Diplomacy: A sojourner in a familiar land
US ambassador Dan Shapiro answers questions in an interview that
goes well off the beaten path.
US AMBASSADOR Dan Shapiro Photo: 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.
He gets them on Facebook
and Twitter in Hebrew and in English, and answers personally in both
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
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
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
“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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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
“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.
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
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),”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Is God going to have to save us from the Iranians, or will Obama do
[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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.