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Should Israel Make Paying for Sex a Criminal Offense?

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In just over a week, Israeli lawmakers will be faced with a tough decision: Whether to approve legislation that will make paying for sex or utilizing any other type of sexual service a criminal offense.

While there is no exact figures on how many people utilize the services of sex workers in Israel, anyone who has visited Tel Aviv or Haifa lately will likely have come into contact with those little business cards or flyers promoting "escort" services.

Generally, NGOs estimate that each month up to 10,000 men -- from all sectors of Israeli society (secular, religious, Jews, Arabs and foreigners) -- visit one of the hundreds of discreet apartments or brothels throughout the country.

What is worse, however, is that there are more than 15,000 individuals working in the prostitution industry and 5,000 of them are minors. Most, say the professionals, are there because they have no choice.

The decision to criminalize prostitution, which would bring Israel in line with many other Western countries on this matter, is not clear-cut, however.

Representatives of the Justice Ministry say that such a law needs to also involve a complete overhaul of attitudes, a re-education of society and also a new approach by the authorities both in terms of rehabilitation and law enforcement.

Others argue that given the police's failure to enforce existing laws that make running a brothel and the pimping out of others for sexual services illegal, it might be wiser just to make the multi-million dollar sex industry legal and, in turn, regulate it.

While both arguments make sense on a certain level those pushing for the law, which include Israeli parliamentarians from across the political spectrum and NGOs working to promote human rights, say that it is time the world's oldest profession is put out of business completely.

There is no room in today's world, they emphasize, for "sexual slavery" or human servitude of any kind.

Rabbi Levi Lauer, founding executive director of ATZUM, whose Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT) is one of the human rights groups actively supporting this legislation, says simply, "prostitution is a form of modern slavery."

He offers a very solid theory on why we should all be working to eradicate entirely this "profession" not just in Israel, but throughout the world.

The way Lauer puts it, in the State of Israel alone "tens of thousands of women are being raped everyday against their will and we, society, are doing little to stop it."

He points out further that most women caught in the ugly world of selling themselves for sex are not there by choice, even if they appear to be.

Without any formal studies on what makes a person become a prostitute, most professionals in the field suggest that 90 percent or more of sex workers were at one time victims of rape or incest.

Lauer points out, that given this profile, "it is impossible for such a victim to then make a calculated decision that they 'want' to become a sex worker."

"It is more likely that the person has been so tragically psychologically affected and scarred by this experience that he or she has low self esteem that has lead to this line of work," he says, adding "If that is how someone defines being a sex worker out of their free will, then I guess I have a different definition of free will."

On Sunday, the TFHT helped organize protests outside Israeli consulates and embassies in London, New York, Washington DC and opposite the Knesset in Jerusalem aimed at putting pressure on Israeli lawmakers, including Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, to support the legislation. An Israeli cabinet committee will debate the bill on Feb. 12.

While it is still unclear what stance Neeman or any of the other government leaders will take -- after all this legislation could put a serious dent in the side of an industry that makes millions, if not billions, of dollars annually -- what is clear is that more public attention needs to be paid to an issue that involves multiple rapes and modern day slavery.

Considering how widespread the phenomenon is and how quickly it is growing thanks to the Internet, lets just hope Israel's leaders will make the right choice.