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Israeli special envoy Rabbi Leo Dee urges US students to use their acumen

“This current worldwide campaign to support Israel will start most likely from a high school or university on the East Coast, possibly Manhattan. And you are the people who could do it,” he tells JNS.

Leo Dee at the 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Leo Dee at the 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Shortly after Rabbi Leo Dee’s wife and two of his five children were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in April—a Friday morning during Passover—he started to visit a psychologist.

Dee says the psychologist told him he was suffering through constant reminders—whether in his thoughts or the lack of the physical presence of his murdered family member when he came home each night.

So he found a way to alleviate the pain: Make sure his time was filled with worthwhile projects, both to eliminate empty moments that could be spent wallowing in his sorrows and to dedicate those missions in honor of his perished loved ones to give him a sense of purpose.

In September, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen reached out to Dee with a proposal to join the government in some then-undefined role. In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, that volunteer role, established as Israel’s special envoy for social initiatives, has taken on a greater meaning than perhaps Dee could have envisioned.

“In my mind, everything I do now is dedicated to one of their particular characteristics,” Dee told JNS of his wife, Lucy, and murdered daughters Maia and Rina, as he embarked this week on a tour of the U.S. East Coast, meeting with Jewish students and organizations.

“I say to the people I’m meeting that if you take upon yourself a project now to help Israel in this war, it will help you in two ways. Number one, you’ll have less time on your phone watching TikTok and being depressed about what’s going on,” he said. “And on the other hand, you’ll be able to look back in a year’s time, five years’ time, 20 years’ time, and when your children say to you, ‘Mommy, daddy, what did you do when Israel needed you, you’ll be able to list off a number of things you did that were transformational for the situation.”

Rabbi Leo Dee
Rabbi Leo Dee speaks to reporters in Efrat, April 10, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90.

‘Don’t be a victim’

In New York, Dee visited the Ramaz School on New York’s Upper East Side, Princeton University, Columbia University, New York University, Yeshiva University and its Stern College for Women; and went to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He also spent time at Lincoln Square Synagogue and the UJA-Federation of New York.

His overarching message: “Don’t be a victim.”

“My topic is an action plan for Jewish students. I feel that certainly as a bystander from Israel, looking at American Jewish students under attack by antisemites, the overriding impression is that they are the victims of a campaign against them,” said Dee. “I say to them that you don’t need to spend your life responding to antisemites. They’re not going to change.”

He said he believes that the assaults—physical and verbal—being waged on North American Jewish students are a diversion meant to limit the “massive impact” those students can make.

“Unfortunately, I think as Jews we very easily fall into the trap of trying to fight antisemitism. We built so many Holocaust museums,” said Dee. “If we’d spent that money making a better security barrier across Gaza, we would have been more productive, in my opinion.”

Dee says he is focused on getting young American Jews to realize that while the Israel Defense Forces are fighting a military campaign, there is plenty that they can do—whether it is to come on a mission to Israel to assist with agricultural projects or to use their social-media insight to convey messaging on Israel’s behalf.

Ultimately, he says, young American Jews should not underestimate their ability to make an impact. He cites to them the struggle for Soviet Jewry, when “a million people marched down the streets of London, Paris and New York. And eventually, it was heard by [U.S. President] Ronald Reagan. And he raised it with the Russians.”

Those rallies led to the freedom of a million Jews to leave the USSR to go live in Israel, Dee points out.

“I say to them, ‘Do you know where that march started? It started with a handful of boys from Yeshiva University High School,” noting the 1962 Matzah Demonstration, which many point to as a starting point in the struggle.

“This current worldwide campaign to support Israel will start most likely from a high school or university on the East Coast, possibly Manhattan. And you are the people who could do it,” Dee says he told audiences during his U.S. swing.

‘Israelis will always win’

He also points to another U.S. initiative: the Marshall Plan. The 1948 law signed by U.S. President Harry Truman provided massive recovery financing for Western European economies after World War II and involved, in part, a de-Nazification component in West Germany.

Dee told JNS that this type of plan will need to be implemented in a post-Hamas Gaza to bring about economic prosperity and a major re-programming of the education system away from one that preaches incitement and Jew-hatred. He said it shouldn’t be Israel that needs to do the heavy lifting there.

From left: Lucy Dee and daughters Rina, 15, and Maia, 20. Credit: Courtesy.

“America, Europe and Britain have heavily funded UNRWA, which has been the source of much of the problem,” Dee said of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the so-called Palestinian refugee agency that critics say has long perpetuated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I think they have a moral responsibility now to find the solution, which is the deprogramming and the de-Nazification of the Palestinians.”

While Dee credited Israel’s societal resistance following the Oct. 7 massacre, he largely demurred when asked to grade the Israeli government’s response.

“I think one of the beauties of Israel is that it operates despite the government. It has done so for most of its existence. The people are very motivated,” he said. “As long as the government doesn’t stand in the way, Israelis will always win.”

It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of his employer, but Dee said that he made it clear when Cohen approached him exactly what type of employee to expect.

“I said to him I’m a terrible employee. I never listen to my boss, and I have no respect for any organization which I worked for,” acknowledges Dee, a former private-equity director. “But if you still want me, I will, I will do it.”

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