(RNS) — Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. State Department’s new special envoy to combat antisemitism, touched down in Saudi Arabia Sunday (June 26), arriving for her first official foreign visit as the Biden administration’s foremost expert on what Lipstadt calls the world’s oldest hatred.
Lipstadt’s tour of the country comes two weeks ahead of President Biden’s planned Mideast trip, which includes stops in Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Lipstadt’s goals in Saudi Arabia and her next stop, the United Arab Emirates, are more specific. She wants to combat anti-Jewish sentiment.
In 2020, Israel and several Arab countries signed the Abraham Accords, a set of normalization agreements among Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, countries previously diplomatically, politically and militarily at odds.
The Saudis were not included in the accords, but they have since opened up to Israel and deepened commercial ties, especially as it relates to air defense technology. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is increasingly seeing Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence. The Wall Street Journal reported that in March the U.S. held secret meeting with Israeli and Saudi military chiefs to counter Iran air threat.
With more Jews, primarily Israelis, traveling in greater numbers to the overwhelmingly Muslim Persian Gulf region, Lipstadt said she wanted to meet with government ministers and civil society leaders to raise awareness of antisemitism.
“I’m trying to see if there are ways we can address the normalizing of the treatment of the Jew and Jewish history and culture,” said Lipstadt in a phone interview with Religion News Service prior to her trip. “Jews have a rich history in this region, and that should be part of the conversation as well.”
Lipstadt will also travel to the United Arab Emirates and to Israel in the coming days.
Judaism is experiencing a revival in the UAE where a couple of synagogues have opened since the Abraham Accords were signed. The government officially recognized the existence of Jews in the UAE. There’s even a kosher food service.
A world-renowned antisemitism scholar, Lipstadt took a three-year leave of absence from Emory University in March to become special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. The position, created in 2004, has the rank of ambassador and is intended to advance U.S. foreign policy on antisemitism abroad.
She said she saw her new role in many ways as a continuation of her teaching job at Emory, in which she instructed students about the historic ways antisemitism appears and spreads.
“Jews don’t present as other victims of prejudice,” Lipstadt said. “They appear to be well situated and able to take care of themselves. People wonder, is it a serious thing? And I’m here to say, yes, it is a very serious issue.”
She also stressed that the fight against antisemitism is not only about protecting Jewish lives.
“It rarely stands alone as a hatred,” Lipstadt said. “Antisemitism is a threat to democracy and global security. It’s a threat to the stability of society.”
Lipstadt said antisemitic tropes are so embedded in society that all it takes is a financial crisis or a pandemic for them to resurface. “If you say, the Jews are behind it, people say, maybe there’s something to it,” she said. “It becomes an easy target or way of explaining something that’s inexplicable.”
Biden nominated Lipstadt for the special envoy post a year ago, but the nomination languished for months after Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, objected, saying he was offended by a tweet Lipstadt wrote in which she said his comments about the Jan. 6 insurrection amounted to “white supremacy/nationalism.” (Johnson has said he would have been concerned had Black Lives Matter protesters flooded the Capitol instead of mostly white Trump supporters.)
Lipstadt was finally confirmed by the Senate on March 30.
She said the prolonged confirmation battle has not made her feel constrained now that she’s taken office.
“Much to my delight, I have found there’s very little I haven’t been able to say,” Lipstadt said. “My colleagues in this vast network of the State Department have been utterly supportive. I walk down the halls of the building and people say, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ So far, I’ve been able to say what I want to say and what I passionately believe.”
Shortly after her Middle East swing, Lipstadt will head to Argentina to commemorate the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association building, the center of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires. The bombing killed 86 people (including the bomber). After that she heads to Chile to speak with Jewish community leaders.
Her new job, she said, is to raise awareness and understanding of antisemitism’s dangers.
“I may have taken off my mortarboard and put on whatever hat a diplomat wears, but I’m doing the same thing,” Lipstadt said. “I’m educating.”