Rabbi Leo Dee: 'It's time to show Arabs we love them despite terror'

The JC accompanies Rabbi Leo Dee for a week in his new, hectic, life


Leo Dee summoned me from my north London slumbers, in a phone call at the crack of dawn, 5am to be precise. "You must jump on a plane and come to see me now,” he said.

“Stay with us. Next week is going to be historic and you have to be here to witness it and write about it.”

He had made me an offer, or a demand, I could not refuse. A couple of decades ago, we had shared a meaningful friendship, long paused, as we each went on our journeys toward greater involvement in Judaism.

He headed for the City and investment management, then astonished me by becoming a rabbi, while I continued being a foreign correspondent specialising in wars and conflicts.

Now, it turned out, I was to share one of the most extraordinary and moving experiences in an already somewhat drama-filled lifetime.

Hours later I was on a plane, then racing past Bethlehem to Efrat by car via the Judean Hills. It was not hard to find the house: its low fence is emblazoned with a blue-and-white Magen David banner displaying photographs of Leo’s late wife Lucy and their two daughters, Maia and Rina, murdered by a Palestinian terrorist last month.

“The only thing to come from losing them is, I believe, that I’ve got a whole new platform for doing good in this world,” Leo says as we embrace.

“Five weeks ago I was basically a little-known nobody. Now I’m headlined and famous. So I’m determined to make big things happen right now — before, in another five weeks’ time, I become a nobody again. And I don’t care how unpopular this may make me.”

Inside his huge kitchen-diner, a legacy of his wife and daughters’ love of wholesome, environmentally friendly cooking, Leo reveals his plan — or perhaps I should say, he unfurls it.

Because it involves the gargantuan and very expensive task (about a million shekels) of making 30,000 special flags to kick things off. As he gesticulates enthusiastically and words flow like water, I immediately wonder if Leo is being hopelessly, albeit endearingly, unrealistic.

He said: “Terrorists killed my family, and it’s time the world gets the message. There are evil people out there who need to be eliminated. But the vast majority of Arabs are good people. I meet them and we have so much in common.

“We need to show the Arabs we love them. Yes, love them — it’s just the terrorists and their terror regimes that cause the trouble. And we need to help the lovely Arab people to get rid of their awful rulers and the terrorists who use us Israelis and us Jews to help them exercise power over their own people.”

He cites Einstein’s comment: if something fails and you repeat doing the same thing time and again, you are an idiot. It’s time now, Leo says, to show the Arabs we love them.

He adds: “When they realise we love them as fellow humans, and when they see how much good can come to this region if we have a genuine friendship and co-operation between Israelis and Arabs, they will topple their leaders, smash the terrorists … and we will have real shalom.

“We need to show the good Arabs that we would support them to overthrow their evil regimes and help them establish democratic and free states instead — free, just as Israel is a free democracy.”

He’s been secretly printing up the flag-cum-banners in Arabic, Hebrew and English to turn Yom Yerushalayim into a march for peace.

“Not the soft, misguided kind,” he explains, “where Israel surrenders large chunks of land for worthless ‘guarantees’ from the same terror-supporting, violence-obsessed leaders.

“We need to explain that after 75 years of our state, we are guaranteed to remain here and flourish. Now we must tap into their decency and our own. Our march will have banners saying: ‘Free the Palestinian people, Free the Syrian people, Free the Iranian People, from their terrorist leaders.’”

So far, an arguable analysis, I think to myself, if surprisingly conciliatory after having your family gunned down. How, I wonder, has Leo got such energy and dedication so close to terrible events?

He tells me he is going to “divert” from his marching flag plans to go and see the 38-year-old man, Abu Radia, who now carries Lucy’s kidney, after a life-saving transplant.

Abu Radia’s minders had told Leo to stay away for at least a month as the patient was at home resting. Leo suspects it was an effort by Arab politicians to avoid displaying this inspiring example of Jewish-Arab generosity of spirit and body.

So he produces a framed blessing for health in Arabic and Hebrew and we drive up anyway to an Arab village in central-north Israel.

“You are my blessing, a part of my wife lives on through you,” Leo tells Abu Radia in his living-room. Abu Radia is lovingly holding his third child — a baby girl he might never have seen if his kidney transplant operation had not saved his life.

Leo had marvelled that a copper plaque given to him by Abu Radia before he left hospital quoted the famous Talmudic saying: “If you save a life, it’s as if you save the world.” It turns out that the Quran has a very similar statement — grist to Leo’s mill. Is having a Jewish organ inside him a problem for some Muslims, Leo asks. “We are all human,” replies Abu Radia.

On the way home, Leo insists on a detour to Haifa, where he meets up with a sheikh who leads the small Ahmadi minority of Muslims in Israel.

The sheikh had come personally to pay a condolence visit to Leo and family during their shiva period, and a friendship they already had was strengthened. The sheikh invites Leo to address the worshippers, in Hebrew, inside his mosque after evening prayers, and they all shake his hand.

Back in Efrat, Leo is like a whirling dervish, phoning top government officials and consulting rabbis.

He wants Bibi, as he calls the prime minister, to agree to prevent the Yom Yerushalayim marchers from entering the Old City through the Muslim Quarter — something Netanyahu had indeed banned two years previously, but which his brief successor, Naftali Bennett, had allowed a year later.

