US anti-Semitism envoy sees 'opportunity for movement' on first Gulf trip

Deborah Lipstadt tells 'The National' of her plans to meet Gulf officials in Jeddah, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Dubai

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The top diplomat heading US efforts to combat and monitor anti-Semitism is taking her first trip to the Middle East since assuming the role, with stops in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.

Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned historian and scholar of Jewish history who was confirmed to the position in April with bipartisan congressional support, spoke exclusively to The National before leaving on the trip this weekend and described how she hopes to capitalise on changes and new opportunities in the region.

She sees new momentum and room for improvement in combating anti-Semitism.

“In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there's an opportunity for movement,” she said, pointing to some of the social reforms that the country has undertaken in the last three years.

These include the increasing participation of women, stripping the religious police of their privileges and the opening of Saudi airspace for flights headed to Israel.

But Riyadh has also come under heavy criticism for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the executions and jailing of activists.

Ms Lipstadt acknowledged those issues but summed up her modus operandi as: “If there's someone, an autocrat, a democrat, or anything in between who is willing to address this issue [of anti-Semitism], and potentially do something about it, I'm willing to go and talk.”

The 75-year-old historian has dedicated most of her professional life to countering anti-Semitism and discrediting Holocaust deniers.

In 1996, she was sued for libel by British Holocaust denier David Irving after she wrote about him in a 1993 book.

The case dragged on for four years and ended with Mr Irving losing, with the judge describing him as someone who is an “active Holocaust denier, anti-Semitic, racist and associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”.

Ms Lipstadt will travel to both Riyadh and Jeddah, where she will meet Saudi Cabinet and civil society members. She will not be bringing a to-do list and instead is looking forward to a two-way conversation and “pushing against an open door”.

“We are not perfect,” she added, recalling the rise of anti-Semitic attacks and far-right nationalist movements in the US.

“We're not coming [to the Gulf] to say we've solved the problem and here's what we think you should do. We're coming to say, we know we have a problem.”

The US has pushed in the past for Saudi reforms that fight radicalisation, promote interfaith dialogue and tackle anti-Semitic references in school curriculums.

Ms Lipstadt says all these issues will be on the table but with the broader goal of “potentially normalising the way in which Jews, Jewish history and Jewish culture have been viewed in the Middle East”.

Her optimism is partially grounded in the Abraham Accords that were signed in September 2020 and established peace between Israel and the UAE, with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan following soon after.

She sees a “moment of tremendous excitement” and describes the UAE as “a model for what can be done”.

Following the historic accords normalising relations between Israel and the UAE, the two countries witnessed a boom in travel, scientific, culinary and security co-operation.

Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, suggested on Wednesday that President Joe Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel next month could bring new developments pertaining to the Abraham Accords.

Ms Lipstadt will spend three days in Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the last leg of the trip. She will meet Emirati officials and others who work on promoting interfaith and cultural diversity in the country.

The biggest challenge on her mission is breaking stereotypes and unconscious racism around what is Jewish, she said.

She studied Judeo-Arabic history and is confident of the possibility to build on common traditions and deep-seated values.

The US envoy said settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would help alleviate anti-Semitism, but is not the “sole cause” behind it.

She saw commonalities between the spectre of prejudice against Jewish people and that against Muslims.

“Anti-Semitism is often the canary in the coal mine. It begins with the Jews — it doesn't end with the Jews,” Ms Lipstadt says.

She decried the rise of Islamophobia in the West including the decision by a French court this week that bans “burkinis” in swimming pools.

“It is ludicrous,” she said.

“Anti-Semitism is like a virus … It doesn't stop and it morphs, and changes. There are certain connections certainly between Islamophobia, hatred of Muslims, attacks on Muslims and anti-Semitism,” Ms Lipstadt argued.

Her trip will last about a week and is the first for a US envoy in the position to Saudi Arabia since 2011. Mr Biden will visit Jeddah in mid-July on his first trip to an Arab country as president.

Updated: June 26, 2022, 3:55 AM
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