Sorrow you’re allowed

A social worker’s guide to the Israel-Palestine violence, July 2014

Gaza. Israel. I’ve seen just about every opinion from all sides, calculated editorials, pro-Israel rallies, Free Gaza demonstrations. Each side has equally passionate claims. If the conflict were clear-cut, we wouldn’t be here.

As I see other social workers posting strongly worded content about the current situation, attending demonstrations for one side or the other, I wonder, how am I supposed to react as a social worker?

If I learned nothing else in school, it was that there is a guide for what values we hold. When I feel unsure about what’s right, I can always go back and consider our values in relation to a particular situation. This morning, I read the values and took stock of the situation and realized my side is clear. My “side” is the dignity and worth of all people. My “stand” is on the importance of human relationships. My “perspective” is social justice, which means promoting the ability of people to develop their full potential in the society where they live.

The Code of Ethics states, “Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.”

What does this mean for this issue?

  • This means we do not support the institutions or cultural values that promote hate and violence, the antithesis of social justice.

The most recent escalation of violence is commonly traced to the killing of three Israeli teenagers and a subsequent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by three Israeli citizens. The hate and violence wrapped up in outraged reactions to each killings was rampant and worsened tensions and contributed to justification of reactionary violence on both sides.

Neither group is blameless when it comes to hate speech and extremism. From Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself tweeted for “vengeance” after the killing of the Israeli teenagers. Extremist Israeli teenagers also took to Twitter to call for a death to Arabs and to declare other racist epithets. Facebook pages abounded calling for revenge and violence against the entire Palestinian people. YouTube videos proudly displayed racist chants (“Death to Arabs”) and another video emerged of an Israeli citizen attacking a Palestinian shouting, “Filthy Arabs.” All violence and hatred is claimed as justified because of the evil of Hamas.

On the side of Palestine, pro-Holocaust hate speech also arose on social media, including hashtags like #Hitlerwasright and calling for death to Jews. Hamas itself is extremist and anti-Semitic: Its charter declares death for Jews is part of movement. The war-driven group claims, “There is no solution to the Palestinian Problem except by Jihad” (Jihad means war against nonbelievers) and calls for Hamas members to be willing to die in the fight. All hatred and violence is claimed as justified because of the evil of Israel.

My side is clear. I do not support the institutions or cultural values that promote hate and violence. In this, I am not alone. Recently, over 3,000 Israeli demonstrators protested in Jerusalem against revenge attacks. One editorial has noted, “Many government officials and Israelis have denounced the violence and murder of Palestinians,” and the one-sided and isolating rhetoric of vengeance ignores the fact that there also exist Arab Israelis who “share in the sense of grief and anger.” Palestinian citizens themselves were heard “[cursing] Hamas” at the same time they wailed against Israel for airstrikes that killed four boys who were playing on the beach. The many people who live beneath the rockets and bombs, on both sides, they see who is responsible for deaths: Hatred and extremism.

  • This means we look to see what is really at stake: The dignity of human lives

What violence and hate speech does is dehumanize the “other.” Each side seeks to make the other seem less worthy of dignity and life. If both sides are less than human, pure evil, one can justify any number of horrific acts. As a social worker, I stand against this dehumanization of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This means I do not accept justifications for violence. This includes Israeli justifications that they “can’t help” killing hundreds of Palestinians because Hamas is using citizens as “Human Shields” (a not entirely founded claim). As one Palestinian expert noted, “If you are going to destroy everything related to Hamas as a party, as a movement, it means that you’re going to go on the rampage against families, homes, hospitals, schools and social services.”

The dehumanizing “human shield” justification is leading to a wildly disproportionate death toll in Gaza. As we know, Gaza is a 25-mile strip filled with 1.8 million people, 43% of the population under age 14, and high unemployment and extensive poverty. The indiscriminate bombing under the “human shield” justification is one that has led to deaths of at least 630 Palestinians, 80% of which are civilians, according to the United Nations. Opposite this death toll, 25 Israeli soldiers and 2 civilians have been killed. Dehumanization is at the heart of this. For this reason, I likewise do not accept Hamas’ retaliation against Jews as a necessary fight that cannot be resolved with peace and negotiation. I do not accept that either side is less worthy than life than the other.

As the mother of the slain Palestinian boy who was killed in the initial revenge killing stated, “Their sons were important to them, just like my son is important to me.”

  • This means we’re allowed to feel grief.

As social workers, we strive for a betterment of society overall, and in this debate, we are allowed grief for the disregard for values we hold dear and what seems a senseless destruction of lives and communities. To be good social workers, we are to consider and educate ourselves on the situation and what it would mean to promote cultural values and institutions that recognize the dignity of human life, the need for people to develop their full potential and live free from oppression and hate. We need to be careful of our personal biases and try to work for social justice in ways that facilitate positive dialogue, recognize human capacity for change and growth, and builds respectful relationships between all people, organizations, cultures and countries.

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