Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, will visit Saudi Arabia on her first international trip this week. Lipstadt, now on leave from teaching at Emory University and one of the world’s most respected historians of the Holocaust, was nominated by President Joe Biden last year and joined the State Department last month after a prolonged eight-month confirmation process.
“Saudi Arabia is a very important country in the Gulf and it has shown a willingness and openness to hosting me,” Lipstadt said in a briefing with Jewish media outlets at the State Department.
Lipstadt is expected to meet with government officials, civil society leaders and students in Riyadh and Jeddah. She will then travel to Israel and to the United Arab Emirates. While Saudi Arabia is not a signatory on the Abraham Accords, Lipstadt said she expressed her desire to visit the kingdom, a country with a long history of dubious and mixed reactions to Jews and Jewish history to “make a statement about the change” of attitude in the region as a result of the normalization deals between Israel and Arab states. “They know what I want to discuss, they know what I want to address,” she said.
The trip comes ahead of President Biden’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-July. Lipstadt said it was a coincidence, and that she is not traveling to discuss regional politics but the issue of antisemitism. “In my title, it couldn’t be more clear what I’m about,” she said.
The position, which was first established by Congress in 2004 to monitor global antisemitism, was elevated to the rank of an ambassador in 2021. The role of the envoy is largely unspecified with no clear playbook, other than traveling the world to meet with foreign governments, attending international conferences as a U.S. government representative and reporting to the secretary of state. In virtual remarks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in New York last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is Jewish, said that “combating antisemitism abroad is not just the special envoy’s job. It is the job of the entire State Department, one that we — and I — take very seriously.”
Lipstadt, who spoke at the conference, also convened a meeting at the United Nations with a group of antisemitism envoys from Canada, Israel, the European Union and other countries – including Fernando Lottenberg, former president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Brazil who was appointed last year as the first commissioner to monitor and combat antisemitism for the Organization of American States (OAS).
Lipstadt said she is seeking to make this a recurring gathering every few months.
In a recent report, Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, noted that attacks on Jewish people and sites were committed at record-high levels in many countries last year, in addition to a substantial increase in online antisemitism since 2019. Lipstadt said that the U.S. should take a leading role in the effort to combat antisemitism, notwithstanding the country’s own shortcomings on the matter. “I think when you come forward and say, ‘I come from a country that’s not perfect, but we are trying to address it and that we think you should do as well’ is the right message,” she said.
Lipstadt will also travel to Argentina in mid-July to speak at the Latin American Forum to Combat Antisemitism in Buenos Aires. It will coincide with the 28th anniversary of the AMIA Jewish community center bombing in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.
Recently, Democratic House members asked the federal government to double funding for Lipstadt’s office in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations bill. Lipstadt didn’t address the funding request, but said she will seek to expand the office’s operations by creating alliances with other bureaus within the department.
Lipstadt brings humor to the job as well. In a recent interview with Israel’s Channel 12, she recalled her first interaction as envoy with President Joe Biden: “I went up to introduce myself and he said, ‘Oh I know who you are.’ And then I tried to take a selfie and I somehow messed it up. I said to him, ‘I’ll fight the antisemites better than I’m taking this picture.’ He said, ‘I know you will.’”