Social Affairs: 'We are becoming an indifferent society'

Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post.

Herzog 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Herzog 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The government office charged with assisting the country's weakest and neediest populations might seem like an unlikely place to find such a polished statesman as Labor Minister Isaac Herzog, especially after his foray in the more upbeat Ministry of Tourism. But the son of Israel's sixth president says that running the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services is actually a natural and "rewarding" fit. "I was hesitant at first," admits Herzog, who gave up the glamour and excitement of the tourism world 10 months ago to take over a far less attractive portfolio that had been left vacant for nearly three years. "However, I have found a lot of happiness here from the most inner part of my heart. I really believe that I'm serving a great cause, and it is something that gives me a lot of satisfaction, despite the enormous frustration and pains that I see daily." Raising the profile of the plight of Israel's Holocaust survivors, launching a far-reaching program to help children at risk and addressing such issues as rights for the disabled, increased pensions for the elderly, sexual harassment, prostitution and battered women are just some of the achievements Herzog speedily - in our shorter-than-expected 30-minute interview - points out he has made thus far. Indeed, if he works as fast as he talks, it is no wonder that the young minister has managed to cram so much activity into such a short time frame. As for his future plans, Herzog says he intends to reform the often-criticized National Insurance Institute (he's already appointed a new director-general); increase the number of social workers in the field; and initiate a wide range of ministry committees to tackle poverty and other pressing social problems. "After three years without a Social Welfare minister, we feel grateful finally to have someone in the picture," comments Gilles Darmon, founding president of the humanitarian aid organization, Latet, which has been pushing the government to establish a national body to fight poverty. "Since he took over, Herzog has not stopped working, and his political weight has really got things moving forward." In spite of Herzog's having put social issues on the agenda - with the government and public preoccupied with national security and internal political battles - some social activists criticize Herzog, who is also the Diaspora Affairs minister and the government official responsible for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. They speculate that the fact he is juggling so many issues simultaneously will not enable him to pay sufficient attention to any single cause. A case in point, they say, is the struggle to improve the lot of Holocaust survivors, including those who did not directly experience the Nazi death camps. "He commissioned a study [carried out by ministry director-general Nachum Itzkovitz] that recommended allotting NIS1.5 billion a year to survivors, but when [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert announced the resulting plan, the amount had been cut to NIS150 million," points out one activist who asked to remain anonymous. "It was only after the non-government groups spoke out that the plan was revised." In addition, he says, "The survivors were supposed to receive their benefits in September, but most have yet to receive anything. It's almost like he [Herzog] does not want to fight with Olmert or [Ronnie] Bar-On on these issues, so that he can stay in the ministry." Yet, ironically, with cracks in the coalition - due to this week's exit of Avigdor Lieberman's Israeli Beiteinu party and to the upcoming release of the Winograd Committee's final report on the Second Lebanon War - most of those working in the social welfare field are asking whether Herzog will even be around long enough to keep any of his promises. Are you worried that changes in the political landscape will force you to leave this office? I am extremely worried about the political turmoil. I don't believe in breaking up governments. The ones who suffer most are those whose voices are not heard in the media - the weak and the needy. Of course, I will read the Winograd report and don't intend to be indifferent to the issues raised there. However, my initial feeling is that we [Labor] should not leave the government, because these crises only lead us to more setbacks. I also believe that the social-welfare infrastructure has benefited from having somebody at the steering wheel who is non-sectarian and sees the general picture. I just hope that I will have enough time to serve in this position. What has been your greatest challenge in the ministry so far? We have created a lunatic bureaucracy that chokes all the people who aim to resolve problems. Everything [I try to do] is subject to what I call the "Bermuda triangle" - the [Finance Ministry's] Director of Budgets, the Civil Service Commissioner and the Accountant-General. This triangle has tormented me as I try to solve some of the basic social problems facing our citizens and improve the services for needy families. Were you surprised by the extent of Israel's social problems when you took over the ministry? I have been involved with Israel's social problems for almost 25 years, mainly as a volunteer but also as a civic leader and an elected official. I was heavily exposed to some of the social issues when I was housing and construction minister [in 2005]. In that capacity, I dealt a lot with public housing issues in inner city neighborhoods. However, what I was surprised about is that there is an incredible world of giving, and doing positive work focusing on some of the most sensitive circumstances in a person's life. What has shocked you the most? Bearing in mind the beautiful side of Israeli