Left Coast Liberals Fume as Charity Taps Former Aipac Man for Top Post

By Josh Richman

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.
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OAKLAND, Calif.— In a move that has left some Bay Area anti-war activists fuming, San Francisco’s Jewish Federation has tapped a former director of America’s pro-Israel lobby, and a supporter of both Iraq wars, to serve as its CEO.

Thomas A. Dine, 65, will take the federation’s reins in early November when he travels from the radio agency’s Prague headquarters to meet the federation’s board for its first-ever meeting in Jerusalem. Dine has been credited for playing a key role in transforming the American Israel Public Affairs Committee into a lobbying powerhouse before an embarrassing flap over comments about ultra-Orthodox Jews led to his resignation in 1993. For the past eight years he has headed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Although at Aipac Dine was considered to be a relative dove, his steadfast support for Israeli policies during the first intifada in the 1980s and support for American policy in Iraq would appear to put him significantly to the right of large segments of the Bay Area’s Jewish community. He led Aipac’s behind-the-scenes boosterism for the first Gulf War. In recent years he was a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an outfit assembled in late 2002 to drum up support for Bush administration policy. Its board is replete with neoconservative-aligned hawks, including Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick and James Woolsey.

Reached by the Forward as he vacationed in central Oregon this week, Dine said that he stands by his previous decisions firmly. However, he said that’s not his whole story. Dine noted he was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines; wrote anti-war bills for U.S. Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, during the Vietnam War, and worked for the 1980 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat widely seen as the dean of congressional liberals.

“I believe in enforceable American foreign policy. It doesn’t mean you go to war, but you always have to have the option to go to war,” Dine said. “You can’t squirm away from your record, and I’m not trying to squirm.” Asked whether his record might clash with the Bay Area’s well-known liberalism, he replied, “It never came up, to tell you the truth — no one raised it with me.”

Mitchell Plitnick, co-director of the Oakland-based group A Jewish Voice for Peace, said he’s discomfited by having “somebody this radically… hawkish” tapped to head the federation.

“Certainly we will be letting them know we’re not too appreciative of them putting Dine in this sort of role,” Plitnick said. “But I doubt the opposition of A Jewish Voice for Peace is going to make much of a difference to them.”

Dine’s supporters said that his politics would play no role in his stewardship of the federation, which allocates more than $16 million each year to support a network of local social-service agencies and Jewish educational institutions, as well as overseas causes.

Retired BankAmerica Corporation chairman and CEO Richard Rosenberg, who chaired the federation’s 17-month search for a new CEO, dismissed Dine’s past foreign policy stances as “irrelevant,” arguing that the key issue was his effective management of Aipac and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“He has an extraordinary, both national and international reputation as someone who’s a visionary, who has demonstrated exemplary leadership and who is an accomplished fund raiser,” Rosenberg said. “He spent 13 years in Jewish communal work as head of Aipac, and obviously that was one of the things that impressed us…. With all the due diligence we did, there was nothing that gave us a minute’s hesitation.

“He will be an enormously potent force for what is already a very dynamic Jewish community,” Rosenberg predicted. “He’s going to have an impact on the national federation movement, as well — he’s that strong.”

When Dine arrived at Aipac in 1980, the organization had about 24 workers, 8,000 members and a $1.7 million budget; by 1993 it had about 154 workers, between 45,000 and 55,000 members, and a $15 million budget — not to mention the ears of Capitol Hill and the White House.

Yet that year, Aipac’s board demanded his resignation after he was quoted in a published report as saying: “I don’t think mainstream Jews feel very comfortable with the ultra-Orthodox. It’s a class thing, I suppose. Their image is — smelly. That’s what I’d say now that you’ve got me thinking about it. Hasids and New York diamond dealers.”

Dine has insisted repeatedly that the comments did not reflect his own views and that he was only summarizing, in response to a question, the stereotypes he had heard from others. Some observers have argued that Aipac board members who felt Dine had become too powerful used the flap as an excuse to push him out.

This week, Dine told the Forward that he’s proud of his work at Aipac and wants to be judged on his actions, not on a few words said long ago.

This is fine with Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi, who leads San Francisco’s oldest Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Chevra Thilim.

“If indeed those reports reflect what he feels, San Francisco is a very good choice for him to come to, as he’s not going to be bumping into a lot of ultra-Orthodox… It’s not like walking down 13th Avenue in Boro Park,” Zarchi said somewhat dryly. Besides, the Brooklyn native added, 1993 was a long time ago.

“He’s getting a fresh start here,” Zarchi said. “I’m sure the community is excited to have someone new to invigorate the federation. I’m not doing any research into what he said so long ago; it doesn’t affect me or this community.”

After his stint at Aipac, Dine was a U.S. Agency for International Development administrator for Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics before taking the top spot at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 1997. He turned the private, nonprofit, Congressionally funded communications service away from its Cold War origins to focus instead on mostly Muslim nations throughout southern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, which he called “an unstable, conflict-ridden, undemocratic area.” The agency now provides news, analysis and entertainment broadcasts and Internet content to 19 countries in 28 languages.

According to Dine, 62% of Afghanistan’s population is listening to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, while the figure hovers around 19% in Iraq and Iran, with ever-deeper penetration into younger demographic groups.

“And the dictators hate our guts,” he said proudly. “In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, we’ve had lots of our stringers… harassed, intimidated, some beaten up. When we covered the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan several weeks back, the government went after our people. That’s another indicator of quality.”

Now it’s time for a change, he said. “I gave it all I had for eight solid years,” Dine said. “It’s just something that comes over you and I wasn’t looking to leave, but all of a sudden the federation reached out to me and I started to consider… a different kind of work.”

The playing field is certainly different than in his Aipac days.

“I know Capitol Hill, but this is not Capitol Hill. This is about producing programs that will improve the lot of people, and I haven’t done that since the Peace Corps” — at least not at the ground level, he said. “When I started to think about it, I wanted to narrow my focus. Here it’ll be from the bottom up, and I have a great desire for that experience.”

“You can’t do these programs unless you can pay for them,” Dine added. So he must reverse a 15-year trend that has seen the federation’s donor base shrink from about 18,000 to about 12,000. Dine said he also will evaluate the efficacy and relevancy of existing programs at the federation, which also serves San Francisco’s bedroom communities in Marin, Sonoma and San Mateo counties. Another priority will be to reach out to a younger, more diverse demographic, much as he did at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“I want to make it a new day in San Francisco with the federation,” he said. “I’m going to give it — like I have this job and every other job — all I’ve got.”

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