Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Disappointing Life in the Promised Land

By Matt Siegel

From Russia Profile:

TEL AVIV, Israel- Although Israel has only two official state languages—Hebrew and Arabic—it’s difficult to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a Cyrillic menu in the winding alleys of Jerusalem or the wide main boulevard in Haifa. Everywhere, second-hand shops and luxury chains alike hawk their wares to Israel’s Russian population. While these signs can, and often should, be perceived as a sign of hospitality toward Russian speakers, at other times, they signify something radically different.

For Jews, Israel is the “Promised Land,” the biblical home held out as the prospect of a final end to millennia of wandering. But for many thousands of people from the former Soviet Union, Israel held out a different sort of promise: a respite from the crushing poverty of the post-Soviet economic and social decline.

According to experts in Israel and Russia, many of these people, whose hopes and dreams were exploited for nearly two decades, became part of the vast illegal network of human trafficking that fueled the sprawling Israeli archipelago of prostitution and domestic slavery. It now appears, however, that what had for so long seemed to be an intractable problem for both Russia and Israel, is finally beginning to show signs of improvement.

The good news

The U.S. State Department’s scathing 2006 indictment of Israel’s inactivity in combating human trafficking, which nearly relegated the country to the level of North Korea and Sudan, appears to have been the final straw for the government of the Jewish state. Since then, the government of Israel, working together with a tight network of domestic NGOs, has made tremendous inroads against human trafficking from the former Soviet Union. A raft of new laws and tougher enforcement policies, together with increased cooperation on extradition from regional governments, has helped reduce the peak number of trafficking cases by some 90 percent.

“A lot has been done. It’s actually virtually miraculous how much has been done. I feel that we have a more humane system here: more has been attained here than has, in many ways, been accomplished in the United States,” said Rahel Gershuni, National Coordinator in the Battle Against Trafficking in Human Beings within the Israel Ministry of Justice. “Look, there’s a lot left to do, I’m not saying no, but a lot of progress [has been made].”

According to an October 2007 report by the Ministry of Justice entitled “Trafficking in Persons in Israel,” the police estimate that the trade in women reached its peak in 2003, with 3,000 people being trafficked. The same report claims that this number had dropped to “a few hundred, up to 1,000 in 2005-6.” Due to the problematic nature of documenting an illicit trade, these statistics are almost certainly incorrect. The positive trend, however, has been confirmed by multiple experts with street level knowledge of the situation.

But despite all the good news — and nearly everyone agrees that the news has been good — there is a dark side to the story. Deprived of a steady supply of women from Russia and the former Soviet Republics, internal traffickers are increasingly turning to Israeli citizens, a great number of whom appear to be native Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel legally. The lost children of Russia’s Diaspora live in sub-human conditions on the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, many addicted to drugs, all victims of a cruel cycle of exclusion and desperation.

Falling through the cracks
Israel’s improbable victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, in which 264,000 Israeli soldiers delivered a crushing defeat to almost 550,000 soldiers from the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, led to a massive awakening of Zionist sentiments among the Jews of the former Soviet Union. A surge in protests and lobbying both internally and abroad led to the first wave of emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel in 1969. Emigration continued at a trickle throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with the plight of Soviet Jews becoming a key bargaining chip in the Cold War power struggle. In 1990, with the implosion of the Soviet Union, that trickle turned into a raging river that carried more than a million Russian speaking Jews to Israel over the next decade.

As the social safety nets crumbled beneath millions of former Soviet citizens, many thousands of desperate people, including women with no prospects in their home countries, decided to follow the path of Soviet Jews and flee their homeland for brighter prospects. Israel, with its large population of Russian-speakers (by some estimates as much as one-third of the country), and its porous border with Egypt, became a prime destination for the smuggling of human beings.

“We were all so happy, you know; the wicked Communists fell, but at least when the Communists were in power, people had some sort of welfare network,” said Gershuni. “They weren’t hungry. They may have been in prison for dissenting, but they weren’t hungry.”

According to an unnamed source with first-hand knowledge of Israeli law enforcement, the system for trafficking women from the former Soviet Union has not changed much since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In most cases, women from all over the region respond to advertisements placed in local media sources looking for exotic dancers or models. According to experts in Israel, these are code words well known in the countries that once comprised the Soviet Union, and very few of the women are unaware of the fact that they will be engaging in prostitution once in Israel. What many of them don’t know is that the glossy descriptions given to them in ads or even by former prostitutes sent as recruiters are often very far from the truth.

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