taking flight

U.S. antisemitism envoy headed to Saudi Arabia in first trip abroad

Deborah Lipstadt, who also plans to visit Israel and the UAE, said the Gulf monarchy has given her ‘a very warm reception’

Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage

Deborah Lipstadt walks a red carpet for 'Denial' during the 11th Rome Film Festival at Auditorium Parco Della Musica on October 17, 2016 in Rome, Italy.

In a sign of the shifting political climate in the Middle East, Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S.’ special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, will kick off her first international trip with a visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend, followed by stops in Israel and the United Arab Emirates. 

“Saudi Arabia is a very important country in the Gulf. It has shown a willingness and openness to hosting me,” Lipstadt told reporters ahead of the trip’s formal announcement. “We’ve gotten a very warm reception from them.”

Lipstadt plans to meet with government ministers and civil society leaders while in Saudi Arabia, although she did not share details of those she would meet. In Israel, she will “​​be catching my breath over Shabbat,” meeting U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and doing public events with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba is helping Lipstadt set up meetings in the UAE — “anything you want,” she said he offered. She had hoped to visit Bahrain but won’t have time this trip, she told reporters.

Saudi Arabia has long faced criticism for its educational curricula that promote hatred against Jews and other religious minorities, as well as women and members of the LGBTQ community. A recent State Department report found that antisemitic material is still publicly circulated in the country, noting that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf were sold at the 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Saudi Culture Ministry. The report also noted that Saudi clerics continue to invoke antisemitic tropes and language in sermons. 

Over the past couple of years, Saudi textbooks have begun to dial back that language. The State Department also noted that the country’s leadership has announced attempts to fight extremism in the country. 

“When a country with a long history of, I don’t know what to say, dubious, or colored reactions — you know, mixed reactions, at the best, to Jews and Jewish history says, ‘Come and let’s talk’ … They know what I want to discuss,” said Lipstadt. “They know what I want to address, so I think it would have been negligent not to have grabbed that.” She likened her work with Saudi Arabia to “pushing against an open door,” adding that it would be “irresponsible” not to visit the country. 

Lipstadt insisted that her visit is not political in nature, and that it is not tied to the Biden administration’s stated goal of expanding the Abraham Accords. 

“I’m not coming to discuss regional politics,” she said. But in light of “the worldview that’s been created as a result of the Abraham Accords, to talk with them about normalizing the situation of the vision of the Jews, normalizing the understanding of Jewish history for their population, particularly — not only, but particularly their younger population, is really important.”

President Joe Biden is set to travel to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia just weeks after Lipstadt’s visit. Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia has been presented by administration officials as an opportunity to reaffirm Washington’s ties with Riyadh, and a way to encourage Saudi Arabia to produce more oil and help lower gas prices. 

But administration officials have also stated publicly that they hope to at some point see Israel and Saudi Arabia normalize relations. In a congressional hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf suggested that the president might make announcements on that front while he is in the region. 

“We are engaged with a number of additional countries behind closed doors, and I think around the time of the president’s trip you will see some interesting things,” Leaf said in response to a question about the Abraham Accords.

Lipstadt’s predecessor, Elan Carr, also traveled to the Middle East, where he signed memorandums of understanding with a Moroccan NGO and a Bahraini organization closely tied to the country’s monarchy. But he did not visit Saudi Arabia. 

Next month, Lipstadt will depart on another foreign trip, to South America. She will visit Buenos Aires on July 18, the anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more, and will also stop in Chile. 

“I feel it has really not gotten the attention in the Jewish community, much less in the world community, that it so deserves,” she said of the AMIA bombing, “given that it was the biggest — largest number of fatalities at a Jewish institution since the Holocaust.”

U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Marc Stanley has been “very active” in raising the issue of the bombing and its lack of accountability to the Argentine government, said Lipstadt. “It was he, with the Argentinians, who began to push for this to be on my calendar.”

She plans to visit Chile, a country with a small Jewish population, because “the Jewish community feels insecure,” Lipstadt explained, citing a story she heard from one mother whose children were taunted at a mall for wearing the shirt from their Jewish day school. “That’s what antisemitism is.”

Lipstadt hopes to also visit Europe later in the summer.