US anti-Semitism envoy worried by Israeli far-right policies

Deborah Lipstadt says changing attitudes and perceptions will be a 'long haul'

Deborah Lipstadt was sworn in as the US Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism in May last year. Getty Images / AFP
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Deborah Lipstadt, the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, told The National during a visit to Abu Dhabi that she does worry about whether the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians will increase the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Middle East and around the world.

“I think the State Department, the Near East Desk and my own office have made clear their disapproval of some [of the Israeli government’s] actions, without getting into specifics,” Ms Lipstadt said. “But more than anything, anybody who would use them as a rationale for anti-Semitism is just looking for an excuse.”

Asked whether she thought the Netanyahu government's actions would exacerbate anti-Semitism, Ms Lipstadt said: "I do worry about it."

The diplomat, a prolific historian and professor of Jewish history, was in the UAE capital this week to visit the Abrahamic Family House, the world’s first religious complex featuring a mosque, church and synagogue on a single, shared plot.

The UAE has stood out in the Middle East for its efforts to combat anti-Semitism in recent years, particularly since the signing of the Abraham Accords, the agreement to normalise relations between the Emirates and Israel, in 2020.

The signing of the accords has led to the development of a robust trade partnership between the two countries, as well as the opening up of passenger flights between them.

In January, the UAE announced that it would soon begin teaching about the Holocaust in local schools, with the curriculum being developed in consultation with Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum and memorial.

“What the Abrahamic Family House represents,” Ms Lipstadt said, “is a decision by the UAE, after having been involved in tolerance and religious co-existence for years, to really make a mark with a space that will help to influence what happens in the region and the world.”

But various actions by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including inflammatory rhetoric from far-right cabinet ministers and an incident in April when Israeli police stormed Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, have caused concern throughout the Arab world.

Mr Netanyahu was re-elected as Israeli prime minister in December, after a wide coalition of parties that had ousted him in 2021 collapsed.

The new governing coalition comprises Mr Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and an assemblage of religious and far-right parties. Experts say the prime minister’s decision to appoint far-right leaders to cabinet positions has emboldened Jewish extremists.

In the past month there have been several attacks on Christian priests and pilgrims in Jerusalem, suspected to have been carried out by Jewish extremist groups.

In a tweet on Thursday, Ms Lipstadt condemned these attacks, saying: “Christians, Jews and Muslims alike should feel welcome in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land.”

In her interview with The National, Ms Lipstadt described the work of the Abraham Accords in helping to resolve Israel’s differences with the Arab world as “a long haul”.

“That there is a longer haul socially and politically is not surprising, because you can change economic relations much more easily than you can change people’s attitudes, ideas and perceptions.”

Updated: July 27, 2023, 6:19 AM