelligence material from the CIS to the Internal Security Ministry.
[9] Wijers, op cit.
[10] Vandenberg, op cit.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women and the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking in Women, 1997.
[13] Vandenberg, op cit.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Dov Kontorer, “Look for the Pimp,” Ma’ariv, August 26, 1997.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Vandenberg, op cit., p. 25.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Author’s interview with Masha P., May 18, 1998.
[20] Kontorer, op cit.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Wijers, op cit.
[23] Vandenberg, op cit.
[24] Ibid.

How to cite this article:

Anya Stone "How the Sex Trade Becomes a Slave Trade," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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