James A. S. Sunderland, University of Oxford
‘I am a Zionist – and so I have come to Palestine,’ says Ruth, a young woman in Tel Aviv in the late 1930s. She is sat in a café opposite twenty-year-old British journalist Barbara Board. Unlike her male colleagues who were always clambering to grab a scoop on the actions or words of the elites in Palestine – British, Jewish, or Arab – Board was particularly interested in trying to ‘talk to people in their homes and at their daily tasks,’ and reporting on their lives. Ruth was one of these ‘ordinary people.’
As they begin their conversation a man walks into the café, spots Ruth conversing with Board, and sits himself awkwardly across the room waiting for the journalist to depart. He is one of Ruth’s clients who will pay her for commercial sex that night. Ruth is, after all, a sex worker and the café is her usual haunt where she often meets regulars and finds new clientele.
However, Ruth is also an avowed Zionist. She did not need to come to Palestine to flee pogroms or persecution. Her standard of living was higher in Britain and the men were more attractive, she asserts. If she were to work in Piccadilly, ‘I could buy clothes cheaper […] and board cheaper’. Yet her political beliefs compelled her to leave the easy comforts of London for Palestine.
Although Ruth’s particular background as an English Jew was unusual for 1930s Palestine, her choice of profession was not. Jews were no stranger to ‘the world’s oldest profession.’ Indeed, the Hebrew word for a prostitute, zonah (זונה), appears 93 times in the Hebrew Bible alone. But the period of the British Mandate over the country (1920-1948) created a perfect storm of conditions which compelled a significant number of women to engage in sex work.
Some, like Ruth, had been sex workers before they arrived on the shores of Palestine, but many found themselves engaging in the profession only upon their arrival. The fiscal and employment policies enforced by both the British administration and the Zionist elite in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) itself pushed many women into sex work just to get by.
As the British set about transforming the Palestinian economy along the lines of a modern capitalist economy, the Yishuv pursued a concept of ‘Hebrew Labour’ which sought to create a Jewish only workforce within the community and led Jews to pit themselves against cheaper Arab workers for jobs. With tough competition from a workforce willing to labour for a fraction of what many Jews would accept, and a series of economic ups and downs in the 1920s and 1930s, women got a particularly raw deal. A 1943 survey showed that the average daily wage of a woman was just 57.5% that of a man. Hardly surprising then that some women should turn to sex work to make a living. Indeed, wages from sex work were often far better than women could often hope to earn elsewhere.
The clientele was mixed, but letters of complaint to the administration and Jewish officials about sex workers demonstrate that the Yishuv was particularly concerned about Jewish women engaging in commercial sex with British troops and Arabs. One letter complains of a café ‘about to be established according to the liking of the Arab and English customers’ with ‘good looking waitresses and special corners.’ These euphemisms would have been clearly understood by the official reading it. But despite the impression the Yishuv might have liked to give however, not all clients were foreign to the national collective. Ruth notes that, as well as English, business required her to speak French, German, a little Russian, and Hebrew.
In spite of the overwhelmingly negative attitudes towards sex work in the Yishuv no one thought to try and tackle the economic issues which forced women to engage in sex work to begin with. Indeed, some women in the Yishuv (and among the social workers and colonial wives of Mandate officials) proposed a social welfare response which would see ‘rescue homes’ take in sex workers and train them in skills such as cooking, breadmaking, washing, ironing and making and mending clothes. This way the women could be reintegrated into ‘polite’ society as housewives and workers. But it was exactly the conditions of jobs in the formal economy which had compelled these women to engage in sex work in the first place. Being a housewife was no panacea either, forcing women to leave the workforce to focus on often arduous housework.
Ruth, and women like her, found their sexual labour was worth far more than teaching, social work, or manual jobs would pay them. The Yishuv had failed women. For all the talk of a more egalitarian society, with women valued as equal partners in a new Zionist society, the patriarchy largely rolled on uninterrupted in Palestine. Why would women like Ruth choose to work a dead-end job for poor pay when they could make more money in less time by selling sex commercially? And just because they weren’t building roads, ploughing fields, or helping to construct new Hebrew cities, that didn’t mean that women like Ruth weren’t an inherent part of the new society being built in Palestine and couldn’t still regard themselves as Zionists if they chose to. In many ways the proliferation of Jewish sex work was an inevitable result of Zionist labour policies. Largely excluded from the pursuit of ‘Hebrew Labour,’ some women created their own economic security in a politically and economically volatile land by turning to sex work.
As Board left the café in Tel Aviv, workers were heading home along the streets. Meanwhile, Ruth began to chat to the man who had been sheepishly waiting for Board to leave. For this Zionist sex worker, and others across the country, their days work was just beginning.
About the author:
James A. S. Sunderland is a DPhil student at Merton College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on the end of British rule over Mandate Palestine and the, often violent, forms of contact between British officials, troop, and police in the country and the Jewish population in these final years of British rule.