When US Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, his wife Julie Fisher and their three daughters board a flight departing Israel this Friday, they’ll be seen off by a driver, bodyguards and members of their staff. When they land back in Tel Aviv after a short vacation no one will be waiting for them. They’ll grab a cab or drive themselves home — just another ex-pat American family.
President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team issued a highly unusual directive earlier this month ordering all politically appointed ambassadors to vacate their overseas posts by January 20, leaving many US envoys scrambling to make arrangements for new housing and schools for their families in the middle of the academic year. In contrast, Shapiro, currently the longest-serving US ambassador overseas, submitted his resignation immediately following last November’s election, and he and Fisher immediately began planning next steps for them and their girls.
Shapiro and Fisher decided not to leave Israel. They will stay at least until the end of the spring semester, moving into a house in a community not far from the official US ambassador’s residence in Herzliya where they have lived for the last five-and-a-half years. There will be no disruption to the education of Shira, 10 and Merav, 12, at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda, or of Liat, 16, at a local Israeli high school.
“The girls have sacrificed a lot, so we decided our next decision would be what would be best for them. Having them finish the school year here would be the first priority,” Fisher said.
While the girls continue to study, their parents will use the next several months to transition to private life and figure out their next career moves.
Fisher, 48, worked as an educational leader in Jewish days schools over the course of nearly 20 years in Washington, DC, while her husband worked on the Hill and then later in the White House as senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the US National Security Council under President Barack Obama. She thinks she might now like to focus on strengthening US-Israel ties through arts, culture and education.
At the US ambassador’s residence this week, Fisher took a break from packing to sit down for an interview with The Times of Israel. She reflected on the unique advantages and challenges of being an ambassadorial family, how she’s changed during her time in Israel, and why she’s shaped the role of diplomatic spouse to engage with Israeli society in a broader and deeper way.
Are you ready to return to private life?
It’s been such an honor and privilege to have this role but we have had to be “on” all the time. We go out and people recognize us. We have to be careful what we say and do. That’s part of being an ambassadorial couple and we embrace that, but it’s been a long time now. It’s time now to settle in as a normal family and to give the kids some more normalcy and privacy. Our oldest daughter remembers what it was like before and pines for a regular life. The younger girls will have a rough adjustment. They are used to being surrounded by hundreds of people all the time. And there’s been a house staff, so if we were not available there was someone for them to talk to. They are going to have to adjust to quiet time and a more normal life.
What did your girls gain from being part of an ambassadorial family?
They gained a lot of confidence and the ability to meet anyone from the prime minister on down and be able to look them in the eye and make conversation. It’s been a balancing act of when to ask them to come out and perform and be part of the ambassadorial family, and when to say, “Abba or Mommy will do it, and you can have a play date or stay upstairs.” We’ve been living above the shop, so to speak. Hundreds of events were happening here while they were still doing stuff like having their piano lesson and doing their homework.
They are more interested in the world and what’s going on, because it’s part of their life. If Dan’s in a meeting or he’s flying somewhere, they might read about it in the newspaper the next day and it engages them. All three of them feel very connected to Israel, and Liat and Merav are fluent in Hebrew.
Did your expectations of the life of an ambassadorial family match the reality after your arrival in Israel?
I thought we’d have to play a role all the time. Little by little I realized the Israeli people just wanted us to be ourselves. No families with young kids had ever lived in this house before, and I thought it was going to be an issue, but everyone here is family friendly and being a young family is not something we had to hide away. It was something the Israeli public embraced, and it was actually helpful in our outreach. I thought the kids would be a bother to the house staff. I didn’t realize how much fun everybody would have by having kids here.
How did you grow in your role over time?
I grew more confident. I started to see where I could fit in, where my skillset could be used to help our embassy and to help the residence function better. At the beginning I didn’t think I should have an opinion on anything, but I realized that not only is it my job to be the custodian of this residence, but it’s also my job that it be up to the standards of the US government.
I started to see where I could make a difference. One of my favorite events was a business networking event. I only had it three years into our tenure because I had always thought of myself as an educator, but I realized that in this position I could also help women in business. It was a successful event, and even though that was not my background, I was a facilitator. That kind of confidence took a while to develop.
What skills from your previous career helped you as diplomatic spouse?
I was used to public speaking, so I could hit the ground running on school visits and on hosting things here. I’d managed staff before, so I was able to manage the staff of six in the ambassador’s residence. I’ve worked very closely with the public diplomacy office in the embassy, and one of my favorite things to do with them was to go on school outreach visits, which has been a perfect match for me. I’ve visited everything from a tiny Bedouin preschool with no electricity near Tel Sheva to fancy Tel Aviv high schools. I know what kids like to talk about and how to talk to kids and teachers.
The past generation of ambassadors’ spouses, a lot of them never worked so they didn’t develop those skills. It’s not that they weren’t intelligent and productive and wonderful people, but I think the time I had in the workforce developing skills helped me tremendously in this role.
What did you learn from this role that you will take with your into your next job?