society, including giving and volunteering, what shocked me the most was the indifference. We are becoming an indifferent society, and it haunts me day and night. We are indifferent to the pains of other human beings; we are indifferent to the weak; and that is why the issue of the Holocaust survivors stood out. When I convened the emergency committee [for Holocaust survivors] last Holocaust Remembrance Day, I was shocked to find out that neither this ministry nor any other ministry has ever dealt head-on with this topic. It should have at least been raised by someone. Finally, we have reached an agreement with the organizations representing the survivors, and I hope that the first sage of the increased monthly payments will go into effect this month. Do you believe that the main answer to Israel's social problems lies in increased welfare benefits? Increasing benefits is justified for those who cannot create any other income themselves, such as the elderly or the disabled. But I also believe in empowerment and encouraging families to go out to work. Of course, there are still those who are trying to earn a living, but still find themselves under enormous stress. I am waiting to see how negative income tax [approved by the government last month] will help these families. I think this - combined with the Histadrut-approved wage increases [in the public sector], and the increase of the minimum wage scheduled for mid-2008 - will help many families get above the poverty line. Are Israel's social issues different from those of other countries? We are a normal country just like anywhere else, and the same problems that pertain to a normal country or society - such as poverty, drugs, alcoholism or sexual harassment - apply here, too. Anywhere you have human beings, you have these kinds of circumstances. However, here these social situations are coupled with what I call the "Israeli factor." These are the problems that are a direct result of national traumas, such as the Holocaust or the Lebanon war, the integration of new immigrants and tensions between social and ethnic groups. All these are a major additional burden to what we, as a nation, carry on our shoulders. You are also the minister responsible for Diaspora relations. How do you keep a positive spin on Israel's image while dealing daily with such depressing factors? I always present the full facts and the whole truth to anyone I meet from the Diaspora. The Jewish world is heavily involved in Israel's affairs, and there is no way I can paint it in any other color but the real color it is. In fact, Jewish communities and organizations are some of the most wonderful partners to Israel's social services. Does Israel's social-welfare system rely too heavily on help from abroad? There is incredible activity in Israel, too, with organizations such as WIZO, Na'amat, Akim, Ilan, Alut, Aleh and thousands more non-profit organizations and institutions that are also excellent in providing great services to the community. Of course, we must also give credit to Israel's founding fathers, who, even though they did not have a penny in their pockets, knew that the utmost priority, aside from building up the military and redeeming the land, was also creating a very strong social-welfare system. They were perfectionist in this regard, and established a welfare department in every community and city in Israel. Hasn't that changed, with the government's now relying heavily on non-profit organizations? In the mid-1980s, during the time of [Menachem] Begin, there was a major change in the way the government saw its role. The trend since then has been towards privatization. The truth of the matter is that 80 percent of social services in Israel today are contracted out by the government or my ministry to non-profit or private entities that supply excellent services on the ground. At the same time, these organizations are regulated and partially funded by my ministry. This is exactly the way government should function. Doesn't it mean that the government is shirking its social responsibility? I am vehemently opposed to any divesting of responsibility, especially that which is laid out by law. Unfortunately, what I have found is that in recent years, a dangerous hybrid situation has developed whereby, for example, hundreds of employees in my ministry are not full-fledged state employees, but rather have been hired through third party agencies. I started working in a barren landscape because there was no minister here for three years and, as well as doing considerable work in a variety of fields, I am also devoting a lot of my attention to manpower and human resources of social workers and others involved in social services. Is lack of manpower one of your ministry's biggest challenges? The public is very aware of the work conditions for teachers in this country, but I believe that it is also important for them to know about the real needs and duress under which social workers operate, especially in municipal welfare departments. One of my goals is to improve their work environment and increase their numbers in each locality. We have already made some small steps in this area, with the first major hurdle being to wipe out our debt with the Finance Ministry. You say people don't know about the situation of the social workers. Do you think people in general are less interested in hearing about social issues? There is a lot of lip service when it comes to social services and social needs. While painful human-interest stories are extremely attractive to the media, they fail to deal with the core problems. If there is a demonstration of Holocaust survivors walking with yellow stars, then it is the hottest story in the country. But if the government approves a package that goes into details of solving the problem, then it hardly gets any media attention at all. I think there is more of an obsession with the haircut of [TV star] Ninette [Tayeb] than with the points we are trying to raise here.