I am beginning to think that 13 years of Hebrew school was unnecessary. After four days in Israel, my Hebrew has been helpful in only two situations: when I buy a Coke (“Coke, b’vakasha“), and when someone I’ve just met asks me if I know Hebrew. The conversation invariably goes like this:
Random Person: “Ata yo-day’ah ivrit?” (Do you know Hebrew?)Me:”K’tzat.” (Just a little.)Random Person:“OK, vee speak English now.”
Invariably, the Israeli is much more willing to practice his English then endure my consistently nonsensical Hebrew. My father is a more talented (and more diligent) language student than me, so Israelis usually tolerate his occasional linguistic sluggishness. However, today is different. Dr. Zenilman’s skills are no match for the rapid-fire, discursive Nomi Levenkron.
Nomi is a lawyer for Hotline for Migrant Workers, an NGO that helps foreign prostitutes and tries to persuade them to testify against the mobsters who import and exploit them. We meet her in a cafe on Sheinkin Street, the hub of Tel Aviv secularism. (According to Michael, right-wingers use “You’re from Sheinkin” as a derogatory phrase.) She immediately asks my dad if we can speak Hebrew, because her English isn’t so good. I have never heard anyone speak so quickly. My father hasn’t either, so two minutes later, we switch back to English. Although she is not exactly fluent, she would still beat most American sports announcers in a words-per-minute competition.
We are not at all surprised when she tells us she works 22-hour days, carries two cell phones everywhere, and has sued mobsters, the Israeli police, and at least two government ministries all by herself. For nearly two and half hours she breaks down the prostitution industry, missing a beat only to take a sip from her smoothie or to have Michael translate something she can’t verbalize in English.
Israel’s prostitution industry, like most in the world, can be split into three different groups: pimps, customers, and the women themselves. In Israel, most of the pimps are Russian gangsters who will occasionally forcefully “test-drive” their clients before auctioning them off. They also do things like viciously kick pregnant women in the stomach or commit rape with a broken bottle.
The clients are rarely as violent but not much better. We learn, somewhat surprisingly, that native Israelis and some Arabs, not immigrants, make up the bulk of the market. Nomi then tells us that business has gone down since the intifada started three years ago. I don’t know whether this should be marked down as an economic cost or benefit.
Nomi says that prostitutes have told her about multiple instances in which “Ultra-Orthodox” men have dropped by, finished their business, and walked out with the condom tied up like a water balloon. At first I am slightly confused, and then remember the commandment I learned in Bible class that says not to waste your seed. But this extreme sort of perverted piety is rather rare; the women tell Nomi that most of their religious customers merely shove their yarmulke in their pocket as they walk through the door.
Most of the women did not expect their lives to go down this path. While some of them left Moldova or Ukraine to make a few quick bucks, many of them were forcibly smuggled into Israel via Moscow or Egypt, often by sociopathic border-crossing Bedouins. Once in Israel, they are often afraid to run away because their bosses have either threatened their families back home or confiscated their passports and work permits. Their disinclination to visit the clinic becomes more understandable when we find out that the pimps often take them to quack “doctors” who wield scalpels with little regard for ethics or human decency. According to Nomi, the “worst thing that has ever happened to encourage women trafficking was Pretty Woman.”
Halfway through our conversation, Nomi reminds us that Israel is not nearly the worst place in the world for trafficked women; in places like Turkey, women are often barred from using any form of protection or contraception. However, Israeli officials have not always been prompt or intelligent in dealing with their problem. Waiting-to-testify prostitutes would be locked up with violent criminals instead of being protected in hotel rooms, and witnesses would be deported immediately after court appearances. Recently, there have been improvements—prostitutes are no longer arbitrarily jailed in the days before court testimony; government officials are more willing to bend immigration laws to keep witnesses around—so hopefully there will be more progress in the near future.
When Nomi gives seminars, she often puts a chapter from Genesis on the reading list. It is the first mention of prostitution in the Bible; Judah impregnates his daughter-in-law Tamar, who dressed up as a prostitute to teach him a lesson. (Trust me, it makes sense when you read the original text.) This was the first time one of the world’s oldest professions clashed with one of the world’s oldest extant religions; as I have learned, it was certainly not the last. The educational aspect of my trip is finished—I must now join up with my school.