For Israeli Diplomats' Spouses, the Prospects of Gainful Employment Are Dim

As a result, 10% of the foreign service postings overseas are vacant, says the chairman of the Foreign Ministry workers' committee.

Shlomo Ratzbi worked at the Mekorot Water Company for 13 years before moving in 1997 to Amman, where his wife, an Israeli diplomat, was posted. From there Shlomo and his wife, Smadar, jumped around to numerous locations abroad for different diplomatic assignments.

But last August, when they returned to Israel after being posted to Cyprus, Shlomo, now 55, found it impossible to re-enter the job market.

"We are surviving on my wife's single salary, about NIS 8,000 a month. I am paying the steep personal and economic price of a lost career and lost income," he says. "The whole family is paying a price."

Along with hundreds of other Israeli diplomats' spouses, Shlomo was late in discovering that he had sacrificed his own career for his wife's, and that he'll never regain the years of employment and experience he lost.

Similarly, Sharon Morad, 47, the wife of diplomat Yoram Morad, acknowledges she didn’t think too far ahead when her husband embarked on his foreign service career. Sharon, who has held human resources positions at Bezeq, Pelephone and in the high-tech sector, had been studying to receive a master's in organizational behavior when she cut graduate school short to move with her family to Panama.

"We were happy when my husband was offered posts [overseas] and didn't look 30 years ahead," she says. "I had two little children then, and I had had a demanding career as a recruitment manager. Going abroad seemed like a convenient escape. I was proven wrong rather quickly. Panama was very hard, really catastrophic."

The family's subsequent postings, New York and Rome, were easier, and Morad acknowledges that her husband was working in "envious jobs" as a cultural attaché in "exciting cities." And though living in New York was financially difficult, they had a particularly good experience in Rome, where Sharon worked at an Italian university.

Then they returned to Israel in 2009. "We returned in the middle of the global economic crisis. It was awful. There was no work at all," Sharon recounts.

"I was 43 and all of the human resource managers were 35. My resume was certainly adventurous, but who would really be interested in that? When we returned from Panama, I found work quickly, and I did when we returned from New York too, but when you're 43 at the height of the economic crisis, it's not easy at all."

Absent other options, Morad became self-employed, but her business has not yet taken off.

"I don’t regret the choices we made, but I am frustrated with the situation I am facing," she says. "I'm a person with energy and abilities that are far from being utilized at the moment, and this disparity doesn't contribute to my self-image and certainly won't translate into money. I am not contributing to supporting the family as I could. The salary of a senior recruitment manager is about NIS 25,000 a month at least."

Sharon's husband, Yoram, makes about NIS 14,000 a month, and Sharon is able "in good months" to supplement that with another NIS 5,000.

"At our age, we have to get help from parents, and that's not something you feel like doing," she says.

Diplomats vs. businessmen

But are diplomatic postings really any different than taking overseas jobs with multinational companies? Sharon maintains that they are.

"With business relocation, the conditions are usually much better than ours. We also complain that that Defense Ministry emissaries earn more than Foreign Ministry emissaries do," she says. "Why should there be pay disparities like this?"

As part of its efforts to improve diplomats' employment conditions, the Foreign Ministry workers' committee is currently pushing for the ministry to take better care of its diplomats' spouses. By the committee's calculations, a diplomat's spouse loses about NIS 4 million in income over a 35-year period – and that's without factoring in interest, inflation and lost pension benefits.

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the workers' committee's demands, responding that the issue should be "settled with the Finance Ministry." It added, however, that "the subject is important and should be dealt with by the government."

According to Foreign Ministry statistics, there are currently 300 Israeli diplomats posted abroad and about 270 spouses, the vast majority of them women. The ministry has a total workforce of about 1,000.

"When spouses join overseas postings, their careers are ruined, plain and simple," says Yaakov Livneh, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry's workers' committee.

"For the most part, when they are abroad, they are employed within the diplomatic mission, but just in clerical positions. When they return to Israel, they are already at a fairly advanced age and without a real resume. How can you quantify that kind of damage? These are talented people, mostly with university degrees, who haven't begun to fulfill their potential. Families are forced to make do with one salary."

And it's rare, Livneh says, for spouses to stay behind in Israel. "No one wants to live in Israel as a single parent," he says.

"Working outside the diplomatic mission abroad is not easy at all. [Work] visas are not automatically issued and there are occupations, such as medicine, in which they can't work due to diplomatic immunity," he says, referring to the fact that spouses of diplomats cannot be sued for professional negligence. "And most countries aren't like the United States – what work can they find in Zimbabwe, and at what salary?"

Indeed, Israeli diplomats face a complex paradox. Despite the professional prestige of the diplomatic corps and the exclusive five-year training program that is provided to Foreign Ministry cadets, who constitute just 1% of applicants, employment conditions are hardly stellar. The starting monthly salary of young diplomats in their early 30s is about NIS 5,000, and 10 years later it may reach NIS 8,000 gross.

Salaries vary based on the purchasing power in individual countries, but they are generally higher than in Israel – usually around $4,000 or NIS 15,000 a month, in addition to extras like housing and tuition for children. However, diplomats say, those salaries have eroded substantially in recent years.

Other countries, meanwhile, provide more generous benefits for diplomats' spouses, says Yair Frommer, the chairman of the Foreign Ministry workers' committee.

"In Holland, for example, the ministry pays for the spouses' pension and provides a supplement of up to 1,500 euros [over NIS 7,000] directly into the salary of the diplomat as compensation for lost income," he says. "And the country pays the spouses' tuition [abroad] to make it easier for them to find work when they return to Holland."

Frommer says members of the Israeli foreign service increasingly hesitate to accept postings abroad due to the financial losses involved. This is a major reason, he says, that 10% of the Israeli foreign service postings overseas are currently vacant. And, he adds, 30% of diplomatic staff leave the ministry within 10 years.

"If the current situation continues, it will totally ruin the Foreign Ministry," warns Frommer. 

Emil Salman
Emil Salman