A prostitute in Tel Aviv. (Yogev Amrany)

Angelique Sabag Gautiller calls herself a pioneer and, indeed, the smiling, blonde-haired, blue-eyed 40-year-old is, in fact, something of a trailblazer in Israel. Convicted in July 2011 of “conspiring to cause a person to leave the country in order to work in prostitution,” for helping nine Israeli women work as prostitutes in Ireland, Gautiller was sentenced to 30 months in prison in the Neve Tirza women’s prison—making her, in short, the Jewish state’s first female pimp.

When I met Gautiller in December 2009, she was under house arrest and had to wear an electronic bracelet on her leg. “Come in quick or I’ll start beeping,” she told me as she opened the door to her Herzliya apartment. Our last meeting was in July 2011, several days before she began serving her prison sentence. She was in a good mood and seemed relieved that her trial, which lasted nearly two years, was finally over. Still, she couldn’t come to terms with being called a pimp.

Over the past few years, international reports released by the U.S. Department of State and other organizations that monitor human trafficking listed Israel, for the first time, as an exporter of prostitution. It’s estimated that a few hundred sex workers from Israel are sent abroad each year. The trend makes sense, given a new law brought before the Knesset this year. Titled “Prohibiting the Consumption of Prostitution,” the legislation seeks to make paying for sex a criminal offense punishable by six months in prison. The bill, which is expected to pass, seems to have spurred sex workers to look abroad for new revenue streams.

Gautiller is one of the burgeoning industry’s captains. She made aliyah from France when she was 17, volunteering at Kibbutz Hatzerim before moving to Eilat and getting a job as a waitress. She later headed to the United States, briefly settling in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and then New York, where she sold Israeli music at a store in Manhattan called Hava Nagilah.

In 2002, Gautiller moved back to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv, but her prospects were bleak. In debt and unable to find steady work, she eventually got evicted from her apartment and moved to a cheap Tel Aviv motel where she paid 50 NIS (around $13) a night for a room. “One day I came back from work and my room was burglarized. Everything I had was stolen,” Gautiller told me. “I was devastated. I literally had nothing left.” Finding herself at rock bottom, she turned to an unexpected source: a prostitute living at the motel. “I asked her to help me find a job,” she explained. “I knew her salary wasn’t as awful as other women’s, so I thought it was the best solution I could find. That’s how it started.” She said she found a newspaper ad placed by Kevin Byrne, an Irish pimp, looking for women to work in Ireland. She visited his website and reached out to him via email, and he asked her to come work for him in Dublin. She agreed, traveling to Dublin and settling in as one of Byrne’s call girls.

Gautiller and Byrne grew close, and in 2006, Byrne promoted Gautiller to an assistant position. Her task was to find Israeli women to work in Ireland, a country with one of the biggest prostitution industries in Europe. According to Gautiller, she placed advertisements in Israeli newspapers, promising work paying up to $1,000 a day—an astronomical sum for the Israeli workforce—and nine women took her bait. Gautiller then arranged an introductory interview in Tel Aviv with each respondent, and, after they agreed to make the trip with her, bought each woman a plane ticket to Ireland. Gautiller’s “business trips” with the women would last several weeks at a time. Exactly what she told the women during those initial meetings, however, would later be debated in court.

Her scheme went undetected by authorities for over a year. In 2007, an Israeli human rights organization, Hotline for Migrant Workers, noticed one of Gautiller’s ads and sent a female employee to apply for the job. In a grassroots sting operation, the employee recorded her conversation with Gautiller and then contacted police. The investigation lasted several months, as police investigated Gautiller and the women who worked for her. Four months later, when Gautiller landed at Ben Gurion airport, she was promptly arrested.

“All I did was place ads,” Gautiller told me during our first interview, repeating the defense her lawyer argued throughout her lengthy trial. “The women who saw these ads would meet me, and they would ask about how much money they could make and what the clients were into,” she explained. “I would buy them a ticket, accompany one or two or three of them, and then they’d stay behind and work on their own.”

“It’s not like I contacted poor girls and forced them to come and work with me,” Gautiller insisted. “These are girls who are in this business anyway, and I gave them the opportunity to work with people who are much nicer than the Israelis. I also gave them an experience abroad, earning much more money in less time.” Instead of making 100 NIS in Israel per half-hour, she said, they could make 160 euros—nearly nine times as much. “For them, it was a win-win situation.”

The court thought differently, finding Gautiller guilty of soliciting women to work as prostitutes. According to the indictment, Gautiller would confiscate each woman’s passport when she arrived in Dublin, force her to have sex with clients, and prohibit her from leaving a rental apartment Byrne was paying for. During the trial, testimony from a woman named Ela, who worked for Gautiller, asserted this version of events. “I told her I have a massage certificate. I wanted to work only as a masseuse,” Ela explained. “Angelique looked at me and told me, ‘You’re cute. I want you to work for me. You will earn 160 euros for a massage and we’ll split half and half profits.’ ”

“When we got to Ireland she photographed me and asked me to meet clients,” Ela said. “Only when the clients came, she told me I must have sex with them. When I refused, Angelique told me I had no choice, and that I had to return the cost of the plane ticket. After she told me that, I agreed to have sex with a client for 160 euros.”

“During the period when I was in Ireland I had sex with four men,” Ela told the court. “All the money I earned was given to Angelique.”

One of the women testified that after an argument with Gautiller in which she had asked to return to Israel, Gautiller threatened to pay men to beat her to death and told her she wouldn’t leave Ireland alive. Convinced, the court convicted Gautiller, sentencing her to 30 months in prison. Gautiller’s actual prison term will last only 20 months—good behavior was cited—and she’s expected to be released next month.

