It is not often that the Israeli government makes a decision whose purpose is to set ethical and moral norms. The ministerial decision to pass the bill criminalizing clients of prostitutes, those who pay for their services, which MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) and I introduced a few years ago in conjunction with organizations that combat human trafficking, is just this kind of decision.
Just a few years ago, many people said that Israel would never dare take action against prostitution. Even then, however, everyone knew that this industry of abuse and exploitation was gaining strength. The assumption was that we had no chance of rendering prostitution illegitimate. But persistence pays off.
The approval of this bill shows that when it comes to norms and values, the Israeli public is much more open than one would have thought to changing old models and concepts. This bill is designed to eradicate the phenomenon of prostitution, not merely to treat, as we do today, its side effects: violence, pimping and trafficking in women. That is why this proposed bill addresses the economic engine of the industry -- its customers.
I am aware of the counter arguments against the law: that it constitutes discrimination, unequal treatment and paternalism by one group against another. I am also aware of the criticism coming from women engaged in prostitution, who describe the deep economic hardship and economic inequality of women in our society, and see prostitution as a way to address these problems. Opponents of the law argue that these women freely chose to earn their living from prostitution.
To these people, my answer is that of course the best way to work on behalf of women engaged in prostitution is to fight poverty. Yet at the same time, we must address the root of demand in the industry, confronting customers with the consequences of their deeds.
Are we ready as a society for the legislation ratified by the government? I believe so. Changing patterns of behavior is not easy, but the role of a society built on values of human dignity and liberty is to intervene and set limits. When customers turn women into objects, not recognizing that the women are there against their will, it is necessary to raise the issue for public debate.
In a society where the purchase of women’s services is taken for granted, all women are given the signal that they are for sale. These circumstances help perpetuate women’s already inferior status in Israeli society, including the status of those who are not engaged in prostitution. Women in Israel, to a sweeping degree, are excluded from public spaces, underrepresented in centers of power, discriminated against and kept down in the workplace and in terms of salaries.
One day when we live in an egalitarian society with men and women wielding the same level of status and power, we can talk about an individual’s exercise of free choice over their body and rights. In the real world, however, where inequality perpetuates discrimination against women, I believe that this law prohibiting the consumption of prostitution will not only affect prostitutes, but raise the dignity and status of all women.
MK Zahava Gal-On is the newly elected Meretz leader and serves as the chairperson of the Knesset Subcommittee on the Trafficking in Women.