Despite the phone calls and the blandishments, it soon became clear Netanyahu would not close the route unless … “Unless what?” shouts Leo to an official. “How about if the top rabbis say this route will cause a Chilul Ha’Shem (Desecration of God’s Name)?”

Minutes later, I hear Leo berating one of the top Zionist Religious rabbis to issue a public statement: “Tell me: is it a Chilul Ha’Shem if ten or 20 young hothead boys sing abusive songs to the Arabs? Unfortunately, that is the message the world receives through CNN and other international networks.”

He explains to the rabbi that this happens every year and that every year Israel gets bad press because of it. He says: “So having them march through the Muslim Quarter destroys the real message of a hundred thousand marchers that Jerusalem is in our hands and we love all the people in it — doesn’t that make it a Chilul Ha’Shem? Answer me that.”

Frustratingly for Leo, the rabbis he phones, and one he goes to Jerusalem to meet, all tell him to be patient, and to leave it to the police to control any hotheads. Change -— which they agree is needed — would come if he perseveres, but only over a period of time.For Leo, though, there is no time like the present.

The police clearance for the march through Damascus Gate, it emerges, cannot be reversed. “We now need Plan B,” Leo tells me. “It had better work, because I don’t have a Plan C.”

On the morning of Yom Yerushalayim, trucks are loaded up with the flags, and with thousands of individually-packed small sacks of sweets made by his uncle in England and already stored in a warehouse in Efrat.

He said: “This is part of Plan B. I want Arab kids in the narrow streets of the Old City to see we love them. I’m hoping they do not get too scared now we cannot stop the throngs of people marching through Damascus Gate and towards the Jewish Quarter. It must be very scary, especially for kids. Their parents might, however, get our revolutionary message.”

Because of enhanced security and long delays around the checkpoint next to Bethlehem, we drive towards Jerusalem, about ten miles from Efrat, via a back route in Leo’s beat-up little car (the main vehicle had been destroyed by the terrorist attack five weeks ago).

As we drive, Leo says: “I’d just sold our large SUV and if we’d had that, probably my whole family of seven would have been in that vehicle and the terrorists would have killed all of us.

So we who are still here must thank God and do meaningful things.”

Turning everything into a positive is supposed to be a major Jewish endeavour, but this is beyond belief.

By the time we get to Jerusalem the truck with the flags and flagpoles has reached the large grassy park before us, and the items are spread like a blue and white carpet across the green lawns. Leo goes racing around with the flags, entreating teenage girls and boys to take them and march with them.

The majority, though, are bewildered or even antagonistic. “Free Palestine” is a slogan most had associated with the anti-Israel lobby. And the additional words “from their terrorist leaders” seem only to confuse them more.

One British-born soldier guarding the marchers tells me, “Rabbi Leo is a hero,” but most of the teenagers leave the flags on the ground and grab any others adorned only with Magen Davids.

“It’s a losing battle,” Leo whispers to me. But, undaunted, he continues his efforts to persuade or cajole. “Take these, for the sake of my daughters and my wife,” he demands of some youths, but even that did not have the desired effect.

And sure enough, Leo’s message is not picked up that night by the international media. CNN, in particular, leads with the claim that its reporter was pushed around by the police, and that marchers were shouting anti-Arab slogans.

Both assertions were, it turned out, highly dubious, and Leo has a confrontation by phone with the CNN bureau chief, threatening to sue for millions for CNN anchorwoman Christiane Amanpour’s claim that his family died in a shoot-out, not in what really happened, a one-sided point-blank slaughter. The CNN man says it was just a “slip of the tongue”, which makes Leo all the more livid.

Leo also angrily accuses CNN and other media of falsely creating an impression of “moral equivalence” between terrorists committing murder and Israel acting against terrorists and occasionally resulting in civilians close to the terrorists also dying.

He tells CNN such reportage gives terrorists and their bosses encouragement to commit more killings. Amanpour later emails him apologising for her words, but Leo rejects her apology.

But, as Leo had feared, the march has come to nought in terms of a positive message on the international stage. He is not giving up his campaign, though. He just needs a short pause to recuperate.

On Friday afternoon he takes his remaining two daughters, Tali and Keren, and his son Yehuda to spend Shabbat evening and day at his British parents’ second home in Jerusalem.

On my last day with him, Sunday morning, we drive to the graveyard, where he had delivered his awe-inspiring graveside speeches during the funerals. The tombstones have already been laid, unusually early after Jewish burials, and they carry beautiful messages.

On Lucy’s slab a semi-circular sun with its bright yellow rays symbolises, Leo tells me, how she had been such a bright light to her family and through all the good deeds she had done for Jews and Arabs.

Perhaps the most poignant was what her surviving three children had inscribed in red paint on a stone they had laid on her grave. In red letters, there is just one word: “Mummy.”

Leo says that before he fades back into obscurity (an unlikely scenario), the family will make her proud.

“I’m deeply sad standing here,” he says.”Neither Lucy nor I will see two of our beloved girls grow up to their full potential, never see them under a chupah, and flower. But Lucy and I already had one and a half lifetimes as a married couple.

"Because we spent so much time together, travelling, working, doing loving and lovely things. So when I think about her I can only feel joy. And that’s the emotion I must carry with me all my life — till my body joins her right here.”

Leo Dee has had another effect too: he has made me feel so proud to call him my friend.

Leo asks JC readers to contribute to his charity, via: הנצחת בנות משפחת די - גיוס תרומות אונליין | JGive

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