I am a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). As a trauma therapist, I value NASW’s advocacy on policy issues like gun violence and anti-LGBTQ legislation. My work helps one person at a time; sound social policy helps whole communities. Human rights activist and Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” My work keeps me downstream, helping people who have already been hurt. I am grateful to the members of my profession who work upstream.

It is bizarre for NASW to be silent on the genocide currently happening in Gaza. Israeli military actions have killed more than 13,000 children and 9,000 women. Airstrikes and snipers have killed and injured civilians following safe routes or sheltering in safe zones as directed by the IDF. There are 17,000 unaccompanied children, orphaned or separated from their families. Over half of all buildings have been damaged, and 80% of the population has been displaced (1.7 million people). Israel shut off electricity and water to Gaza over six months ago; 70% of the people are drinking salty, contaminated water. More than half of the hospitals have been destroyed, and those that remain have inadequate electricity, sterile supplies, and medication. Doctors frequently perform emergency amputations and c-sections without anesthesia; preventable infections are widespread. Many children are dangerously sick with diarrhea due to contaminated water, malnutrition, and lack of sanitation.

You don’t need to be a mental health expert to understand every child in Gaza is experiencing trauma. Kids tend to assume trauma is their own fault. It’s too painful to face the cold truth there was nothing they could have done to prevent the trauma; self-blame gives an illusion of control. This self-blame turns into lasting beliefs about themselves and the world. An adult survivor of childhood trauma operates from their trauma-based belief without even realizing it’s there. With time and painful effort, they can uncover it: “I guess deep down, it feels like my needs aren’t important. Like if I’m upset, I’m just being dramatic and need to get over it.” After recognizing the false assumption, they can do the work of grieving their experiences, developing self-compassion, and adopting a new belief (“My needs are as important as anyone’s”). Trauma therapy is a grueling treatment for an often-preventable condition. This work inspires a sense of profound urgency to make society better and safer for kids.

Every day, I read about Palestinian homes being bombed while families sleep inside, civilians killed while trying to obtain food aid, and a medical system on the brink of collapse. I open Instagram and see harrowing images of devastation, pain, and death. I can’t help but imagine how the kids in Gaza are internalizing their experiences:

When an airstrike flattens a boy’s home, he hears his sister screaming for help but can’t find her. He is pulled from the rubble alive; she is found days later. Watching his mother cradle his sister’s shrouded body, he thinks, “I should have stayed until I found her, instead I let them take me away.” He develops a new belief: I’m weak.

A girl is living in a tent with her family. She is sick from contaminated water, and weak from malnutrition. Her father is shot and killed trying to reach air-dropped food. She is heartbroken. “It’s my fault. If I’d been a better daughter, if I hadn’t cried so much, he wouldn’t have gone.” Her grief turns into self-loathing: I don’t deserve to be loved.

Families are sheltering in a school. The building is bombed, injuring a toddler’s arm beyond repair. There isn’t enough pain medication to make her comfortable after the amputation (which may have been done without anesthesia). Her experience of the world is that it will hurt and scare her. The little one is too young to form conscious memories, but the trauma embeds a belief in her mind: I can’t trust anyone.

While children in Gaza are developing trauma-based beliefs about themselves and the world, there is another harmful, false belief we in the US must unlearn—this one promoted by elected leaders and pundits in the US and Israel. They say we cannot distinguish between Palestinian civilians and Hamas combatants, the Palestinians are so aligned with Hamas’s mission to annihilate Israel they have forfeited their human rights, and it is the Palestinians themselves who put their kids in harm’s way. This narrative is easy to dismantle with a little humility and critical thinking. I don’t know how the average Palestinian in Gaza feels about Hamas right now, and I don’t need to—palatable opinions are not a prerequisite for human rights. I do know humans as a species protect their own children. If Palestinians were truly willing to endanger their children out of hatred for Israel, they would be the most uniquely depraved people in the world. Whenever it is said one ethnic group is morally worse than others, that is a racist lie. In this case, it is propaganda deployed to dull our natural empathy: “Of course, any loss of innocent life is tragic, but these people brought it on themselves.”

NASW should be talking about this. NASW represents social workers across the United States, and our country is major funder of, and arms supplier to, the Israeli military. They should be refuting the racist propaganda. They should be naming our government’s complicity in this genocide. They should be educating our leaders and policy makers on the deep, lasting harm being done to Gaza’s children. It is a mockery of social work values and principles for the body which sets the standards of practice in the US to be silent on this matter.

In trauma therapy, facing brutal and ugly truths is an essential first step. We cannot heal what we refuse to see. Many trauma survivors understandably avoid facing their experiences: not only is it painful, but often there is pressure from others to ignore what happened. (“I don’t understand why you can’t be civil for one holiday dinner.”) My work has persuaded me that the very least we can do is to see and be honest about what is happening and who is being harmed. It will take an estimated $18.5 billion and decades of work to repair and rebuild what has been destroyed physically in Gaza. The invisible damage will be much harder to fix. I call on NASW to acknowledge and oppose this horrific injustice.

Header photo by Emad El Byed