But Gautiller’s incarceration hasn’t deterred some of her former workers (while being a pimp is illegal in Israel, being a prostitute is not), or prevented them from seeking new employment opportunities abroad. Marina, an attractive young woman from Tel Aviv who worked with Gautiller in Ireland, testified at the trial that Gautiller gave her the chance to earn unimaginable sums of money. After graduating high school with honors and serving in the Israel Defense Forces, she began studying economics in university and was looking for a way to make money. “When I started working in Israel I was looking for a sponsor,” Marina told me, a wealthy man “who is willing to spend 15 or 20 thousand shekels each month for the pleasure.”

Marina told me she went from earning 700 NIS a month from the army to 2,000 or 3,000 NIS for a few hours’ work. A year and a half later, she met Gautiller. “She asked if I knew the work, and offered to sponsor my flight. I agreed to go,” she explained. “Suddenly I had the chance to make 15,000 euros in two weeks. Also, and I know this may sound weird, but I really liked traveling, as well as working with my clients.” No longer working for Gautiller, Marina has added new countries to her travel route.

“Until I came along, there were hardly any Israeli girls who traveled abroad to work as prostitutes,” Gautiller told me just before her prison sentence began. “After my story became famous, more and more women suddenly realized that if they had to work at this shitty profession, they should at least earn good money.” She speculated that the business plan she capitalized on would only grow in popularity once the new anti-prostitution legislation passed. “I promise you that in the coming years you’ll hear that prostitution in Israel is in decline, but the prostitutes will not disappear or become rehabilitated,” she said. “They’ll just move to places where they are properly rewarded, like Ireland or England, Croatia or Japan or the United States, countries where it is much more lucrative to be a prostitute than it is in Israel.”

By World War I, prostitution was an active industry in cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Ramla, with brothels owned by both Arabs and Jews. British soldiers joined a growing client base during the 1930s and 1940s, and Tel Aviv was considered the industry’s capital in the Middle East. After the establishment of the State of Israel, prostitution was not forbidden by law, but anyone caught working as a pimp was subject to prosecution. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the industry grew, with the influx of immigrants creating an increase in demand.

Starting in 2000, increased awareness of human trafficking led to the introduction of legislative measures to combat prostitution in Israel. But today, the numbers remain high: Police estimate that there are nearly 10,000 sex workers in Israel. Organizations designed to help those working in this industry put the number closer to 20,000—equal to the population of an Israeli city like Zikron Yaakov. According to those same sources, brothels receive 3 million visits each week.

Israeli police report an increase in instances of Israeli women arrested abroad in the last two years, though police officials won’t give exact numbers. However, once the Prohibiting the Consumption of Prostitution Act passed the first of three necessary rounds of Knesset approval earlier this year, police amplified their attention to the issue. The proposed legislation also received attention from Israeli media outlets as the discussion shifted to focus on customers worried about getting caught paying for sex.

The law is expected to pass after the January election. One of the bill’s sponsors, Member of Knesset Orit Zuaretz, who heads the parliament committee to fight human trafficking, and who will also likely continue her role in the next Knesset, says she has no doubt the law will pass.

Yet even legislators who support the bill admit that its passage will likely result in more sex workers following Gautiller’s lead and leaving Israel to find work. Zuaretz told me she was surprised by the bill’s vehement opposition, particularly from sex workers. “I received multiple threats from women who said that I was taking away their livelihood,” Zuaretz explained. “Some threatened to burn down my house if this bill passed.” But she maintained that the strong reaction was a result of confusion surrounding the nature of the bill: “They didn’t quite understand the bill’s purpose, which wasn’t to deprive prostitutes of income but to provide them with an alternative, to help them find other occupations and apartments and help them break the vicious cycle in which they’re trapped,” she said. “My role as a lawmaker is to refuse to let them come to terms with this reality, to show them that other realities are possible.”

Zuaretz estimated that prostitution has become a billion-dollar-a-year industry in Israel. “We’re not just talking about the money the client pays the prostitute, but the apartment rentals, the cabs, and the hotel rooms,” she explained. “It’s all part of a larger industry that thrives on prostitution and lives off the back of these miserable women. It’s a dangerous situation.”

According to Zuaretz, the bill sparked a notable increase in the number of women calling the various help centers sponsored by the state. Several government ministries have since started providing mental and financial assistance to sex workers, helping them find homes and new jobs. But there are many more women, like Marina, who want to be left alone by the government, arguing that the money is worth it.

Prominent Israeli civil-rights activist Shabi Korzan explained that it’s rare to encounter a sex worker who is not, in some way, used or abused. “It sounds very nice and liberal-minded to paint this as a story of an economic opportunity,” she said, “but it is our obligation as a society to give these women a choice and not to justify the act as the outcome of free will.” She is wary of Marina’s tales of endless financial opportunity. “The problem is that if we believe that all prostitutes are like Marina, we lose our capacity to be outraged by the more common stories of prostitution, and we should absolutely be outraged.”

Surprisingly, Gautiller echoed that very same sentiment when we last spoke. “When I was in Ireland, I felt the most horrible loneliness imaginable,” she told me. “Today I regret getting into this world, because even if everything is good economically, emotionally it’s all screwed up. I shouldn’t have given other women the opportunity to get into it, because you become addicted to it, to all this easy money, and you find some justification,” she admitted. “But it’s an addiction. No girl ever dreams of being a prostitute.”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.