The Israeli Strip Clubs’ Swan Song

A Tel Aviv protest against strip clubs. Photo: Adi Lavy

By Luba Fein

In this article, Israeli abolitionist activist, Luba Fein, discusses the recent announcement that signals the end of legal strip clubs in Israel and the long history of women’s activism behind it.

In September 2020, about two months after the Israeli Sex Purchase Ban came into force, the Tel Aviv municipality made a dramatic announcement: all the strip clubs in the city would be closed and no new clubs would receive a license. This meant the elimination of all the legal strip clubs in Israel, because Tel Aviv was the only place that still had them.

Israel has never had a nationwide law prohibiting strip clubs. In fact, Iceland is the only country in the world to have such a law. So the struggle against the strip industry had to be conducted in indirect ways.

Idith Shemesh Harel, a veteran abolitionist, recalls:

“In the early 2000s, the strip clubs in Tel Aviv and Haifa prospered. Bruria Salzman from the Tel Aviv municipality initiated a discussion on the eradication of trafficking in women. No one was talking about prostitution and striptease then. Still, we talked to Elhanan Meshi, the manager of the business licensing department, asking him to stop granting licences to the clubs, which were registered as legal cabaret clubs.

“‘If you want to close them, go and change the law,’ Meshi said. I suggested that he go to one of the clubs to see what was happening for himself, and he replied: “Of course I was there and I took my son along with me’.”

Later, Idit Shemesh Harel sent a letter to Tel Aviv mayor, Ron Huldai, and other decision-makers on behalf of Todaa [‘Consciousness’], a non-profit organization that provides education about the harms of the sex trade. In essence, a lap dance is prostitution, she explained. “I didn’t rely on rumours. I went into a club with a friend; we paid 80 shekels and got a free drink. We saw men touching women everywhere. I peeked into one of the private rooms; it had a bed and a giant tissue wheel. These were horrible times; the clubs were mainstream and normative.”

From the middle of the 2010s, the general struggle against the sex trade (including strip clubs) in Israel was hotting up. In 2015, Haifa, another large municipality, began fighting strip clubs. Haifa’s then mayor, Yonah Yahav, didn’t wait for the law to change. He hired private investigators and provided police with evidence that the clubs were offering prostitution. As a result, the strip clubs in Haifa were closed. This made it clear to the Tel Aviv activists that municipalities already have the power to fight the clubs and it wasn’t necessary to wait for a specific law.

In 2016, following testimony from women who worked in strip clubs, the police raided a number of clubs in the Tel Aviv area. The cops found ‘private rooms,’ and the club owners had to close them. After several attempts to deceive the authorities and hide the rooms, they were permanently closed in 2017. That same year, Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen handed down a precedent-setting ruling: she banned strip clubs in the Ramat Gan area, claiming the practice involved “looting, objectifying women and denying them dignity.” In 2019, state attorney Shay Nitzan ruled that sexual dancing (lap dancing) at strip clubs would be considered prostitution.

The clubs struggled to continue. In 2019, the owners of the strip clubs in Tel Aviv, the last city that allowed them to operate legally, promised that every type of dance, including ‘private dancing’ would be performed without physical contact. Despite this, a few months later Shay Nitzan closed all the clubs with an order. Usually that type of order only lasts for thirty days, after which the clubs would reopen.

As soon as the strip clubs closed, a new player, the Israeli Strippers’ Union, joined the arena. They organized a protest action in front of the home of 30-year-old Nitzan Kahana, a former chairwoman of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution. Yet, for some reason, the union spared Shay Nitzan and the senior police officials, who were directly responsible for closing the clubs.

The strippers’ association made several claims: “Work in strip clubs is part of our right to our body”; “Without this work, we would be forced into more dangerous arenas, such as private striptease parties and prostitution apartments”; and “No one would provide us with an alternative livelihood”.

