The Role of the Social Worker in the Face of Terrorism: Israeli Community-Based Experience

Article excerpt

The effects of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001, and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 continue to be felt. "What has changed is that the United States has caught up to Europe and the rest of the world in vulnerability to these kind of attacks" (McDevitt, cited in Derezotes et al., 2002, p. 119). "I finally realized that we are not immune to global violence" (Mendez-Negrete, cited in Derezotes et al., p. 122). These are the feelings of two social work educators.

Another social work educator described the attacks on September 11th as "a unique event" in which a number of factors converged: The attacks were unexpected, sudden, intentional, foreboding, witnessed by millions, prolonged in its media coverage, and "intensely political in its impact" (Padgett, 2002). Padgett concluded that the events of September 11th did not cause social disorder or chaos; and its impact on the social fabric was not as devastating as some had predicted.

Two psychiatrists pointed out, however, that the magnitude of the September 11th tragedy "dwarfs all others in American history ... the trauma is not time limited but is persisting long after the initial incident as a result of continued threats by terrorist groups" (Ledoux & Gorman, 2001, p. 1953). Social workers and other helping professions have used the traumatic events for new thoughts and reflections on what they can do to prevent terrorism and violence (Derezotes et al., 2002; Eyben, Keys, Morrow, & Wilson, 2002; Ken & Holly, 2002; Scurfield, 2002).

Israeli social workers have learned much from our American colleagues, but we unfortunately have more experience coping with terrorism. We define terrorism as the use of indiscriminate and unanticipated violence against civilians, and we were up against it long before the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. As for the modern guises of terrorism, from hijackings to suicide bombers, we have been a testing-ground for the ingenuity of terrorists for many years. Moreover, in Israel, most community-based interventions for victims of terrorism have been directed and coordinated by social workers, usually those employed in the municipal social services departments.

In this article we review the literature on community-based intervention and describe, using the reports and narratives of social workers, volunteers, and clients, what some Israeli social workers have done in local communities in the face of terrorist attacks (particularly those in the past 1 1/2 years), the lessons that can be learned from their experience, and the major roles that they have filled.

Violence of all kinds has deleterious effects on adults and children. Garbarino (1998), referring to the general rise of violence in the world in the past few decades, talked about a kind of "social toxicity" among young people. Groves (2002), reflecting on the events of September 11th, pointed out these and other violent events lead to traumatization of young children. Various studies bear witness to these effects in many societies: South Africa (Simpson, 1998), Mozambique (Shaw & Harris, 1994), Guatemala (Melville & Lykes, 1992), Israel (Dreman, 1990; Dreman & Cohen, 1990), and the Palestinian Authority (Thabet & Vostanis, 1999).

Violence may lead to traumatic symptoms that require appropriate psychiatric and therapeutic help, but probably the major aid for victims of violence is family, social, and community support in their natural surroundings. Ayalon (1993) stressed the importance of family and social support for survivors of terrorist attacks in Israel, and Elsass (2001) demonstrated the effectiveness of community support and intervention among Peruvian war survivors. Padgett (2002) emphasized the resilience of survivors and the fact, shown first in the London blitz in World War II, that most disaster survivors do not want mental health intervention. …