A popular myth has it that ministries should be run by “professionals.” That would mean generals running the Defense Ministry, social workers the Social Affairs Ministry and doctors the Health Ministry.
While the idea has a certain appeal — 44.2% of the public supported Benny Gantz’s promise to appoint a hospital director as health minister — it reveals ignorance as to the role of government ministers.
The health minister, for example, doesn’t have to be a medical specialist. He has to set policy, identify priorities — based on his worldview — and obtain resources, often by using political clout and understanding how government budgets are allocated.
He has to think out of the box — deciding, for instance, that dental care and mental health should be covered by national insurance and that good health starts with good eating, and forcing the food manufacturers to tag products that are high in fat, sugar or salt.
He doesn’t have to be an expert in any one field of medicine — which would you pick? — rather he has to know how to assemble the best experts on any given topic, how to ask the right questions and how to make the right decisions.
That’s what was done under Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, and history will show that his handling of the coronavirus crisis — beginning with his push to close flights from China early on — was exceptional by any standard, despite criticism that he wasn’t a “professional.”
Rabbi Litzman now brings his skill set to a new ministry, Housing, with a new mission: ease the crushing housing crisis. For more than a decade, the country’s finest minds, at the Housing and Finance ministries, have tried and failed to bring down prices.
Former finance minister Moshe Kahlon made it his top priority; he put his people in control of key posts in the Israel Lands Authority, the building and planning commissions and elsewhere in order to break through bottlenecks that held up construction and raised prices. He launched a creative “price resident program” that lowered prices for those who qualified, but the problem has persisted, for the general public and, especially, for the chareidi sector, where so many couples are forced to pay high rents for storage rooms that open up to parking lots.
Rabbi Litzman is once again surrounding himself with experts. According to Globes, he chose as his director general Yair Pines, a deputy director and business division manager at the Israel Land Authority who is currently on sabbatical as a Senior Fellow in the Harvard Kennedy School for Business and Management. His field of study? Affordable housing.
In the coalition agreements, he obtained additional resources for his ministry, as did Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, whose ministry is in charge of approving new construction via its planning committees, making it possible to speed up construction and lower prices.
There is talk of a new chareidi city going up near Kiryat Gat, and other projects. But judging by Rabbi Litzman’s track record at the Health Ministry, it isn’t just chareidim who will benefit from his efforts, but the entire Israeli public.