Diplomacy: A sojourner in a familiar land

US ambassador Dan Shapiro answers questions in an interview that goes well off the beaten path.

April 5, 2012 23:18

Dan Shapiro 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

US Ambassador Dan Shapiro is used to fielding questions.

He gets dozens, if not hundreds, a week. He gets them from the audiences he speaks to, from the Israeli government officials he works with and from the State Department and White House officials he reports to back home.

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He gets them on Facebook and Twitter in Hebrew and in English, and answers personally in both languages.

He answers them in an unflappable manner, seamlessly, without loosing his cool or missing a beat, whether the question is about Iran, Jonathan Pollard, Barack Obama, Mahmoud Abbas, Syria, Egypt or Binyamin Netanyahu.

That’s his job; he is a diplomat. One reason he is able to do this – answer so quickly, so effortlessly – is that any question you ask, he has probably fielded a hundred times before.

The one question that caused him to pause for just a second longer than usual during a 90-minute interview, along with his wife Julie Fisher, in his official residence in Herzliya this week, was what he would be doing had he not gone into politics and diplomacy. (A similar question asked of Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird recently elicited an unexpected reply: “Likely working on a kibbutz in Israel.”) “Well I don’t think my mother has ever given up hope that I would go to rabbinical school,” Shapiro said, only half kidding. “That was something I thought about during college.”

Ultimately, he says, life took him in a different direction. Nevertheless, he had thought for a spell about attending the Reform Movement’s rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, though if he were to attend today, he adds, he would feel more comfortable at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

“That is a great question, what we would be doing if we were not doing this. Life takes you in a certain direction, and we feel very lucky doing what we are doing.”

What sets sitting down with Shapiro and his wife apart form an interview with his two predecessors – James Cunningham and Richard Jones – is that had his life twisted a little differently here, turned in a slightly different direction there, he could very well have ended up as an immigrant to Israel.

There is something in Shapiro and his wife – their years in Hebrew school, their days spent at Jewish summer camps (Shapiro spent 12 summers at a Hebrew-speaking camp in Wisconsin), their involvement in their synagogue back home – that makes the couple seem very familiar. Their biographies – at least up until the part where Shapiro goes to work for Obama and is then catapulted into a major Middle East position in the White House, followed by this ambassadorship – are normative biographies shared by thousands of American Jews who end up living here.

He comes from Champaign, Illinois, a corn field-encircled university town with a small Jewish community in the southern part of the state; she comes from Duluth, Minnesota, a frozen northern city that sits on Lake Superior with an even smaller Jewish community than Champaign.

They grew up in the Reform movement, were active in their synagogues, were just one of fewer than six Jewish kids in each of their high school graduating classes, met at camp, went to Brandeis, and spent a year at Hebrew University.

When you grew up, did you ever think of making aliya? Did it ever roll around in your head?

For people who came and spent time here as young people on the types of programs we did, certainly that’s a conversation that you have. Our paths took us in a different direction.

We have a very wonderful Jewish community in Washington that we feel very close to.

But sure, that was certainly something that we thought about and talked about at different stages in our lives.

Indeed, when Shapiro was a small boy, his father – a professor of Shakespeare at the University of Illinois – took his wife and three children to spend a sabbatical year in Israel. The year was 1973, Shapiro was all of four years old and they arrived just a few moths before the Yom Kippur War, renting an apartment in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood.

“When the war broke out and my parents had to decide whether to continue to stay on with their three kids or do what their parents urged them to do – which was to get on the first plane home – they decided to stay,” he says.

Did that experience impact on how you look at things now?

I’d say that having lived through a real crisis in Israel with my family, even though I was very little, forged a bond between my family and Israel. It created a very early appreciation of the dilemmas, difficulties, risks and dangers that Israelis face.

Obviously I didn’t understand them as a child in a meaningful way, but I understood the importance of that issue – that there are people who want to do harm to Israel, and that Israel is in a struggle for its survival. That probably has something to do with my decision to work on those issues and be connected with them as an adult.

Is that sense of insecurity that you obviously felt then understood abroad. Or do you think people say the Jews are just paranoid? There is, as you know, a real sense of insecurity here.

Yes there is, and it is well founded.

There are people who really want to do harm to Israel and to Israelis. I guess it is probably not as well understood around the world as it might be in the United States, and certainly as it might be among Jews and other supporters of Israel.

Israel is a strong country and has a strong military, and I think that can affect people’s perceptions – why should they [Israelis] feel insecure when they have all these means of defending themselves.

Do the policy makers in Washington – in the State Department – get our sense of insecurity?

Yes… And that animates so much of our policy. We would not have made the commitments we have made to Israel’s security, including [defense against] the kinds of threats Israel is facing now, including missiles from Gaza, if we didn’t understand that, if we didn’t appreciate that.

THE US ambassador’s official residence in Herzliya is a dream locale.

The front room of the residence – which is kosher, and now kosher for Passover – opens up to an expansive yard and an unobstructed view of the shimmering Mediterranean.

