Rabbi Speaks on Sex Trafficking, Moral Obligation of Israelis

Rosemary Boeglin, Staff Writer

J Street U, the student arm of J Street, the largest pro-Israel political action committee in the U.S., hosted Rabbi Levi Lauer on Feb. 13 to discuss his work to depose the sex trafficking trade in Israel, which he characterized as “disproportionately severe” because the population of purchasers of sexual services is more concentrated, though it is not “more vicious or ugly” than anywhere else.
Lauer, the founder and executive director of ATZUM Justice Works, an Israeli social justice organization, spoke to students in Wilder on the sale and enslavement of women in Israel and the landmark decision passed unanimously by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation to criminalize the purchase, but not the sale, of sexual services the day before he spoke at Oberlin.

Hadas Binyamini, co-founder and co-chair of Oberlin’s J Street U chapter, said that the group, which gained its College charter this semester, hopes to serve as a “pragmatic left wing pro-Israel voice” on campus and create “a community for students who feel connected with and care about Israel, but disagree with many of its policies.”

Lauer discussed the road sex workers travel to Israel; 3,200 women a year enter the country, many of whom are orphans or women from the former Soviet Union. Flown from Cairo, these women are passed through the hands of bribed Bedouins at the Egyptian border and brought to the Israeli border. They are then driven over the border and handed off to Israeli Bedouin, sold based on physical characteristics and appeal, distributed to pimps, physically and emotionally ravaged and subsequently dumped on the streets to be later deported to their country of origin.

“These women are systematically raped and beaten … [You ask] how does such a thing happen and then what do you do about it?” Lauer said.

Tzipora Lederman, College junior, spent Winter Term in Israel and attended the lecture. “When I was in Israel at Pardes [a school for Jewish learning in Jerusalem] we spent a class talking about sex work. … The situation in Israel is interesting because of the percentage of different demographics that visit brothels in Israel. Brothels are most commonly visited by religious groups in Israel that are sexually repressed, [such as] ultra-orthodox [Jews] and Muslims. That says a lot about male-dominated society, and religious factions that repress female sexuality.”

Lauer emphasized the need for Jews and supporters of Israel to address issues of sex trafficking due to the moral responsibility that comes with creating a Jewish state. Because the police in Israel were failing to enforce laws regulating the sale of sex in Israel, and because “Israel is a country where the law is seen as a recommendation,” Lauer recounted a series of uncomfortable meetings and correspondences in his struggle to liberate trafficked women.

“Police can be really appallingly obtuse. … You have decided to take on the trade of women in the Jewish state until it ends. Every day those women suffer … you are responsible for that because you bear that citizenship and that moral responsibility.”

Lauer argued that “people don’t have sex with prostitutes, they rape sex slaves. People don’t rape sex slaves for sex, they rape for power.” Lauer cited that 20,000 sex slaves are raped each month in Israel.

Some students who attended the lecture expressed discomfort with the notion that there are no willing sex workers, while others, including Lederman, agreed.

“It’s so important to acknowledge the interplay between human trafficking and sex workers. Too often people assume that sex workers are making an autonomous decision to become a sex worker. I appreciated that he mentioned that even saying ‘have sex with a prostitute’ is misleading because really, every time someone has sex with a prostitute it’s rape.”

Though she said she did not agree with specific points made by Lauer, Binyamini said she was nevertheless inspired. “He exemplifies what we believe is the kind of Israel that we need. He is not afraid to, as he puts it, ‘air the dirty laundry of the Jewish people,’ and in so doing publicly criticize Israel in an effort to make it better and more just. His talk was valuable in that it highlighted a serious issue that needs to be fixed, but also in that it addressed what people who support Israel need to be doing — cleaning it up.”