MONTREAL — Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom is one of just two Canadian Reform synagogues – and possibly the only two Jewish congregations in North America – fighting to abolish prostitution in Israel by calling for a law there that would jail johns.
The synagogue is collaborating with Israel’s ATZUM Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT) on a North American letter-writing campaign urging Israel to pass such a law that will culminate with a “Stop the Traffic” mission to Israel Jan. 12 to 13.
“This just needs to be done,” said Peggy Sakow, a co-chair of the synagogue’s six-year-old committee against human trafficking, founded by spiritual leader Rabbi Leigh Lerner. “[Our committee] is the only synagogue group working full time on this issue.”
The other Canadian congregation supporting the ATZUM initiative is Vancouver’s Temple Shalom.
Sakow said the model for the Israeli law, which was proposed by Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz, is existing legislation in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, which have seen drastic reductions in levels of prostitution. Sweden’s law was enacted in 1999.
Sakow, who co-chairs the temple committee with Liliane Kohl and Denise Grossman, said that even though Israel passed an anti-trafficking law in 2006, the proposed new law targets the “demand for paid sex” and the “buying of people for sex” by prosecuting clients of prostitutes.
According to ATZUM, whose founding director is Rabbi Levi Lauer, trafficking of humans is a $500-million industry in Israel, where 10 per cent of prostitutes are minors.
According to a recent CNN report, about 10,000 women have been smuggled into Israel – mostly from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union by way of Egypt – for prostitution in what Israeli lawyer Ori Keidar, who supports the new law, has called “modern slavery.”
The report said that women are “locked, beaten up, starved, and forced to receive 15 to 30 men a day, 365 days a year.”
To drive home the point, last month women posed in a Tel Aviv shopping mall with price tags dangling from their bodies as a part of an art installation called “Woman to Go.”
The text of the letter for the campaign – sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich and Justice Minister Yaacov Neeman – describes “appalling and well-documented” human trafficking problems in Israel.
“The message from [Sweden, Norway and Iceland] is that women, girls and boys are not for sale,” the letter states. “Will Israel send the same message by passing legislation that criminalizes the buying of others for sex?”
According to Sakow, who describes herself as an “abolitionist” when it comes to prostitution, it’s the people who pay for sex who should be regarded as criminals.
And as far as she is concerned, except for the small percentage of escort-type call girls who actually choose to become prostitutes, for the overwhelming majority, choice is not part of the equation.
“They are homeless, abused, they are victims,” Sakow said. “And once you’re in it, it’s very difficult to get out.
“The majority of Israelis want a law like this,” she added, noting that most prostitutes start working early, some as young as age 12. “It is women and children for sale.”
The proposed legislation also has the strong support of Israeli Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Sakow said.
Sakow said significant support for legislation on human trafficking and prostitution has come from a variety of Christian groups and orders, including the Salvation Army, and St. Monica’s Parish in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
While the trafficking committee’s work over the last several years, including conferences at the temple, has the support of the Canadian Conference of Reform Jews (CCRJ), it hasn’t really been “on the radar screen” of the Canadian Jewish community, Sakow said.
As far as she knows, the two Canadian synagogues are the only ones in North America taking part in the letter-writing campaign. But, she added, referring to Jewish community involvement, “I think it’s beginning to happen.”