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Social Work Institutions Have Remained Silent on Palestine. That Must End.

Social workers have an ethical obligation to end their silence on Palestinian suffering amid an ongoing genocide.

Mohammed El-Yazici, 14, who lost his mother and has not heard from his father due to Israeli attacks on Gaza, kisses his 6-month-old baby brother in front of the makeshift tent in which they take shelter, in Rafah, Gaza, on January 28, 2024.

Part of the Series

In a recent column for The New York Times, Pamela Paul described a shift in Columbia University’s School of Social Work toward a “radicalized” social justice framework. The piece has unearthed significant tensions within and outside the social work community, sparking heated debate about the role of social justice and a response decrying the so-called deterioration of social work.

What both pieces fail to recognize is the reality of social work’s historical and ongoing complicity in oppression and, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., “the fierce urgency of now,” especially during a genocide. Social work students like myself are organizing for a free Palestine in response to Israel’s genocide in Gaza. As we watch on-the-ground reporting from Palestinians sharing images and videos of their now-destroyed homes as they pull dead loved ones out from under the rubble, our profession fails to mobilize. This inaction reflects the failure of our leading social work institutions — most notably the National Association of Social Workers and the Council on Social Work Education — and of individual social workers who remain silent.

If our calling as social workers is to help those in need, we must support the 2.2 million Palestinians struggling to survive as the Israeli state relentlessly starves, bombs and displaces them before our very eyes. It is too late to help the tens of thousands of men, women and children killed by Israeli forces since October 7. But it is not too late for social workers to stand in solidarity with Palestine.

The Gap Between Social Work Ethics and Practice

Social workers’ inaction in the face of Palestinian suffering speaks to a persistent shortcoming: the gap between our ethics and our practice. Social work ethics, which are meant to govern professional conduct, are quite clear on the profession’s responsibilities for social and political advocacy. As the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics reminds us, we have ethical and professional responsibilities to society, mandating that we act “for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people” and “prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class.”

Yet the NASW has disregarded vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed and exploited people in Palestine, repeatedly ignoring calls for change from social workers in the United States, our colleagues in Palestine and kids in Gaza. While the NASW released statements offering its condolences to people who have lost loved ones in Israel and Palestine and denouncing hate and violence, the organization has refused to name Israel’s human rights violations or the ongoing genocide.

Last October, a grassroots group of more than 1,000 social workers penned an open letter to the organization relaying their disappointment. The letter urged the NASW to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and advocate for an end to the genocide. It appears that while the organization’s initial response to the statement yielded conversations with the NASW, officials later ceased communication and refused to engage. Worse still, the NASW Press, a division of the NASW and a major scholarly journal, has since published a pro-Israel commentary piece which platforms, for instance, unsubstantiated claims about beheaded babies. In response, Social Work for Palestine has launched a letter-writing campaign stating that by perpetuating this propaganda the journal is condoning Israel’s genocide.

The NASW’s refusal to recognize the ongoing genocide and willingness to publish pro-Israel commentary reveals an alarming unwillingness to support the vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed and exploited people of Palestine. Why have mainstream social work institutions failed to realize our ethical principles? What does this reluctance to act when it is unpopular or inconvenient to do so mean for the profession?

Facing Social Work’s Historical Complicity With Oppression

Social work’s failure to support Palestine reflects the profession’s longstanding complicity in oppressive systems. Social work has a long history of involvement with carceral systems, including the policing, criminal legal processes and family regulation systems. Take for instance, social work’s historical role in Indigenous residential schools, which sought to destroy the culture of Indigenous children and forcibly separated hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children from their families, communities and culture. Social workers effectively abducted these children, placing them into schools, the foster care system or non-Indigenous adoptions to devastating effect. As Alan Dettlaff explains, this violence is rooted in the very nature of our current child welfare system, which continues to forcibly separate hundreds of thousands of children from their families, resulting in significant and lifelong trauma.

Far too often social work, as Caitlin Becker elucidates, acts to police, monitor, and surveil the oppressed rather than advancing community-based supports like housing or education. We should not idealize our profession, nor should we ignore its complicity and violence. We must recognize that the potential of social work is two faced: on one hand, it sides with the oppressor, and on the other it fights for the oppressed. The genocide in Palestine demands that we depart from the former and realize the latter.

Social Work’s Failure to Act for Palestine

Despite this demand, our profession still fails to act. Why? It is clearly not about a lack of evidence — Israel’s violence speaks for itself. The United Nations has documented Israel’s decades-long occupation in Palestine, from daily injuries, arrests, killings, curfews, checkpoints, home demolitions and economic suffocation, to outright ethnic cleansing. And the UN is not alone in naming the need to protect the people of Palestine, as demonstrated by a recent joint statement from nongovernmental organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and Refugees International. For a profession that grounds its work in evidence-based practice, the evidence here is clear.

Many, be they social workers or not, will disagree with the fundamental premise that Palestinians are humans who deserve help. The Israeli defense minister argued, for example, that Palestinians are “human animals” and as such, deserving of death. Others will assert that any criticism of Israel is an attack on all Jewish people. As Yoav Litvin elucidates, at the root of this argument is Zionist propaganda and the “anti-Semitic fallacy that Israel is a Jewish state, which represents Judaism and thus all Jews.”

To be clear, Jewish people, just like Palestinians, deserve to live free from violence, fear and oppression. Antisemitism cannot be tolerated. Nor, as Bernie Steinberg explains, should it be weaponized against Palestinian activists. But as social workers it is also our duty to defend the humanity of Palestinians who are facing unprecedented levels of violence in modern conflicts. The current moment necessitates justice, equality and freedom for all people. I urge social workers to remember our ethical and professional commitments, staying strong in our solidarity politics and our commitment to collective liberation.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Uniquely poised as advocates, educators and community organizers, social workers should be leading the efforts — both globally and domestically — to support Palestine. The profession’s silence in the face of great suffering reveals that the gap between social work ethics and practice, identified by scholars like Carol Brill as early as 2001, is only growing.

In recent decades, a growing number of radical and critical social workers like me have sought to realize our ethical and moral obligations by addressing social injustices. Taking inspiration from the long lineage of activists and organizers in our history — and the efforts of groups like the Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work and Social Work for Palestine in the present — we maintain that another world is possible. But it is simply not possible for a profession, said to stand for altruism and the common good, to ignore genocide without becoming something morally rotted itself — and complicit.

Collectively, social workers must recognize the fierce urgency of now — condemning genocide and affirming Palestinian self-determination. It may be inconvenient, unpopular or risky. But our principles must stand for something.

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