Social work in a conflict zone: “It’s really about being very empathic”

Community Care speaks to two social workers about their working lives in Jerusalem and what it’s like to practise during a mass casualty event

Lamis Shibli Gadir (left) and Brian Auslander (right) are social workers in Jerusalem. Photo: Ilana Fenster

“During the war, we had a list of people who need special attention in cases of emergency,” says Brian Auslander, director of international relations at the social services department in Jerusalem.

“The directive was that in the event of a missile attack you had 90 seconds to reach a shelter, so we contacted all of those people to see if they could or not. For those who could not, social workers helped them to identify the safest place to be in their home.”

While high caseloads, low pay and the dilemmas around promoting choice and control for service users are just as challenging for social workers in Jerusalem as they are in the UK, they face one unique difference in their working lives – the constant threat of mass casualty events.

These could be caused by natural disasters, war or terror attacks – but in any of these cases Israeli social workers have very specific roles to play, says Auslander.  In both hospitals and the community, there is an emergency plan in place for social services, which includes central administration procedures and on-the-scene centres for field staff.

First response

In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, community social workers will attend to bystanders at the scene who may be suffering from shock or a severe reaction. “In terms of the intifada and bus bombings, we would actually send social work teams into the apartment buildings, door-to-door, to make sure nobody was hiding under a bed,” says Auslander.

Social workers will also work closely with the police to support families of people who have been killed. This includes accompanying them to the morgue and providing transportation.

“We really walk them through this process, which you can imagine as being extremely traumatic – this morning you kissed goodbye, this afternoon you have the possibility of identifying a dead person.”

Good assessment skills are vital in the days that follow, as the social workers need to identify the individual strengths of families and the strongest members who are most able to provide support to the others.

“It’s really about being very empathic, listening to the family and identifying their needs,” says Auslander. “We try to respond to the immediate needs of the families both on the emotional and the practical level.”

He recalls one situation where a teenage daughter of divorced parents was killed in a bus bombing. Her father had been out of the picture and had provided no financial support, but suddenly turned up at the mother’s house.

“He said ‘she’s my daughter, I need to mourn her also’ and we more or less had to physically separate the two of them. But that’s all part of the social work skills you talk about – of negotiating, intervening and finding a solution that was appropriate for both of them.”

The injured

For the families of people injured at the scene, support is provided by hospital social workers like Lamis Shibli Gadir, who has worked on the paediatric wing at Hadassa Hospital in Jerusalem for the last 15 years.

“I worked in Hadassa during the second intifada and it is very important to keep calm for every emergency call you have,” she says. “Even when you’re called in at 2am.”

Social workers will usually be based in the family room of the hospital and are assigned to the case management of families, which includes helping them to locate their relatives. “We have lists at Hadassa, in the other hospitals in Jerusalem and from the city, of the people who have been injured and we connect the family with the patient.”

“If we can talk to the patient then we can take their name, but if not then we look for other signs of identification like distinctive marks, tattoos or what they were wearing.”

Helping the helpers

In Hadassa, social workers are encouraged to keep talking as a way of supporting one another. “We have group support once a week and we talk about how can we cope, how we can leave and go home with all the stress and we keep hugging each other,” says Gadir.

“I’m Arabic and for me it is very difficult to come into the office the day after a terror attack. I feel that I do this, it is my side,” she adds. “But my team support me, we talk about it and we cry together, it’s not easy you know.”

Social workers in the community are also supported with debriefing sessions and the social services department has recently increased the number of supervisors based in each of its 24 neighbourhood offices. “We came to the conclusion that one’s not enough, so we’ve actually put in a second for a team of social workers,” says Auslander.

“One of the things we’ve found in emergency situations is that the social workers get very involved and say ‘I know the family, I don’t want to leave,’” he says. “Part of the supervisor’s role is to set limits on the workers to make sure they go home and get some sleep.”

But Auslander also points out that the only way the social work community in Israel is able to function, particularly in the face of high caseloads and low pay, is because they are so invested in the people they support.

“Granted overall we have to prepare how we respond to terrorist attacks, how we respond to war,” he says. “But what happens in the hospital and what happens in the community is very similar to the UK – we see individuals, we see people.”

“From the meetings we’ve had with UK social workers, we know we are facing the same dilemmas, the same issues and the skillsets are very similar.”

