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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The appointment of Isaac Herzog as the new minister for Diaspora affairs, announced by the Prime Minister's Office on Thursday and finalized by the government on Sunday, was greeted with optimism by politicians and activists close to the subject.
The current tourism minister has the credentials, many said, but he may not have the resources to do the job properly.
"I'm happy they took the right person," said Knesset Education Committee Chairman MK Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad), the first to hold the position of minister for Diaspora affairs seven years ago. In Israeli coalition politics, Melchior told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, "they could have given it to someone just to shut him up, to give him a job. It happens often that someone gets a position he doesn't care about for political reasons.
"Perhaps most strongly among the ministers today," he continued, "[Herzog] cares about the issue, followed it for years, and himself grew up [in] and was connected through his father to the Diaspora."
Natan Sharansky, who heads the Strategic Studies Institute at the Shalem Center and was also minister for Diaspora affairs, expressed similar sentiments.
"The fact that a minister of Diaspora affairs was appointed is very positive," he told the Post, and said he believed that "if you take all people today in government, Herzog is the most fitting [for the job]."
He explained: "You need a basic interest in the Diaspora, knowledge and connections. I know Bugieâ€š [Herzog] for years, and he has the interest, which most politicians just don't have, and the knowledge."
"It's the best choice that could be, especially in terms of the Diaspora," agreed Rachael Risby-Raz, the prime minister's adviser for Diaspora affairs. "He has experience overseas and he knows the Diaspora," she told the Post on Sunday.
Yet, for all the optimism surrounding the man, there is a great deal of concern over the government's commitment to the position and to issues affecting the Diaspora and its relationship with Israel. Whereas Melchior and Sharansky served as full-time ministers, Herzog will be dividing his time between the Diaspora Affairs portfolio and his second new position as social affairs minister. At the Social Affairs Ministry, Herzog must reform and reenergize a long-neglected bureaucracy at a time when budgets are scarce and the political dangers for those handling economic issues can be enormous.
In addition to the dual responsibilities, Herzog will have to contend with an amorphously defined position. Many of the issues that were once part of the Diaspora Affairs portfolio have, in the absence of a minister, been scattered to other parts of the government.
The Masa program is handled in the Prime Minister's Office. The Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism moved this year to the Foreign Ministry, and Minister for Pensioners Affairs Rafi Eitan is responsible for issues of restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish property and coordinating with the Claims Conference the care of Holocaust survivors in Israel.
"It's incredibly frustrating and irresponsible for this government to relegate something as strategic as our relationship to the Jewish communities around the world, as well as our leadership in the fight against anti-Semitism, to short-term political agendas," said one former adviser to a Diaspora affairs minister of the double assignment given to Herzog and the scattering of the position's responsibilities.
"The idea that the Foreign Ministry is taking over the global effort to combat anti-Semitism is, on the one hand, a good thing. It puts the Israeli government's leadership in this issue into a structural framework. On the other hand, it relegates dealing with the threat to a mid-level functionary in the ministry."
The same holds true for Israel-Diaspora relations, the adviser told the Post on Sunday. "You're talking about issues of great import to the future of the Jewish people. The younger generation [of Jews in the Diaspora] is much less connected emotionally to the Jewish state. And now you've relegated this to a part-time minister whose focus is elsewhere."
Though he agrees that "this is a full-time job, and 40 working hours a day wouldn't be enough," Melchior believes that someone "who knows how to work can be both prime minister and defense minister [at the same time]. So you can be both welfare minister and Diaspora minister."
To do so successfully, however, Herzog will have to "demand the tools, the salaries and resources, to do [the job]. Otherwise, it's just a title that goes on your business card."
According to Sharansky, Herzog's primary job will not be to manage a ministry, but to provide a central coordinating body for these issues. "The key question isn't just the budget," he said, "but how much he will coordinate between foreign organizations and ministries. If it becomes a side issue in his free time, it will be a problem." "But," Sharansky believes, "Bugie understands the importance [of the issues] and will be interested in advancing them."
Herzog is confident he will transition smoothly into the new position. "I don't need a learning curve because I know the issues. I know how to work at a high profile and [I know] the Jewish organizations," he told the Post on Sunday. "I even think the connection between social affairs and the Jewish world is a good one," he said, noting the social justice orientation of Jewish organizations worldwide and the often complimentary infrastructure of community service that exists within Israel.
According to the Prime Minster's Office, Herzog will officially take over the position on March 6.