Luna Ben-David, a sex trade survivor, commented:

“I was not a stripper, I was involved in other areas of the sex trade, but I used to go into strip clubs to provide women with various products. The clubs were clearly an arena of exploitation and violence. The media contributed to their flourishing by glamourising and normalising them. Popular culture also played its part, depicting strip clubs as a bit gloomy but cool places. In this atmosphere, bachelor parties became the norm in Israel.

“Now that the strip clubs have closed, the truth has come out. There is no longer any glow; The women who worked in the clubs say they are destitute and will have to resort to prostitution. It’s become clear to everyone now, how much striptease and prostitution are on a continuum. I wonder how those who for years were responsible for the strip clubs’ positive public relations feel now.”

In March, the COVID 19 pandemic devoured the cards again. Not only strip clubs, but many legitimate businesses closed or were downsized. Israeli business owners took to the streets, protesting and demanding higher compensation for loss of income and the reopening of businesses under safety restrictions. A large number were interviewed by the media and expressed concern for their employees. I can’t forget the words of a company owner in the tourism industry, who said: “I was able to set up a small alternative business, but I worry about my employees who rely on unemployment benefits. What will happen to them?”

The strip club owners stood out in their absence from these demonstrations. They didn’t seek compensation or express concern for their ‘workers’ – the same workers who had said that without the clubs they had no option other than moving into the dangerous underground prostitution scene.

One of the clubs, Shendo, in Tel Aviv, opened anyway, and then came the dramatic announcement about the planned closure of all the existing clubs and the commitment to not licence any new ones. The club owners didn’t respond to this decision, but the Israeli Strippers’ Union opposed it and published a position paper. Among other things, the paper claims:

“We have chosen this work independently, as part of our plans for the future. We have the experience and expertise to deal with most of the challenges our work poses. However, there was an unprecedented intervention by the authorities in our lives with the guidance of the State Attorney who determines what we are allowed and not allowed to do with our bodies.”

“The results have been devastating for us. We are mothers and breadwinners. Therefore, the loss of livelihood harms not only us but also the children and the elderly we support […] we have managed, despite many obstacles, to achieve financial independence and we are proud of it. The new situation robs us of fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of occupation, freedom of expression and the right to our bodies.”

One of the members of the union was present at the last discussion on the subject in the Tel Aviv municipality and claimed that the closure of the clubs is pushing the women into dangerous private parties, i.e. prostitution.

The claim of being pushed into prostitution and more dangerous arenas is something that every abolitionist is familiar with. But do the clubs protect the women from the parties?

“I got involved in private parties through the owner of the club I worked for,” says Maayan, who exited the strip industry six years ago. “The club owners pimp women for private parties as well. There are no bad pimps here vs good club owners; everyone is bad in this story.”

Have things changed since Maayan exited six years ago? Yael, who exited recently, explains:

“The owners of the recently closed clubs have not promoted private strip parties, so I don’t understand the argument that closing the clubs will lead to a boom in these parties. There is an agency that provides strippers for parties, so the authorities should also act against that and close it. That way, no crime will flourish. Close everything!”

Both Yael and Yelena Divine, a former stripper who became famous in 2019 after coming out in the media against the industry, claim that even if the club owners do not send women to parties, they are still pimping. Yael said:

“The women meet men in the clubs. The men buy sexual services from them, while the services are supplied elsewhere. Sometimes it’s in her house, sometimes in his; sometimes it’s in the bathroom or outside the club. The club owners encourage it. ‘Go out with him, come back in another hour or two,’ they say. The woman returns and gives money to the club owner. It’s a brokerage fee, as he arranged a client for her. He not only creates an opportunity to buy sex services, but also benefits from it.”

Yelena Divine’s attitude is clear:

“I do not care who decided to close the clubs, the government or the municipalities. The most important thing is that they are closed. I am sure that this is the influence of the Nordic Model.

“We are now seeing more intense opposition to cases of classic rape, for example of a drunk woman. It is the same distress, the same exploitation. Israeli society is beginning to oppose the notion that if a woman is vulnerable, you can go ahead and exploit her.

