Friday, June 5, 2020 -
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Illegal in Israel

They call it the world’s oldest profession.

I don’t know that it is. Perhaps agriculture, midwifery or slavery would, in fact, meet the definition.

It doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is that we all want to pretend prostitution doesn’t exist. None of us wants to acknowledge it or imagine young, vulnerable, wide- eyed girls being ensnared. I am embarrassed even to write about it.

The terrible cycle of this cruel “profession” keeps rearing its ugly head. Young girls can understandably be ruined for life — but in Israel, no more, thanks to a law passed this week.

While the plight of the prostitute figures in some Talmudic narratives, the most famous one of all is none other than the biblical Rahab.

Our reflex is to associate a prostitute with the lowest rung of society and, by extension, the lowest ethics. But in the story of the two spies and Jericho, it is Rahab who risks her life to help two strangers, two spies, who she sees are risking their very lives for the greater good of their people. Rahab mirrors their behavior. She risks her life for the cause of a greater good. The spies hold the promise for a new, better day and better society in Jericho. Perhaps Rahab saw this as her chance to break the terrible cycle she was caught in.

Rahab saves the spies by smuggling them out her window by a cord of scarlet thread. This very cord that served as the medium for their escape is what the spies instruct Rahab to attach to her window. The cord is their code, marking her window clearly, so Rahab and her family can be spared when the city of Jericho is conquered. The cord of scarlet thread became the symbol of safety. Scripture records: “She tied the scarlet cord in the window.” And she was spared the fate of the fallen Jericho.

Unlike Rahab, most young girls and women who have fallen into this nightmare have no way out, no scarlet cord, no way to be spared from this fate. This week in Israel, a historic law was passed. It criminalizes the hire of prostitutes. It is now illegal.

What is amazing is that this law passed because of the incredible collaborative effort of women who stand on opposing ends of the spectrum, from religious to secular, from Jew to Arab, from right wing to left wing. These women spanned the entire spectrum of Israeli politics, but they set aside differences to focus on accomplishing their goal, a goal of women serving as guardians for fellow women, sisters who have lost their way.

Spearheaded by MK Shuli Refaeli Mualem and Minister Ayelet Shaked, with the support of MK Aliza Lavie, and former MK Zahava Galon, as well as MK Aida Touma Suleiman, these women stood up for their fellow women. Driving this process was also the indefatigable Meital David Bonchek. This long journey culminated with the blessing of “Shehecheyanu” recited in the Israeli parliament, uttered from the podium by Shuli Mualem.

This group of women and this new law echo an earlier struggle of a similar nature 100 years ago.

During WW I, young Jews in the city of Jaffa, known as the Yishuv, were exiled by the ruling Ottoman Turks. At the time it was seen as an effort to liquidate the Yishuv. People were stranded. Families broken apart. Children left on their own without their parents. They were starving. And vulnerable to disease.

Many of these youths were cared for by an inspirational young woman named Sarah Tahor. She was called “the good mother of the exiled.” She helped care for and rehabilitate these youths, torn from their parents.

Parallel to this situation in Jaffa was a crisis in Jerusalem. Many young girls, orphans among them, were lost souls wandering Jerusalem. They were taken as prostitutes for the British soldiers. Inspired by Sarah Tahor’s leadership in Jaffa, the women of the city united in order to stem this plague. These women founded vocational training programs to train these girls with a skill they could use to provide for themselves with dignity.

They also scheduled outings as well as an evening program of classes, so as to keep the girls meaningfully engaged and give them a life. In the process, they took care of their material needs and provided them with food and clothing, and even some job opportunities. The Red Cross had just set up shop in Jerusalem, and this group of women leveraged the Red Cross to provide funds to help these girls.

Shaming was not part of the process. It was simply a matter of helping rehabilitate girls by giving them a sense of dignity, purpose and a path forward in making a living. They gave them a second chance.

That is part and parcel of this Israel’s new law. Not only does this law ban patronizing prostitution, but it has dedicated significant funds to help rehabilitate past victims.

I hope this law will come to symbolize safety and protection for young girls and women, vulnerable to being ensnared. I hope this law will save their lives and help improve them, with dignity.

Like it was for Rahab, I hope this law will become Israel’s safe space, symbolized in the scarlet cord in the window.

Aside from the obvious ethical and moral aspects of coping with the reality of prostitution is, of course, the devastating and scarring emotional layer.

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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