(January 13) - Prostitution is often euphemistically called the world's oldest profession, but it has become the newest business of choice for organized crime. Modern Western culture has at times even glorified prostitution and given the debate over it a tinge of civil rights versus religious morality. Such civics lesson-style dilemmas must be set aside in order to address the problem in its current incarnation, in which prostitution is often a modern form of slavery, pure and simple.
This Sunday's New York Times reports that the "selling [of] naive and desperate young women into sexual bondage has become one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the robust global economy." Recently, this trade has shifted and expanded from Asia, where it has been going on for years, to the former Soviet Union, which experts call "the most lucrative market of all to criminal gangs that have flourished since the fall of Communism."
Israel, of course, is not the only country where this market is flourishing, but circumstances have conspired to make Israel a prime destination for traders in human beings. An extensive report soon to be released by the Women's Lobby - based on dozens of interviews with police, government officials, prostitutes, and local diplomats - paints a daunting picture of the scope of the problem. According to the report, a sophisticated network of gangs is taking advantage of Israeli immigration laws to import Ukrainian and Russian women, promising them work as waitresses or dancers, and instead forcing them into prostitution.
A woman called Irina, interviewed in Neveh Tirza Prison by The New York Times before being deported, had been lured to Israel by an advertisement in a small Ukrainian newspaper. She slipped off a tourist boat in Haifa, and planned on making a bundle doing nude dancing here. Upon arrival, her Israeli contact drove her to a brothel and burned her passport before her eyes, saying that she was now his property and would have to earn her way home through prostitution.
The country's 250,000 foreign workers, most of them men who are single or without their families, provide a ready-made clientele for the imported prostitutes. Each prostitute earns her "owners" $50,000 to $100,000 a year, resulting in a $450 million industry in Israel alone. Of this, the women themselves receive almost nothing, and their only hope becomes a police raid that will lead to their deportation. In the meantime, smugglers play a cat and mouse game with police, disguising their victims as nuns, or circus performers, or any other ruse that will get them into the country.
The police, trying to stop the flow, have at times become overzealous, stopping one medical student from St. Petersburg on the way to visit her family and sending her back home. The Absorption Ministry ended up apologizing to her and inviting her back, after which she told reporters that the Israeli authorities evidently thought "every blond woman from Russia is a prostitute." Removing the terribly unfair stigma of prostitution that haunts Russian immigrants is, in fact, one of the many reasons why this scourge must be fought. The problem, however, has largely been met with complacency by the authorities. Since prostitution itself is not illegal, and both the victims and the users of the system tend to be foreigners, it has been easy not to attach too great a priority to addressing the problem. Prostitution rings, however, should not be considered purely a criminal menace, but a moral challenge to Israeli society: can we tolerate a burgeoning slave trade in our midst?
According to the Women's Lobby, part of the problem is that there is no law against slavery in Israel. Though a shortage of legal authority is probably not the major problem in combating the trading of women into prostitution, whatever legal holes that exist should be filled. In addition, the law and its enforcement should not be focused on the prostitutes themselves, who are after all usually the principal victims. Though deporting the victims does provide them a semblance of freedom and deprive the criminals of income, it is those who keep these women in bondage who deserve to be hunted, caught, and jailed.