Press release

By Social Workers for Peace and Welfare

Last week, Social Workers for Peace and Welfare (SWPW) convened an emergency conference on the battle against hate crimes, in conjunction with the Schools of Social Work at three Israeli universities – Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ben-Gurion (Beersheba) – and two colleges, Sapir and Tel Hai. More than 200 Jewish and Arab professionals from all over the country attended lectures and small-group practicum sessions – people from academia, government and civil service, health and welfare, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists, teachers and educators.

SWPW members believe that, without appropriate social welfare policies at the highest levels, a stable peace will be difficult to achieve, both internally and in the region. We see tremendous untapped potential in our multicultural society. Mending the rifts between various groups could empower us to create a brilliant, sustainable and prosperous society together: That is our vision and our aspiration. In society as we envision it, equality is the foremost value, and human dignity and freedom are the norm.

Gaza war didn’t stop us

The date for this conference was set long before the June events and July-August outbreak of hostilities in Gaza and, given the relevance of the conference focus to the policies leading to the battles in and around Gaza, the gathering went ahead as planned, despite the carnage.

SWPW (the acronym in Hebrew can be read “We make peace”) is dedicated to moving beyond discourse to action. Its members are Arab and Jewish social workers from around the country. Its executive committee is actively in touch with the membership, with leading professionals in the field and with academia.

Active peace-making

Many SWPW members feel responsible for what is happening “on the street” here and view responding constructively as their duty. Because our professional credo as social workers incorporates the value of equality, we feel a moral obligation to stem the tide of hate crimes afflicting our society and end the terrible damage to civil rights that has ensued.

Dr. Muhammad Diab and Mr. Baruch Shalev, SWPW Co-Chairman, sent a position paper in February to Israel’s prime minister, and members of Knesset warning against the irresponsibly demagogic tone taken by some of his cabinet ministers who openly incite people from various groups to hate others. Diab and Shalev demanded an end to legislation that imperils equality, and warned of the potential damage to the country’s social fabric. Fairly rapidly thereafter, unfortunately, we have seen these fears realized.

SWPW responded to an initiative by Dr. Ronny Streier, a senior lecturer in the Haifa University School of Social Work, urging the organization to convene an emergency conference for its own members together with educators and health professionals, drawing particularly from the ranks of university and college faculty. Prof. Bilha Davidson-Arad, director of the Tel Aviv University School of Social Work, hosted the gathering.

Hate crimes and our response

The conference opened with a call for Israel to return to the universal values of its Declaration of Independence. In her keynote address, Prof. Davidson-Arad suggested that hate is “a two-edged sword”: When wielding it against another, you wound yourself, too. Baruch Shalev and others noted that we cannot ignore the situation in which we now find ourselves: Ad-hoc hate groups and hate crimes are on the increase. However complex and difficult our situation, we refuse to yield to despair. Our job is to stop this trend and we will redouble our joint efforts, Jews and Arabs together.

The two main sessions focused on hate crimes and on the role of professionals in addressing them. Prof. Yonatan Ansen of Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba) spoke on the connection between political preference and the way Jews view Arabs in Israel, socioeconomic conditions and economic polarization and how these are reflected in violent incidents. Some recent trends have been reminiscent of what took place in Italy and Germany between the two world wars. Coordinated systemic intervention is called for, in economic, political and educational terms.

Attorney Itai Mack addressed the complexities of the two legal systems in Israel – one in Israel proper, another in the occupied Palestinian territories that functions to protect Israeli settlers rather than Palestinian residents. This situation erodes the rule of law, he warned: “Since the second Intifada, the rule of law and the legal system in Israel has expanded almost limitlessly the exemption of the military and security services from criminal and civil process when innocent Palestinians have been harmed, while ignoring ‘nationalist’ crimes by Jews. This combination reflects the stance of many Israelis and affords legitimacy to hate crimes.”

Dr. Ronny Strier of Haifa University addressed the definition of hate crimes and examined how social workers can battle the discourse of hate and promote practices of solidarity. Israel Prize laureate Prof. Yona Rosenfeld spoke of learning from success and the transition from hate to reciprocal regard. Other speakers spoke about the role of Jewish and Palestinian women’s movements in the battle against hate. Participants of 5 Workshops covered  range of social, legal, educational issues.

Following the conference, its organizers have begun working with colleagues on a joint declaration proposing the establishment of a ministerial committee to address crimes of hate and violence. Ministers of Education, Social-Welfare, Finance, and Justice, along with the head of the opposition parties in the legislature, need to work together to craft effective modes of action to reverse the deterioration reflected in the rising incidence of hate crimes. Also underway: plans for an international conference to be convened in Israel by SWPW and academia in emergency, which will report on the outcome of actions taken by the authorities to stem the tide of hate crimes. We look forward to political action from the Prime-Minister that will decisively transform the situation in a manner befitting a civilized democratic country.

Thanks to Meir Margalit for sending this Press Release