A US special envoy said on Thursday she discussed prejudice towards Jews with officials in Saudi Arabia ahead of a visit by President Joe Biden next week that could help bring the kingdom and Israel closer.
Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, said she discussed ways to counter hatred, including teaching how Jews were indigenous to the Middle East.
"There have been good parts of the history and bad parts of the history but there's a history of Jews in this region. There's a history of Jews and Muslims living together," said Lipstadt, who headed to Saudi Arabia on June 26 to start the 11-day regional tour.
Speaking to Reuters at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, Lipstadt said her inaugural tour as special envoy, which included a visit to Israel immediately after Saudi Arabia, was not a precursor to Biden's visit despite similar schedules.
Biden will visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia from July 13-16 on a trip Western officials say is, in part, aimed at bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia closer, though unlikely to result in normalization.
A renowned scholar, Lipstadt said there had been "positive steps" taken in Saudi Arabia to battle antisemitism, including changes in the education curriculum and to religious sermons in the kingdom that is home to Islam's holiest site, Mecca.
"There's a serious diminution of hostility towards Jews. It is a big thing. It's a very big thing," she said while cautioning that measures taken so far were not enough and more were needed.
"There's a serious diminution of hostility towards Jews. It is a big thing. It's a very big thing."Deborah Lipstadt
Saudi Arabia and Israel
Saudi Arabia has softened its rhetoric against Israel and Jews since its neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020 established formal ties with Israel, breaking with decades of Arab policy that called for Palestinian statehood first.
Jews in small numbers now openly visit the kingdom without concealing their faith, sometimes publicizing their presence there to thousands of social media followers.
"One of the things I saw in Saudi Arabia that's very present here in the UAE is a willingness to divide or separate between the geopolitical crisis in the region, which is a serious political problem - one that my country is working very hard to try to resolve ... But to say that, doesn't have to come in tandem with hatred of Jews, with denigrating Jews," Lipstadt said.
But despite the social changes, Saudi Arabia's leaders have so far affirmed there can be no progress on normalization with Israel without a deal on Palestinian statehood.