Shapiro and his wife sit in white armchairs in a spacious living room under an intriguing painting of the American folk hero Betsy Ross sewing an American flag, next to the written words “One nation under G-d,” with the word “God” spelled with a dash.

Fisher – an educator by profession – says the art in the widely visited home is by both American and Israeli artists, and centers around kid-friendly themes – Betsy Ross being a folk hero that American children learn about early in life.

The couple has three girls – Liat, 11, Meirav, 7, and Shiran, 5 – all without normative American names.

“We wanted names that would be the same in English and Hebrew,” Fisher explains. “That way they didn’t have to have an English American name, and then go to day school and shul [synagogue] and have a Hebrew name. It would be great to have one name.”

In Washington the girls went to Jewish day school. Here they go to the American International School in Even Yehuda, which means – ironically – that they were getting more Jewish education when the lived in the United States.

“That,” Fisher says with a hearty laugh, “is the subject matter for a whole other interview.” In Israel, the ambassador and his wife need to supplement their daughters’ Jewish education.

“Our oldest daughter is studying for Bat Mitzvah with a tutor in Jerusalem.” Shapiro says. “I take her there almost every Sunday for a couple hours. She has her tutoring session and then we take a walk on the tayelet [promenade] and enjoy the views.”

It is this daughter, Shapiro adds, who insisted that even though they were living in Israel, the family would have two Seders this year, as they did in America. The second Seder will be held at the ambassador’s residence, but the first night they will be with friends in Jerusalem.

“It is nice to fulfill the words, Leshana haba b’Yerushalayim (next year in Jerusalem),” Shaprio says.

Hearing the US ambassador say “Leshana haba b’Yerushalayim” brought to mind an incident during the State Department’s daily briefing a week earlier in which the spokeswoman spent nearly three painful minutes dancing around the question of what is Israel’s capital.

In the end, reflective of US policy on the matter, she could not provide an answer.

When you say “next year in Jerusalem,” what are you thinking? Is it Jerusalem, the capital of Israel?

I am thinking about the interconnection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, which I certainly feel personally.

It is a holy city for Jews; it is a holy city for other people to.

That’s why we say it, that’s why we like to spend time there. As a matter of US policy, I can’t improve on what the State Department spokesperson said.

If I ask you what the capital of Israel is, can you tell me?

I can’t improve on what the State Department spokeswoman said. [Laughs.] I would just say that US policy on this issue has been the same for all of Israel’s existence.

There are historical reasons for it, but that has been the US policy for several decades, through many administrations.

SHAPIRO AND his wife are deeply committed to Judaism and to imparting that to their girls. They regularly attend Shabbat services at the Conservative synagogue Hod ve-Hadar in Kfar Saba, with Shapiro taking turn as leader of the services and as a reader from the Torah. At the Seder, the ambassador regularly takes out a “Pharaonic headdress” that he purchased at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas and acts out part of the Exodus story for his children. His wife has a bag of props to animate the retelling of the 10 plagues.

Shapiro – the ambassador who once considered rabbinical school – knows the Haggada well. But because he always spends Seders at home with his family, he has never taken part in one of Obama’s Seders, the ones the president famously initiated on the campaign trail in 2008 and which he has continued every year since.

I have always been intrigued by Obama’s Seder, and wondered how they handle the part in the Haggada that reads, “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You.”

[Laughs.] We have known many non-Jews over the years who have found participating in Seders very meaningful, and there are some very profound universal themes. Of course there is something very specific about the story of the Jewish people and its emergence from slavery into freedom and deepening our relationship with God as the one who made that possible. But there are some very profound universal themes as well, that a lot of other people recognize.

Of course there is the love of freedom, but also broadening that concept to say that there are still people suffering today, and we all have a responsibility as humanity to try and end that suffering and other forms of slavery; and that even in the course of those struggles we have to guard our own moral principles.

Removing wine from the cup when remembering the 10 plagues, that is something that many non- Jewish people who I know have experienced the Seder find to be a truly enlightened moment – that even in celebrating our victory and emergence to freedom there is acknowledgement of the suffering of one’s enemies.

What message should modern Israel, the State of Israel, take away from the Passover story?

There is always value in reconnecting with your history, your roots and how you got here. And of course the story of modern Israel is in some ways a modern retelling of the story. The Jewish people were without the freedom they needed and suffered greatly because of it, and were able to return to their home and build a state – a prosperous, strong and free country – and make it their own.

So there is what to celebrate – about how the last 64 years have kind of replayed the story of the Exodus.

There is also, I think, a theme in the Seder of always constantly striving to perfect ourselves, our world, our society. Wherever someone is still suffering, wherever someone is not free, we have an obligation to try to help that person.

In the US we always talk about trying to achieve a more perfect union. We are very proud of what we achieved, yet we know that we can always improve it.

That is a theme that comes through the Seder that can also appeal to many Israelis as well. That in the world, and in Israel itself, there are still advances [to be made], still room to address injustices even while standing firm and protecting one’s hard-won freedom.

