Lipstadt Picks Saudi Arabia for First Overseas Visit as U.S. Antisemitism Envoy

U.S. special envoy is set to meet with government officials, ministers, civil society leaders and students while in Riyadh and Jeddah, some three weeks before President Joe Biden is set to visit. Politics will definitely not be on the agenda, she said

Ben Samuels
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Deborah Lipstadt speaking during a Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Capitol Hill in February.
Deborah Lipstadt speaking during a Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Capitol Hill in February.Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia will be the first country visited by Deborah Lipstadt in her capacity as the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism globally.

The renowned Holocaust historian will also visit Israel and the United Arab Emirates as part of her trip, before heading to Argentina and Chile.

The tour marks Lipstadt’s first international trip since being confirmed in March as the first envoy to hold the position at an ambassadorial rank, which is intended to add weight to her mission.

Lipstadt’s visit comes three weeks before U.S. President Joe Biden is slated to visit Saudi Arabia, in a trip that has proved more controversial. For her part, Lipstadt said the Saudis have shown a “willingness and openness” to hosting her, adding that she has gotten a warm reception from Saudi and U.S. officials alike about the visit.

She noted that while Saudi Arabia is not party to the Abraham Accords – the normalization agreement between Israel and four Middle Eastern or African states – they have created an atmosphere where she can discuss “normalizing the vision of the Jews and understanding of Jewish history for their population, particularly their younger population.

“It’s got to go beyond governments, especially when you’re dealing with a sentiment that’s been embedded,” she said.

Lipstadt said she had identified Saudi Arabia as a country she wanted to visit in her new role, and that she received a positive response from both State Department and Saudi officials when raising it as a possibility.

“When a country with a long history of colored reactions to Jews and Jewish history says ‘Come and let’s talk’ to a person at the level of an ambassador – they know what I want to discuss and address,” Lipstadt said. “I would have been negligent not to have planned that.”

Lipstadt is set to meet with government officials, ministers, civil society leaders and students while in Riyadh and Jeddah. She is not, however, going to discuss politics during her trip.

“I’m a one-note person,” she said, adding that “my title couldn’t be more what I’m about, and my life couldn’t be more clear what I’m about.”

A Saudi man taking a selfie with his son during Eid al-Fitr celebration at the King Abdul Aziz Mosque, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last month.Credit: AHMED YOSRI/REUTERS

She will then head to Israel, where she will meet with U.S. ambassador Tom Nides and Foreign Ministry officials, where she will discuss their efforts at tracking online antisemitism.

After a stop in the U.A.E. and a brief return to the United States, Lipstadt will then travel on to Argentina for the 28th anniversary of the bombing at the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, on July 18.

“It has not gotten the attention in the Jewish community, much less the world, that it deserves given that it was the largest number of fatalities at a Jewish institution since the Holocaust,” Lipstadt said, noting that Argentina is also considering creating an antisemitism envoy.

She highlighted a photo exhibit at the Embassy of Argentina in Washington dedicated to the AMIA bombing, which she described as “very compelling.” She added that she saw more willingness from Argentine officials to prosecute those responsible for the attack.

Firemen searching for wounded people after a bomb exploded at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA in Spanish) in Buenos Aires, July 18, 1994.Credit: AFP

Finally, she will visit Chile, which has a Jewish community that Lipstadt described as “small but feeling under pressure.” However, she stressed she will not delve into politics and policy on the trip.

“The fight against antisemitism [in Chile] often gets mixed up with Middle Eastern politics. They’re not entirely separate issues, but they are separate issues,” the envoy said.

Lipstadt, who has officially been on the job for some six weeks, said she does not want to limit her engagement to Jewish organizations or synagogues.

“Not that it’s not important – the Jewish community is rightfully concerned,” she qualified. But “I hope my primary energies will be abroad: not just with how many countries I can rack up, but how can I help different envoys fight this pernicious virus that mutates?”

She said her remit is not limited to fighting for the welfare of Jewish communities, but “if a group in your country is under threat, then what is the job of the government if not to preserve the safety of people in your community? Antisemitism has broader implications: it’s the canary in the coalmine.”

The trip comes days after Lipstadt met with other countries’ antisemitism envoys.

She hopes the envoys can convene on a regular basis in hopes of becoming a “force multiplier,” also highlighting the existence of envoys in countries like Canada, Israel, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and bodies such as the European Union and the Organization of American States.

Lipstadt hopes to speak with her fellow envoys every several months in a formal capacity, with the idea that the United States can take a leadership role in forging international coalitions while highlighting the importance that Congress granted the role when elevating it in 2020.

“At the very least, we can compare notes whether it’s about online media, far-right extremism or extremism on other points on the political agenda, attacks on Israel or antisemitism in anti-Israel garb,” she said.

On that point, Lipstadt noted that antisemitism and racism are “not contiguous, they’re interlocking,” highlighting the opportunity to further build coalitions within the U.S. government aimed at combating all forms of hate.

“It again sends that message that antisemitism is not just about Jews. It’s a threat to democracy and government stability,” she said.

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