‘We’re very distressed’: US antisemitism envoy condemns Tunisian president’s response to synagogue attack

Deborah Lipstadt, the US envoy on antisemitism, blasts Tunisian president for denying antisemitism was involved in deadly Djerba synagogue attack and comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

By Andrew Bernard, The Algemeiner

Deborah Lipstadt, the United States’ antisemitism envoy, called the response of Tunisia’s President Kais Saied to a deadly attack at a synagogue that killed five people earlier this month “antisemitic,” at a press conference Wednesday.

Lipstadt, who had visited the historic synagogue on the island of Djerba 24 hours before the attack as part of an official visit to Tunisia, told The Algemeiner that Saied’s refusal to describe the synagogue attack as antisemitic was disappointing and discouraging.

“We’re very distressed by President Saied’s pushing back – as if we had said Tunisia was antisemitic, which we did not say,” Lipstadt said. “[We] said the attack was an act of antisemitism. And then his pivoting to Gaza…that was antisemitic.”

Saied in a speech on Saturday tried to deflect what he claimed was Western criticism of antisemitism in Tunisia by pivoting to Israel’s recent military response to rocket fire from Gaza.

“These parties do not hesitate to make false accusations of antisemitism, while they turn a deaf ear when it comes to dealing with the fate of Palestinians who die every day,” he said. “The Palestinian people will manage against all odds to triumph and recover their stolen land.”

Lipstadt’s comments come amidst significant disquiet within the North African country’s Jewish community over the government’s response to the attack.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba as hundreds of worshipers celebrated the Jewish holiday of Lag B’ Omer, Saied made no reference to antisemitism or to the selection of a Jewish target by the gunman — an as yet unnamed naval officer who murdered two Jews and three police officers during his rampage.

Speaking to The Algemeiner last Thursday, a member of the Jewish community of 1,500 issued a forthright condemnation of Saied for passing over specifically Jewish concerns regarding the attack and its implications.

“I heard his entire speech, and I realized that it is probably very difficult for him to mention the word ‘Jews’,” said the Jewish community member, who spoke on condition of strict anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“Without a doubt, [Saied] is not only a hater of Israel but also antisemitic,” the person added emphatically.

Saied has caused consternation among Tunisian Jews in the recent past, having been taken to task by Jewish organizations in 2021 after he delivered a speech in which he accused Jews of being responsible “for the instability in the country” — an assertion the Tunisian leader later denied making.

Lipstadt on Wednesday also condemned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his remarks at a UN ‘Nakba Day’ event, in which he said that Israelis “lie like [Nazi propaganda minister Joseph] Goebbels.”

“We found it just outrageous and beyond the pale,” Lipstadt said.

Lipstadt reiterated that point in a tweet earlier Wednesday that she said had received support and approval throughout the State Department.

“PA President Abbas’s equating Israel with the lies of top Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels is an affront to Holocaust victims and survivors,” she wrote. “Especially during a time of rising antisemitic violence throughout the world, such rhetoric about the world’s only Jewish state is entirely unacceptable.”

In wide ranging remarks at Wednesday’s press briefing, Lipstadt also addressed what a “whole of government” approach might look like in the Biden administration’s forthcoming national antisemitism strategy, given how few federal agencies are tasked directly with responding to antisemitism.

“Sometimes it’s antisemitism, sometimes it’s making sure there’s a level playing field,” she said. “If a hurricane hits Monsey, and FEMA rolls in and there’s nothing on the truck that the Jews of Monsey can eat, it’s not antisemitic but it’s certainly not a government that’s thinking.”

Lipstadt also addressed the recent furor over Elon Musk’s tweets comparing George Soros to the comic book villain Magneto and whether criticism of George Soros is necessarily antisemitic.

“You can criticize George Soros, many people do,” she said. “But when you turn him into this villainous caricature, which has antisemitic overtones, it crosses the line.”