Social Workers Can No Longer Remain Silent on Oppression of Palestinians

In October, the State of Israel criminalized six Palestinian human rights organizations, designating them as “terrorist groups,” which effectively outlawed their work, and put their workers (human rights defenders) at serious risk. These organizations — Addameer, Al-Haq, Defense for Children International-Palestine, Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, Union of Agricultural Work Committees and Bisan Center for Research and Development — all represent the best of what social and community work can look like: resistance to state oppression and struggle against political, legal and social norms that uphold racial/ethnic supremacy, all the while directly supporting those most harmed and providing vision for a more just society. To be clear, these are organizations leading the fight for the human rights and social welfare of Palestinians. And it is precisely because they have been successful in their work of exposing the injustices of Israeli military occupation and apartheid that the State of Israel is trying to delegitimize them.

In these moments, when the oppression of marginalized communities is in such stark relief and the criminalization of social movements is so clear, social work is too often silent. As two social workers deeply invested in social movements and the wellbeing of all people, we believe our field has an obligation to stand with oppressed people, and to fight alongside those at the margins. This is what makes our contributions just and worthwhile. We understand social work to encompass many kinds of workers and approaches, not only those with credentials and licenses. Still, we know that individuals and organizations most embedded in professionalized social work are often the least likely to act when it is unpopular or inconvenient. To realize the social work we aspire towards, we must live up to our obligation, and act, especially when it is risky to do so.

Across historic Palestine, these six targeted organizations have long fought to defend the lives and rights of Palestinians who are struggling for freedom, justice and equality. While these are leading Palestinian human rights organizations, they are reflective of a larger constellation of organizations working for the welfare of the Palestinian people. As the U.S. social work community continues to reckon with its own complicity in colonization and white supremacy, it can look to organizations like these as an example of the kind of social work we should aspire to cultivate: It is the social work that centers self-determination, solidarity and justice. It is the social work that stands up to those in power, despite the risks and inevitable attacks. And it is the social work that is criminalized and outlawed because it threatens the status quo. As social workers, we must stand with these organizations, and with Palestinians, against settler-colonization and the criminalization of resistance.

Israel’s criminalization of Palestinian human rights defenders is an escalation in its longstanding occupation and expanding colonization of Palestine that clearly attempts to stifle a growing movement for Palestinian freedom. Israel’s claim that these six organizations were supporting and funding the armed activities of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was recently confirmed as being unfounded by several media outlets. The claims were also refuted by several European governments. Yet, this tactic of smearing and criminalizing social movements is characteristic of many governments seeking to protect their dominance, including here in the U.S. From the Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement to Black Lives Matter, the FBI has long sought to use the law to repress organizing for Black liberation, for Indigenous sovereignty, and for social justice more broadly. The legally codified and racialized use of the word “terrorist” to describe these organizations and individual Palestinian human rights defenders highlights how racialized criminalization is used as a primary tactic by governments and corporations to defend white supremacy and colonization. In condemning Israel’s decision, UN human rights experts declared it “a ​frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere.”

Still, transnational resistance to state oppression and the criminalization of resistance is longstanding, and growing, in particular between Palestinians and social movements in the U.S. The Movement for Black Lives has reenergized historic Black-Palestinian solidarity efforts and recently more than 300 social justice organizations in the US sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding that the Biden administration condemn Israel’s action. Social workers must join these movements and must stand in defense of Palestinian civil society, condemn Israel’s attempts to obstruct their crucial work, and struggle alongside all criminalized and oppressed peoples.

Our communities cannot afford the costly price of our silence. For Palestinians, it has meant the continued expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland and the establishment of a system of apartheid. For Black, Indigenous and people of color in the U.S., it has meant stolen land, mass criminalization and incarceration, poverty and social, political and economic exclusion. And yet, our silence is not so hard to understand. Too often, social work has chosen professionalization, growth and partnership with harmful state agencies over social justice, solidarity and self-determination. And when it comes to Palestine, there is even more pressure to keep quiet.

Indeed, there are powerful forces at work trying to keep people and organizations from speaking and acting in solidarity with Palestine and Palestinians. There are many examples of individuals and organizations in the U.S. who have been punished for their support for Palestinians — from losing jobs to suffering social sanctions to being smeared, such as in the case of justice movements like Black Lives Matter. To show up with and for the Palestinians comes with material consequences. However, if social work is to meet the demands of our values and to move toward becoming a field that truly centers social justice, we must take risks and act in solidarity with those at the margins in the most vulnerable moments, not just when it is convenient.

Social work in the U.S. often cannot see beyond the Western image and borders in which it was created, putting serious limits on our efforts for lasting social justice, for building solidarity, and joint, global struggle. As social workers in the belly of the beast of empire, it is our responsibility to reject boundaries and respond to how U.S. imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, racism and sexism have impacted the Global South — the economic crises, forced migrations, and adverse effects on mental and physical health. As a profession and community, it is imperative that we move to an internationalist and transnationalist approach to take on the overarching systems of power and oppression that span the globe, maintaining inequality and supremacy.

The Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council and Palestinian NGO Network speaks to the spirit of liberation work far and wide, across communities: “This appalling decision [to criminalize the six Palestinian civil society/human rights organizations], which reflects decades of Israeli attempts to control the Palestinian people, is nothing but another failed attempt. The oppressed, not intimidated, will always demand justice and accountability.”

We call on social workers to not be intimidated, but to stand alongside Palestinians and all oppressed and steadfast people, globally leading the way to freedom.

For social workers, and for anyone who wants to speak, act and join the Palestinian freedom struggle, there are countless ways to show up. You can join other social workers by signing an open letter asking the NASW to stand with Palestinian civil society and condemn Israel’s actions. You can follow and support the six organizations financially: Addameer, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defense for Children International — Palestine, The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. You can also follow and support Palestinian and Palestinian solidarity organizations in the U.S. including Adalah Justice Project, Palestine Legal, Palestinian Youth Movement, United States Palestine Community Network, and Jewish Voice for Peace. You can support and participate in the Palestinian-led movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which seeks to end the occupation of Palestine, actualize equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and make possible the internationally protected right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. And you can study and organize with your social work community or any other community you a part of. There are many study materials including DecolonizePalestine, Institute for Middle East Understanding, and Difficult Conversations about Israel and Palestine. The struggle for Palestinian freedom can be aided through social work rooted in solidarity and self-determination, which stands strongly against state repression and criminalization.