“Society is beginning to say that our weakest members must not be exploited. In my mind, there is no difference between gang rape and the exploitation of women in strip clubs.”

Yelena disagrees that the closure of the clubs will encourage dangerous private parties:

“When there were strip clubs, underground parties flourished. There was an agency that could provide strippers to order. The strip clubs were a showroom for prostitution parties. Cut that bullshit.”

But what will happen to the women who worked in the clubs?

Everyone I interviewed agrees that the matter is complicated. Yael says:

“I made a lot of money. I rode in a jeep, drowned in cash. It takes time to realize that it is cursed money. A vast amount of money was stolen from my house, all my savings. But even before that, I was miserable. I sat in the jeep and cried from depression. My friend gave all her money to her husband, who opened a restaurant, and the restaurant failed. It takes time to figure out that the money is cursed.

“I was able to recover thanks to the NGOs, Ofek Nashi [Women’s Horizon] and Lo Omdot [Assisting Women in Prostitution], who helped me financially, paid bills. When the former Pussycat strip club closed, the building was purchased by a social entrepreneur who awarded scholarships to the survivors. With my scholarship, I studied the nail business and permanent makeup. I am happy with my business, even now that the epidemic has hit livelihoods.”

Yelena also talks about the need to include those who defend strip clubs:

“I was once on the side of those who defend prostitution. It was too big to say ‘my whole life is based on exploitation’. I was afraid to say that I was exploited. I was not myself; I was ‘Bianca’, my strip club stage name. Bianca supported me, supplied my food and rent, and I couldn’t say that Bianca was a tool of exploitation. I couldn’t face it – it would bring everything down. I would collapse! And I was only there for four and a half years. What about someone who’s been in clubs for 20 years?”

Lilach Tzur Ben Moshe, the founder of an organization, Turning the Tables, that has assisted thousands of women including Yelena, says that some ex-strippers turned to them for support.

“They were angry with us. Our position, opposing the sex industry, is well known, so one of them blamed me for ruining her livelihood, robbing her of her job. She only came to us because we can help with access to Social Security rights. Gradually, her position changed and she admitted that the atmosphere in the clubs was full of violence and exploitation – even though she didn’t supply any sexual services herself. She said the owners continued to exploit women; there were prostitution deals even in the absence of private rooms, all under the auspices of the club owners.”

The strip club owners repeatedly committed crimes: when they operated under a cabaret club license and promised to close ‘private rooms’ and after they were forbidden to provide lap dance services.

Do they deserve another chance? Even if one does not oppose striptease as a practice, these people deserve prison, not a license. However, the clubs could reopen at any time – if the Tel Aviv or Haifa City Council change. We hope that when the day comes, the Israeli legislature will close the strip clubs so that we are not forever having to watch and educate the municipalities.

“Bianca” by Yelena Divine

A human being is born into this world,
a clean and blank page.
And then those hands.
Coming and touching
Endless hands.
Endless time.
And there is no choice,
because there is no alternative.
And meanwhile,
Dirty fingers that leave ugly stains
even in private places
where no one is allowed
to touch.
Cruel hands wrinkling my body as if I was
a piece of paper.
And like on that piece of paper,
the marks remain forever.

A stranger would never understand.
The stranger sees only what I wish to show.
The stranger knows Bianca.
Bianca, she’s a giggling,
a flirtatious girl who likes alcohol,
and lots of it.
Bianca performs a sensual lap dance
like you see in the movies.
Bianca is incredibly tough.
Bianca loves it.
It’s easy for her.

But I am

I’m Lena.
And I’m coming home after this evening,
dozens if not hundreds of such strangers,
and I’m broken.
I’m desecrated.

I do not want to go back there anymore.

But I think of the roof I have over my head and my stomach,
rumbling like an alarm clock 3 times a day,
and I beg Bianca to keep playing the game
to continue to be Lena’s beautiful face,
because Lena doesn’t have a beautiful face
“She has no face” at all.

But a stranger, will not understand this.
And maybe worth a try?

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