Israeli Social Work: between poverty and the occupation

Amir Paz-Fuchs
Amir Paz-Fuchs

The following is the text of a short talk given at the World Social Work Day, 18th March 2014, at the University of Sussex.

Why am I qualified to talk about social work practice in Israel? I probably am not. I am, however, familiar with the work of Israeli social workers through a few avenues. Initially, as a legal academic and activist working on social and economic rights and access to welfare rights, I engaged with many social workers and learned a great deal from their experiences. As my involvement in the field grew, I ended up teaching core undergraduate and postgraduate option modules at the school of social work in Tel-Aviv University. The former offered me an insight into the next generation of social workers in Israel; the latter enabled me to engage with mature social workers, some of whom have been in the profession for over a decade or two. Finally, as relationships evolved and developed, I became increasingly involved in the Israeli social workers’ struggle for a decent living, on which I’ll say more in what follows.

It’s obviously impossible to cover the social, economic and political realities in Israel proper and Israel/Palestine in the time frame allotted, and I shall not even claim to do so. But I would like to give you a taste of the challenges that the social work profession encounters against those realities. A good place to start is the global definition of the social work profession. Just to refresh our memory:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.

My basic argument is that, in the current context, Israeli social work (as opposed to some Israeli social workers) will not live up to this grand aim. Two main forces are in play, and joined together, they have been coined (not by myself), and forgive the historical reference: National capitalism. Let’s start with the capitalism.

A few after Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan did their waltz of destruction of the welfare state in their respective countries, a similar process began developing in Israel. To many, this was astounding and, to an extent, much more dramatic than anything that happened in any other country. For while there was never a governing socialist ethos here or across the pond, that was (at least rhetorically – more on that in a moment) quite the case in Israel, which was ruled for the first 30 years by the Workers Party of Israel. The unravelling of this edifice and, moreover, the pace that it unravelled by the right wing Likud party, was unparalleled. A series of swift privatisations and outsourcing initiatives changed the Israeli landscape. But while most of the focus was on the price received for the selling of this national industry, that telecommunication company or the national airline, the real story, not under the spotlight, was the change in social welfare provision. From a country that prided itself as one of the most egalitarian amongst modern capitalist nations in the 1950s and 1960s, it now has the second lowest rate of support to families in need in the OECD, the highest percentage of children living in poverty (35.6%) and among the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population – over 50% of household live in poverty.

While these numbers are routinely discussed, and thus relatively well known, to most Israelis, they tend to forget that the individuals who must deal with the ramifications of increased poverty, including physical and mental illness, domestic violence, child abuse and the like, are the social workers. However, it should not be surprising to note that the increase in needs was not met with an increase in resources. In fact, the case was quite the opposite. Social budgets were slashed, local council were deprived of funds, redundancies were prevalent, and perhaps most significantly, the trend of outsourcing ushered in, taking the social work field by a storm. Over 80% of welfare provision in local councils and the Ministry of Welfare is outsourced, and executed by private, often – for-profit corporations. The result is disastrous for the social work profession. Removed from the ambit of collective agreements, privatised social workers have no job security, can be subject to renewable, part time, temporary, zero-hour contracts; and are forced, because of these circumstances, to violate ethical, and sometimes legal provisions. It has become somewhat of macabre humour amongst social workers in Israel who reflect on their own situation and find that it is often not far removed from the situation of those under their care. While many persevere, their emotional and physical resources are dedicated to their own survival and to offering the best care to their clients, under impossible conditions. Many others, excellent, ideologically driven and socially aware social workers exit the profession, leaving it to those who are either less qualified or who have a significantly different motivation. And here I turn to the second element, that of nationalism.

It is probably of no surprise to anyone here that Israel has become increasingly nationalistic in its orientation over the past two decades. This change is visible at the government level, but also in daily interactions with the man and woman on the street. Some of these men and women (actually – predominantly women) are, in fact, social workers. The collapse of the welfare state and the expansion of outsourcing and private provision of welfare brought with them the resurgence of traditional, faith based and localised forms of social work. To an extent, this is retrograde move to 19th century, community-based social work, just without their radical nature. In fact, it is quite the opposite of any radicalism or claim for universal social justice. Many social workers of this new generation are Jewish women who come to address the social ills that are present in Jewish communities. This is probably a good place to mention that critical historians who study Israel would probably view this recent development as an extension of the shaky foundations of the Israeli welfare state. You see, it is somewhat misleading to claim that Israel was established on a socialist ethos, if that implies (as it should) universalist commitments, when Palestinian citizens of Israel were subject to deprivation of liberty from Day One, were denied access to employment and to unions, and denied access to land (indeed – sometimes, denied access to their own land). However, in the first few decades the universalist language of welfare legislation was sufficiently binding to uphold at least some aspects of equal provision. With the devolvement of social work to local councils, and with its privatisation, that commitment to equal provision was thinned down to the point of extinction.

"The poverty line starts here"
“The poverty line starts here”
"The Netanyahu welfare state is in the West Bank", "Bring welfare back to the state"
“The Netanyahu welfare state is in the West Bank”, “Bring welfare back to the state”

Matters became even more extreme after 1967. I mentioned earlier that the Likud governments slashed the Israeli welfare state. In fact, this is only part of the story. Israel has actually developed an incredibly impressive welfare state … in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank (and formerly in the Gaza strip). There you will find fully staffed local councils, with thriving welfare departments, an abundance of resources, full employment (much of it public employment) and no hint of the poverty that is bringing Israeli society to its knees. Needless to say, the social workers who operate in the occupied territories, like almost all Israeli settlers, do not view Palestinians, including those living in dire poverty, without running water and subject to severe deprivation of life and liberty, as their concern. I hope that I manage to convey that my intention is not mobilise yet another call for Israel bashing. Rather, it is (hopefully) the more subtle insight that the occupation also has an effect on the profession, and the way it sees itself. If we return to the global definition, concepts that are within, including ‘empowerment and liberation of people, social justice and human rights’, cannot be more remote from the daily consciousness of Israeli social workers living and working in the occupied territories, or at the very least (and perhaps worse) – these concepts receive a very different interpretation.

But I cannot leave you in such a despondent state. There are reasons for optimism, however light and slight. I can mention here two amazing groups of social workers who operate courageously, vocally and against all odds to oppose these joint forces of Israeli national capitalism. The first is Ossim Shalom, which is a double entrendre: ‘social workers for peace’ and ‘making peace’. The group trains Jewish and Palestinian social workers as agents of change in their communities, and as facilitators in conflict situations.

The second is Atidenu (our future), a group of privatised social workers who work to claw back the outsourcing of public services, including social services, thus struggling for their own employment conditions and their ability to provide better services, but also studying the disastrous consequences of the privatisation of social services in general, and offering a coherent and informed alternative. A testament to their central role in the formation of this alternative is the wide spread and prolonged (over 3 months) strike that they led in early 2011, which preceded and, perhaps, led to the massive social protests in the summer of 2011 in Israel.

The problem, as you may notice, is that each group (qua group) addresses only one half of the foundations of Israeli national capitalism, thus either willfully ignoring the other half of the challenge, or viewing it as overly ambitious to try to tackle both aspects at once. They may be right. In the meantime, these courageous, energetic, bright young women on both fronts see the trees and forest. If there is room for optimism for social work in Israel, it is because of them.

Dr Amir Paz-Fuchs is Lecturer in Employment Law at the University of Sussex

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