Factfile: Social work in Jerusalem

  • Social workers are serving the city with the largest population in Israel – approximately 900,000 residents.
  • There are 24 neighbourhood satellite offices across the Municipality, which house adult and children’s social workers in generic teams.
  • Caseload numbers are usually higher than in the UK, with social workers working with older people sometimes responsible for 200-300 individual cases, 75 to 100 for family social workers and 30 to 40 for social workers working in child protection.
  • There is no governing body like the HCPC but there is a social work law, which states that people educated as social workers are registered as social workers.
  • The system of professional development is incentive driven. Social workers are encouraged to undertake training courses provided by their employer or for every 100 hours coursework undertaken outside of the workplace, practitioners receive an extra 1% of pay. A 4% salary increase may also be available to social workers who develop and gain accreditation in a specialism, such as healthcare.

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4 Responses to Social work in a conflict zone: “It’s really about being very empathic”

  1. Kallm December 20, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    It’s good that the people of Jerusalem have social workers that can empathise with and support them at times of crisis. However, I’m interested to know do these social workers also empathise with Arab Palestinians, many of whom still live in Jerusalem, who are subject to Israeli occupation, oppression and discrimination. Part of a social workers role, wherever you are in the world, is to challenge discrimination and oppression in all its forms (state sanctioned too) as well as to fight for justice for all oppressed peoples, not just your own.

  2. Drusilla Long December 20, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    20 December 11:37
    Hi, imagine this: this is an imaginary nightmarish scene, it’s the Friday before Christmas and you are on duty in the children’s Duty and Assessment team and a duty call comes in with a child protection concern ,a child has been seen wandering in the street covered in blood.You hurry to the location to find there is a scene of utter devastation. Where this child’s house stood is a pile of rubble, and a bulldozer is still at work crushing bricks, working dangerously, carelessly near to the child.He is standing together with three younger ones, all spattered with blood, dust covered, and crying. They are traumatised. Beside them you notice a man’s body, blood spreading in a pool around his head-he is their father, shot in the temple and the back. You become aware that soldiers are standing guard over him with guns pointed.They have shot him dead.He was trying to prevent his home being demolished. The question is, what do you do if you are an Israeli social worker because you are working for the state which is illegally occupying and carrying out such acts?As a social worker, working under ethical imperatives of fighting for justice for children, and defending their human rights you face a terrible dilemma which no amount of empathy will resolve in my opinion.

  3. Martin Kemp December 20, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    Content-wise, this is a dull article. If we consider it as a communication to be analysed, it becomes more interesting. It purports to discuss social work practice in a ‘conflict zone’, but omits to discuss the ‘conflict’ itself. As such it is a prime example of what we might call the ‘dominant narrative’ in the West regarding Israel/Palestine: no historical or ideological analysis, no questions asked as to why there is the possibility of violence; a peaceable Israeli society girding itself against ‘terror’ attacks and ‘war’; the token ‘Arab’ worker there for window-dressing but limited, one suspects, in how she can express herself (the word ‘Palestinian’ loudly present by its absence).

    One might have imagined a journal like Community Care to have been more careful in its choice of material about the Middle East. Does Israeli society – its constitution, its legal structure, the practices of any its state institutions, including the Department of Social Services, reflect the standard principles and ethical standards underpinning social work in this country? Can the events in Gaza this summer really, honestly, be described as a ‘war’?

    I hope that Community Care will publish ‘balancing’ articles that will provide readers with a view of the ‘conflict’ that reflects not the dominant narrative, but the universalist and democratic principles that underpin our professional concerns in the UK. In the meantime, readers might look at these two articles, by Jewish Israeli academics in the field who take a more responsible position on the difficulties facing their society.

    Daniel Bar-Tal is Branco Weiss Professor of Research in Child Development and Education at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University. His research interest is in political and social psychology studying socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peace building, as well as development of political understanding among children and peace education. See his piece, ‘Occupartheid is Isolating and Degrading Israel’ (

    Eva Illouz is a full professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has written a devastating critique of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians in her article ’47 Years a Slave: a new perspective on the occupation’, which can be found at: (

    Yours sincerely,
    Martin Kemp
    UK-Palestine Mental Health Network

  4. Jen Edwards December 22, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    Is this article about being emphatic or about being a political mouthpiece? Empathy involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes not dehumanising them. These social workers sound as though they pick and choose who they stand with on ethnic grounds? How can they speak out against the most marginalised people in their communities and call themselves social workers? Ethics and justice should be at the heart of social work – social work isn’t a propaganda tool. This article will be so offensive to people that respect and promote the human rights agenda and call for peace and equality. There is no mention of the countless Palestinian refugees or the Palestinian child prisoners. Calling displaced people living in an apartheid state ‘terrorists’ is simply shameful. The UN has stated 7 out of 10 people killed in Gaza this year were civilians. How can an article about Social Work in Israel fail to mention these war crimes and then demonise those affected?