Tamar Paluch

On professional betrayals and loyalty to self

The author with fellow community organizers of the #noexcuse vigil held in solidarity with Israeli women, Melbourne 4/12/2023

I drove my mother crazy when I was in my early twenties. I came back from Israel leaning left, and the veganism of my teenage years had morphed into a full-blown social justice gig. She had lots of things to say about my naivete. Often I would leave the room in a huff and shout “You can be old and cynical, if you want; but I would rather stay young and hopeful!”. When things cooled down between us she would say to me “As a young nurse, I also wanted to work in the developing world. But they never wanted me – because I was Israeli. You will see”. 

Upon embarking on my professional pathway, Occupational Therapy, I was struck that clinicians encountered people with disabilities at the coalface yet had very little to say about the political and social systems within which we operated. In fact, more often than not these systems excluded our clients in the most egregious and insulting of ways. When I discovered the field of mental health, I dove into the renegade thinking which drove the deinstitutionalization policies of the late 20th century. They spoke of dehumanisation, horrific abuses of power and systemic discrimination which offered little in the way of hope and a future to the most vulnerable members of society. I had found my calling. A final fieldwork placement in an Indigenous Australian community cemented my commitment to pursuing justice through my professional work. 

When I came across emerging concepts of “occupational justice” within the profession, I was excited to be part of a new field of thought which married social justice with the basic premise of the profession – enabling participation for all in meaningful occupations. The Indigenous health placement gave my friend and I the opportunity to publish our experience in a new textbook on the political practice of OT (Kronenberg, Sakellariou & Pollard, 2009). As a Jew it was a little confronting to discover that we would be featured next to a chapter “Occupation under Occupation”. But I was starry-eyed – this was what I signed up for. I was here to do the hard work of sitting uncomfortably to better understand the complexity of the work we do and the populations we serve. These were the relatively early days of cultural safety in health practice and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). 

In the years that followed, I was given many opportunities ahead of my time because I was passionate about community development and human rights advocacy in a fairly cut and dry clinical landscape. What drove me to these fields of enquiry was not the Marxist theory upon which much of this thinking was built. It was my own Jewish values, bequeathed by my parents (despite our political differences) and my Jewish education, and stamped on my DNA in the way of epigenetic trauma. I was a bit of an anomaly in the very Anglo-Saxon landscape of allied health. I was the Jew talking justice and pushing for change because the reality of discrimination was not far-removed from me. More than once I was told – “You always have something to say”. I think that’s called a micro-aggression in todayspeak. The pendulum had not yet swung hard enough left to erase me and my lived experiences of racism and hate. I took on public health units from another degree program in order to get a better understanding for systemic injustice in health. It all made sense to me, it gave structure to the values I had and I was fulfilled to be teaching students about seeing beyond the boundaries of clinical practice and what has now been coined “privilege”. 

Fast forward twenty years, and I can hear my mother in my ear. “You. Will. See”. Much of my paralysis in the weeks after October 7 stemmed from the sting of one cold and indifferent response to an email I sent to a group of occupational therapy leaders in Australia. The email I sent appealed to these leaders to advocate for Carmel Gat*, an OT who was taken hostage by Hamas, by lobbying the global roof body to make representations to the WHO (and others). I did not demand a public statement or invoke politics, I asked them to lend their voices on a moral and collegial basis. What was harder – the nonchalant response of the single OT leader who responded or the silence from around twenty others who received my communications? I knew it mirrored the experience of the Israeli OT Association who encountered similar apathy when advocating for their peer in captivity. A further email sent to the president of the organisation where I addressed the safety and wellbeing of Jewish professionals, in the wake of a global and local surge in antisemitism, was also met with a frigid response. What was this silence? On the other side of the fence, my early renegade role models were busy building frames of reference for whiteness and colonialism in professional practice, juxtaposed with images of pro-Palestinian protests. Bequeathed pearl necklaces on one side, appropriated keffiyehs on the other. I ordered a Magen David necklace. 

Much of my eventual mobilisation within the Jewish community since October 7 was triggered by another type of silence. That of the women’s rights organisations towards the sexual crimes committed by Hamas on that horrific day. This exclusion of Israeli women from their realm of concern is really just an extension of the exclusion of Jews from the anti-racism discourse of this past decade. As someone who has been deeply invested in this discourse of rights and inclusion, its hijacking has been very distressing even if unsurprising. 

I hate saying that my mother was right. I know she would be both pleased and pained by my realisations. And I know that I would still yell at her “I would rather stay young and hopeful” and she would smile inside. She would expect me to hold on to my convictions because they come from deep within, not from a textbook or someone’s social media exhortations. And I will try, desperately, despite the immense demoralisation and betrayal I feel. 

*It was later discovered that a second OT, Keith Siegel, is also being held
** It may be an urban myth, but apparently in the 70s/80s there was a pearl necklace society of sorts amongst Anglo-Saxon health professionals in Australia and the UK

About the Author
Tamar Paluch trained as an occupational therapist, with a focus on disability rights advocacy. Since October 7 she has been drawn back into the realm of Jewish community mobilization and activism. She has lived in Israel, the US and is currently based in Australia.
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