How Julie Fisher Went From U.S. Ambassador’s Wife to Ambassador for Israel’s Embattled Asylum Seekers

Fisher hopes her new Consortium For Israel and the Asylum Seekers will tackle the humanitarian crisis in the community, which is facing the threat of mass expulsion back to Africa

Julie Fisher volunteering in a South Tel Aviv day care center for asylum seekers.
Courtesy of Julie Fisher

The plight of African asylum seekers in Israel has become a hot-button issue for American Jews in recent months, but Julie Fisher has been grappling with the problem for seven years already.

Fisher, a former teacher and school principal, first became involved with the refugee community in South Tel Aviv in 2011, shortly after she arrived in the country when her husband, Daniel B. Shapiro, began his stint as U.S. ambassador to Israel for the Obama White House. (Full disclosure: Shapiro is also a contributor to Haaretz's Opinions.)

A friend of hers from synagogue had been volunteering as a doctor in a clinic for asylum seekers there, and she began helping him by collecting unused medication in the diplomatic community as donations. That’s when she asked someone from the embassy to take her to South Tel Aviv “to see what was happening there,” she told Haaretz this week.

She was particularly struck by the inadequate conditions of the day care center. “I saw the bad and overcrowded conditions, and I was thinking this could be a way to use my background in education to help children who really needed help,” she explains. 

For the next two years, Fisher and her eldest daughter, Liat, volunteered weekly in the center. Her discussion of her volunteer activities on social media and among diplomatic spouses and the English-speaking community sparked interest, she says. Without intending to, she became the informal address for those who had always wanted to help over the years. 

“People asked me how to volunteer, how to donate,” recalls Fisher, 49. “Those who were scared to drive into South Tel Aviv but wanted to see what was happening there came with me. The Austrian ambassador’s wife, for example, started joining me every week. People would leave their fancy positions behind, put on jeans and a T-shirt, and go hold babies.”

She further linked her two worlds by holding fundraisers in the diplomatic community: One to help rebuild a preschool that was destroyed by fire in a hate crime; and another when four babies in the African community died over a four-month period, in order to make safety improvements at the day care centers.

Over seven years, her involvement expanded to the point where she informally became “a one-stop shop for people to make connections – everyone had my number, and lately my phone has been ringing off the hook,” she says. 

Julie Fisher and her eldest daughter, Liat, volunteering at the South Tel Aviv day care center for asylum seekers.
Courtesy of Julie Fisher

That involvement was formalized this week when she founded a new initiative, Consortium For Israel and the Asylum Seekers (CIAS), with the goal of tackling what she calls the “humanitarian crisis” among Israel’s 40,000 African asylum seekers. Many of them face the threat of forcible deportation to a third country (reportedly Rwanda or Uganda) or an indefinite term in an Israeli jail. 

Fisher says the purpose of her new group is to act as an information clearinghouse and as a place for the numerous organizations that have sprung up to better communicate with one another.

Such an organization, she says, is urgently needed to link those who want to help the asylum seekers with those on the ground, and make sure efforts are not being duplicated or energies wasted.

The inclusion of “For Israel” in the name is designed to drive home a message that it’s a group for “people who want to support Israel while helping the asylum seekers,” she explains.

“This is a moral and ethical issue that has grabbed the attention of Jews and people around the world,” Fisher says. She adds that “as someone who cares deeply and spent a great deal of my adult life teaching others to love the Jewish state,” it drove her to dedicate herself as a full-time volunteer. 

Two factors have sparked the current crisis, she says. First was the May 2017 law that forces employers to deduct 20 percent of asylum-seekers’ salaries, which they will receive only upon leaving the country. The community was already hurting from this measure when the news hit late last year that Israel intends to deport the asylum seekers en masse, causing many employers to let their workers go. 

Asylum seekers marching during a protest outside Saharonim Prison, in the Negev desert, southern Israel, February 22, 2018.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

There is real hunger in the community, Fisher says, and families are unable to afford diapers and formula for their babies. Unlike Israelis, the refugee community lacks any type of formal health and welfare safety net, which is what initially drew Fisher to volunteer in the community.

By bringing everyone to the same table, holding conference calls to facilitate communication and cooperation, and to act as an address for individuals and NGOs from abroad who want to help, Fisher hopes to more efficiently pool resources and reduce duplication of efforts.

Her ultimate decision to create a group, she says, was made following last week’s Jewish Funders Network conference, where she and other activists were looking – “practically begging” – for a more established organization in the field to take on a formal role of coordinating the disparate efforts. “But they were all overstretched and stressed with meeting needs, and they don’t have the time or energy to do it.” 

Ultimately, she says, a friend urged her to “step up and do it.” Despite her reluctance to be in the spotlight, Fisher decided to take it on.

Just 48 hours after informally announcing her intention to create CIAS, she says, more than 100 groups and individuals had already signed up.

The enthusiastic response is a sign of how badly an organizing body is needed, says Gideon Ben Ami, whose group, Pesia’s Kitchen, provides meals to 12 day care centers in the refugees’ community. He’s been working with Fisher for several years and calls her "a one-of-a kind person and an amazing gift to the asylum seeker community.”  

U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his wife Julie Fisher, pack their bags in Herzliya, with daughters Merav (right) and Shira, on January 16, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

Continues Ben Ami: “There are so many groups right now and nobody keeps track of what’s really needed, and people who want to help don’t know who to go to. Sometimes, groups are helping the same people and they don’t know about each other.” 

Fisher spoke from her home in Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv. The family chose to remain in Israel, after Shapiro stepped down as ambassador over a year ago, so their eldest daughter could complete her high-school education. After Shapiro was named a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, they now plan to remain for at least an additional year, Fisher says.

Ben Ami remembers their first meeting well. “I said I’d meet with her anywhere,” he recounts, but was then surprised when she chose the McDonald’s in South Tel Aviv’s run-down Central Bus Station, where the health clinic for asylum seekers was headquartered. 

“It wasn’t the atmosphere you’d expect an ambassador’s wife to choose,” Ben Ami says. “While we were sitting there, I suddenly looked up at the television and there was her husband with [Barack] Obama in the White House – at the very same moment his wife was sitting with me in the heart of South Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhood, with some dubious types sitting around us.”

Julie Fisher next to then-U.S. President Barack Obama, husband Daniel B. Shapiro, their three children, PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the late Shimon Peres, March 2013.
Pete Souza / The White House

Fisher has imposed some boundaries on her involvement with the asylum seekers, refraining from participating in political advocacy or activity regarding their fate. She will not personally attend public protests or marches in Israel on their behalf, or engage in lobbying efforts against the deportation – although advocacy groups are among those in her new consortium.

At the same time, she doesn’t hide her opposition to the government’s planned mass expulsion – a decision that has, for now at least, been temporarily halted by the High Court of Justice.

Still, it’s probably not the life she imagined when she first arrived in Israel. “One totally surreal moment happened recently when Dan and I were at a gala being honored,” she reflects. “I was sitting there all dressed up – next to one of my childhood heroes, Natan Sharansky – while my phone was buzzing with messages from people because they wanted to drop off formula, diapers and food at my house and needed to get in the gate.”