I think I qualify to be an event planner after hosting over 20,000 people in this house in the last five-and-a-half years! I can plan things on a much larger scale. I’m both a big picture and a small detail person, and that’s come in handy with the kinds of things we’ve done here.
I love social media. I help Dan with that and I do my own thing, too. I try to amplify the embassy message in everything we are doing. I think I have been very helpful in that, and I’ve developed more skills in that area.
What advice would you give your successor?
The advice I would give would be to pay attention to nurturing the role of ambassador’s spouse within the embassy community. As a leader, you have a great ability to affect morale in a positive way. It’s things like reminding the ambassador to call an embassy family when they have a baby, or when one of their members is in the hospital with a broken leg. Someone just reminded me that during our first year here, she had twins and Dan called her at the hospital, and she will never forget that. Those small acts of kindness within the embassy community are important. We have a big embassy of 800 people (200 direct-hire foreign service officers and 600 local employees plus their families), so I didn’t catch everything. There was more I could have done, but what we were able to do was very appreciated.
People often think that the life of a diplomatic spouse is all garden parties and afternoon teas. You actually spent a lot of your time doing charity work with local NGO’s on your own, with US embassy support, and together with other diplomatic spouses.
I thank Celia Gould, the wife of the last UK ambassador Matthew Gould. She was going out to places diplomats don’t usually go. Celia invited me in the first year to visits to NGOs and showed me how we can break out of that mold and do something that makes a difference. That’s where I’ve found the most meaning. I’ve organized lectures and trips, but I’ve also taken diplomatic spouses to visit with refugees in south Tel Aviv. We’ve put on our jeans and gone out to pick beets in Leket’s fields. My purpose is to do something meaningful and productive and make a difference in the local community. And to open the eyes of the diplomats to what is going on. It’s really important.
I’ve probably visited hundreds of NGOS in the last five-and-a-half years. Everyone talks about Israel as the start-up nation. They look at the innovation in technology, but I see that same innovation and drive in the NGO world. Israelis look around and see a need and just jump in, and I am so struck by that.
Why did you step up to take a leadership role with Diplomatic Spouses of Israel association?
‘Most of life is absolutely normal. Most of life is not Red Alert’
I felt that I could use my leadership stills in a positive and appropriate way. I couldn’t work in the embassy or in the local economy, but I could play this leadership role and use my skills and talents as a speaker and skilled organizer to do something that I thought was really important, which was to show diplomats a side of Israel that they aren’t necessarily seeing. Because I am Jewish and know Israel already, I had this unique vantage point of being the bridge.
My diplomatic friends tell me that they are terrified when they find out they are coming here, and then they get here and they see how wonderful life is here day-to-day. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people. Most of life is absolutely normal. Most of life is not Red Alert. It’s just regular life. The more they see Israel, the more they love Israel. They are all devastated when it’s time to leave. These diplomatic families go back home and become ambassadors for Israel.
What was the most challenging thing you had to deal with during your tenure?
Security issues have been challenging throughout. Internet hate has been depressing. Dan is very well-loved as a person, but he gets a lot of hate online. It’s a field day on his Facebook page. We’ve had a few scares and have had to have higher security for our family at times because of specific online threats. Sometimes there are protests outside the house, too.
It was very tense toward the end of the Iran nuclear deal negotiations. The level of discourse was so unpleasant, and that did have reverberations for our family. I normally didn’t have security, but for a while I had to because of threats. Whatever the disagreements are, having death threats is horrible. It didn’t color my view of Israeli society, which has been warm and accepting and wonderful. We have great working relationships even with those people with whom we don’t agree on things, like some right wing members of Knesset. That’s the role of diplomat to find ways to connect with everyone in society. I think we’ve done a really good job of doing that.
There have been a lot of ups and downs between the tension in the [US-Israel] relationship — some more real and some less real, but still actively out there — and the security issues from all sides. We’ve had all of that, but when I look back, I wouldn’t say that colors the memories of our time here. It’s been the backdrop, but not the main event.
Many American Jewish families visit or spend time in Israel, but your family’s experience was different. What did you gain from your unique opportunity?
I would say it was in terms of seeing the depth and breadth of Israel in the time we had here. It has definitely changed the way I look at the country. Israel is much more diverse than a lot of Americans realize. Being here and being able to engage with diverse communities as part of the mission of what we do has given us this incredible look at what it means to be Israeli, and how diverse that is. That was definitely a surprise.
I also think that being able to live the day-to-day threat of terror and missile attacks gave us a unique perspective. It gives us a little more street cred to be able to say, “You know what? I also had to run down to my basement when the alarm sounded, and I also wondered when I walked down the street during the year of stabbing attacks what I would do.” And attending funerals…
I remember that only two weeks after we arrived we attended the funerals of the victims of the terror attacks in August 2011 when terrorists came over the border from Sinai. I went to a funeral for a very young soldier who was killed, and I will never forget his mother’s screams for the rest of my life. I will remember how horrible it was and that this is such a price to pay for guarding the country.