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Sex slur enrages Russian Jews

Nothing angers Israel's 640,000 Russian Jews more than the view, commonly held by Israelis, that their immigration in the years since the Soviet Union started to collapse in 1989 has led to a flood of prostitutes entering the country. "All Russian women are prostitutes, causing divorces and not serving in the army," complained a councillor from Afula, northern Israel, last year, to the rage of the Russian-language press.

Studies indicate that Russians have largely taken over prostitution in Israel, though the prostitutes mostly come not from the immigrant community but from Russia or Ukraine. They are paid $1,000 (pounds 650) a month in advance and usually stay for three months. At any one time there are about 1,000 Russian prostitutes working in Israel, mostly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. From 1991 to 1994 the number of massage parlours run by Russian immigrants increased from 14 to 111.

The arrival of so many Russian prostitutes in Israel was part of a world- wide phenomenon, said the daily Haaretz. They had also gone to the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Greece. In Turkey they are common in Istanbul and Trebizond, partly because a visa is easy to obtain. Israel is a popular destination because, as 10 per cent of the population are recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union, links between criminals are easy to establish or already exist.

The prostitutes say their main clients are ultra-orthodox Jews and Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank. In interviews with anthropologists they said they preferred Israeli Arabs, whom they referred to as "white Arabs", to the ultra-orthodox - known as haredim, which means God-fearing - or West Bank Palestinians. Russian Jewish immigrants who enter prostitution usually do so as call girls, who are reputedly organised by the Georgian mafia.

Russian immigrants resent the slur that they are behind a crime wave. Rinat Cohen, of the Zionist Forum, a lobby for Russian immigrants, quoted police figures indicating that Russians (the term in Israel includes Ukrainians and Central Asians) were less likely to commit a crime than native-born Israelis. She attacked negative stereotypes about Russian Jews, such as the statement by a politician in Beersheba that all the immigrants had brought to the town was "crime, prostitutes and alcoholism".

None of these allegations is wholly justified. It is true that in prostitution Russians have largely replaced Moroccans, who once predominated. But the organised import of women from Russia appears to be largely in hands of well-established Israeli syndicates. For organised crime in the former Soviet Union - the Russian mafia - Israel is less a place to make money than to launder it and establish residence.

There is some evidence, however, of the growing involvement of Russian immigrants in everyday crime.

Recently a man entered a bank and silently gave the teller a note in broken Hebrew and Russian which she could not understand. Only after several minutes did he finally succeed in making clear that he was armed and was trying to rob the bank.