There is another verse in the Haggada that has a lot of poignancy for people here: ‘In every generation they rise against us to destroy us and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.’ When you say that, who do you think of? Who goes through your mind?

Look, as we talked about earlier, there are people who still seek to harm Israel, who still seek to harm the Jews, who still seek to confront the values of democracy and freedom that we share – between the US and Israel and which other free people share – and I don’t know if it is necessary for me to name them, but I have some of those people in mind when we say that.

Is God going to have to save us from the Iranians, or will Obama do it?

[Laughs.] It never hurts to have faith in God, but it doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility to solve our own dilemmas here on earth.

WHAT IS interesting in these answers is that they are coming not from Israel’s ambassador to the United States, but from the United States’ ambassador to Israel. Shapiro and his wife are unabashedly, unapologetically, proudly Jewish with obvious emotional connections to Israel.

It was clearly no accident that Shapiro was appointed ambassador to Israel in May 2011, because he embodies all those feelings toward Israel – empathy, sympathy, understanding, connectivity – that critics of Obama say the president lacks.

Shapiro was sent to Israel at a time when Obama’s popularity among Israelis was at a low point – and this was unlikely mere coincidence.

His open Jewishness and identity with Israel has not, Shapiro maintains, caused him any problems in Washington. It is a different State Department than it was some 40 or 50 years ago, when it was viewed as a WASP bastion, not welcoming for Jews, let alone those openly committed to Israel.

But being Jewish – and so far up Washington’s pecking order – also raises questions. The first, of course, has to do with Jonathan Pollard.

I know you are asked all the time about Pollard, and that you don’t talk about the case. But on a personal level, has the whole Pollard affair made it difficult for you, and people like you, to rise inside the government? Do you feel his shadow?

I haven’t felt that, no, I haven’t felt that. He made the choices he made as an individual. I have many colleagues who I suspect would give the same answer – It has not affected their career prospects in any way.

At the Seder Friday night, some people are going to leave an empty seat for Pollard. What would you say to those people?

I’d say what I always say. I understand there are a lot of people who feel very strongly about the issue here, and I have certainly heard that. And I respect that. I think it is very genuine. It is important as friends that we understand that there are people in the United States who have strong feelings about it too, because of what happened.

But the basic facts of the case are that he was convicted of a very serious crime. He is serving the sentence he received in our justice system.

That is now where it stands. I can’t make any predictions about what is going to happen in the future.

AND THE second question that Shapiro’s background and world view raise is how someone so Jewish, with such personal ties to Israel, can serve objectively.

Is the fact that you are openly and proudly Jewish, and that you identify with Israel, a barrier in your ability to deal with the Arabs? I ask this because if I knew there was an American ambassador in Syria or Lebanon who was an Arabic American, spoke Arabic and felt very much a part of that country, I would wonder if he was fair and whether he could be fair. How do you deal with that?

All I can judge is by my experience. I don’t think there is anything about me now that wasn’t fairly well known and understood by people in the field and who I work with in the White House.

To my knowledge, I didn’t have any barriers or any difficulty working closely or effectively with Arab colleagues and diplomats from Arab governments. Generally, I think it ran the other way – that there was a certain kind of respect that they felt for somebody who felt strongly connected to his heritage and religion.

So as far as I know, it never created any problem and we will see in the future whether the fact that I am now more of a public figure will change that.

You never felt any blowback from the State Department that you are too Jewish?

I think they have always seen me as a straightforward, open, credible articulator of American policy, of the president’s and secretary of state’s views, and that is what is important.

I suppose that if they felt my personal views were deviating in some ways from what our polices are that they might feel differently. But I don’t do that; I do my job and I think I’ve earned their respect for that.

I have never felt any concerns in the US government about those [Jewish and Israeli] connections. In fact, I think it is a big part of why the president and secretary wanted me to do this job. I think that they felt it would be important, useful and helpful to have a US ambassador who does have the ability to connect with Israeli society and connect with its history and the language.


The modern role of the ambassador is not just to do diplomatic communications anymore; it is also to speak, listen and build relationships with publics. So if you come in with something in common with those publics, it is a step up. It is not a requirement. We have had, and I’m sure we will have, very effective ambassadors here who are not Jewish.

But I think the president and secretary thought it would actually at this time help build those connections.

Was that decision a product of the tension at the time between Israel and the US when you were appointed? Do you think that was part of the equation in appointing you?

I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I think it was simply a sense that to maximize the value of the US representation on the ground in Israel, having someone who really could connect with the public, speak Hebrew, have ties throughout the society from earlier experiences would be an effective way to do it.

You know the Jewish community well and have obviously heard the counter-argument that people say that it is not a good idea to have Jews in high positions because they will bend over backwards to show they are impartial. Is there something to that?

I think that is an outdated notion. There may have been a period when that was a large concern in the Jewish community, but it has been quite a number of years since I have heard that suggested about a Jewish official. I have never heard that suggested about me. I got a very warm send-off from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations before I came here. They seemed delighted at the notion of someone with my background, and I guess someone like me and Julie, coming and taking this job.

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