Pamela Paul recently wrote a column for The New York Times detailing virulent antisemitism on a New York City campus. The piece was entitled “What is Happening at the Columbia School of Social Work?” but it could just have easily been called “What is Happening in Social Work?” — especially since the Hamas attack on Israel Oct. 7.

Take the statement from upEnd, a group of social workers who aim to abolish the foster care system. Led by Alan Dettlaff of the University of Houston’s School of Social Work, the group released a statement criticizing Israel’s “state violence, imperialism, and settler colonialism, the very same conditions that oppress people all over the globe.” The group blamed the current tragedy on Israel’s “insistence upon dominance, power, and greed.”        

As Tom Rawlings, former director of Georgia’s Department of Children and Families wrote recently, “You’d think that those concerned about the protection and well-being of children would offer productive solutions that condemn the Hamas attacks, demand the immediate release of hostages, call for the terrorists to be held accountable, and seek lasting peace. But among many of our self-proclaimed child welfare leaders … we’ve seen the exact opposite.”

Jodi Taub, a social worker who spent the first 15 years of her career working in child welfare and schools and now is in private practice in New York, told me she has noticed an uptick in antisemitism in the past four or five years, and especially in the past two. While there has been an increase in support for other communities like African Americans in recent years, Taub, who is Jewish, says, “We were completely ignored.”

Not only were Jews left out of all of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” courses at schools but many DEI programs devised for corporate America include no information on antisemitism. Thinking back to her time studying social work at Loyola Chicago, Taub says she can’t remember any information being offered about antisemitism there, either.  

When Samantha Fried tried to organize a panel on antisemitism at Columbia earlier this fall, she was met with stonewalling from the administration. Fried, who is an alumna who was teaching classes there, told me that she had invited speakers and was all set to go when the administration told her they would move it to Zoom because they were worried about protesters.

Meanwhile, there was recently a “teach-in” sponsored by Columbia Social Workers 4 Palestine in the lobby of a campus building. In a video, a speaker is seen praising the “creativity and determination” of Palestinian “liberation fighters” on Oct. 7. The administration had at first approved the gathering, then canceled it, but appeared to do nothing to stop the students when it proceeded. The event simply moved from a classroom to the lobby.

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The level of antisemitism within the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that receives state funding for representing the indigent in criminal and family court cases, had reached such a fevered pitch before Oct. 7 that it was the subject of a lawsuit, and the settlement included training for its lawyers and social workers on the problems of antisemitism. After Oct. 7, its employees seemed emboldened, though. The organization’s union issued a statement calling for “Palestinian liberation and resistance under the occupation.” And one of the trainings on antisemitism was interrupted by employees chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

To be sure, there are plenty of social workers who are skilled at their jobs and care immensely about the clients they serve. But many public and private agencies are having difficulty finding qualified employees, and the politicization of the field is making things even harder.

What is it about social work that seems to lend itself to this radicalism? Most social workers I speak to say they are attracted to the “social justice” movement. But that has become dominated by rhetoric separating people into the oppressor and the oppressed. And in this formulation, Jews are always the oppressor. But it is not just that. 

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Fried believes that many of the young people she sees going into social work don’t actually want to do the work but want to be “community organizers like AOC (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).” She reports that many of her students “don’t actually want to do home visits and meet with clients.” She says many don’t know how to write well, which gets in the way of communicating with supervisors, and that she knows a surprising number who have been fired from internships because they “are so disrespectful.”

In other words, for some, social work has become a destination for people who want to get paid to be protesters. This is a clear departure from the tradition of social work as embodied by Jane Addams, who is considered to be the progenitor of this profession in America.

Addams, whose Hull House in Chicago catered to poor immigrants of all ethnicities (including Jews), was interested in the theoretical as well as the practical. As Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in her biography of Addams, “If you were a resident (of Hull House), it would not be at all unusual to move over the course of a day from reading George Eliot, to debating Karl Marx, to washing newborns, to readying the dead for burial, to nursing the sick, to minding the children.’’ It’s hard to imagine the same today.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.

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