Social welfare and advocacy groups, as well as officials in the Social Affairs Ministry, welcomed Thursday's appointment of Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) to the Social Affairs portfolio, which has been minister-less for two years. However they also highlighted the immense challenges he faces in combating poverty, youth at risk and other social issues in Israel.
"We welcome the appointment of a minister at last," said ministry spokesman Nachum Ido. "We know that Herzog has been active in social issues in the past, dedicating time to the war on drugs and other issues." He said that the ministry was encouraged by Herzog's promises made during a press conference Thursday announcing his appointment.
"He said that he would be a partner to establishing a ministerial committee to fighting poverty and reducing social gaps," added Ido.
Herzog also promised millions of shekels for welfare centers, battered women's shelters and other causes and said that the name of the ministry would be changed to the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry.
Ido said that some of challenges Herzog will face in his new position, - which he is expected to take up in two weeks - will be to define the ministry's strategic operations for the next five years, to ensure that the social services have enough resources to get their job done, to implement the conclusions of the Schmidt Committee for handling at-risk children and youth, improve the conditions of Israel's disabled community and tackle the war on poverty.
Eran Weintraub, director of the humanitarian aid organization Latet, commented that with more than 400,000 families living below the poverty line, the new minister's first task should be to "return hope" to all those who had been hurt by previous government cutbacks and policies.
Latet, an umbrella organization for more than 100 social welfare action groups countrywide, has been calling on the government for some time to set up a special body to combat poverty in Israel.
"The incoming social affairs minister needs to understand that the war on poverty should be dealt with by all government ministries and not only the Social Affairs Ministry," he added.
Ran Melamed, Deputy Director of Social Policy and Communication for Yedid, the association for community empowerment, told The Jerusalem Post that he welcomed the appointment of a minister but highlighted that "it is sad Herzog has stopped being Tourism Minister because one of the main ways to help combat the country's social problems is to improve tourism," something Herzog has been fairly successful at achieving.
"The truth is that the prime minister, as social affairs minister, made some extremely positive moves - setting up a program to help children at risk, committing to bringing down violence against women in society," he continued.
"Maybe he should have stayed. Maybe it takes someone like Olmert to do it."
Melamed added that a social affairs minister should most probably have been selected along the lines of the new Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, who is a professor at Tel Aviv University. He suggested that attorney Yuval Elbashan, a social activist who challenged Binyamin Netanyahu's Economic Arrangements Law in 2003, or Dov Goldberger, former director-general of the Social Affairs Ministry, would both have been excellent candidates.
However, the ministry's Ido said he believed the position needed to be taken on by someone with political clout. "Herzog has that power, university professors or social activists are not enough to survive the political arena," he said.