NEW YORK (Jun. 28)
One of the most respected leaders of the organized American Jewish community and influential political professionals in Washington has stepped down from his post in the face of protests over remarks he made that were seen as disparaging fervently Orthodox Jews.
Thomas Dine resigned Monday as executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, ending a 13-year stint at the helm of the powerful pro-Israel lobby.
The AIPAC leadership immediately appointed Howard Kohr, its managing director, as acting executive director of the agency and launched a search for a permanent replacement, a process it hopes to conclude by the end of the year.
The remarks that touched off the protests and ultimately led to Dine’s resignation were made four years ago to David Landau, an Israeli journalist who is currently news editor of the Ha’aretz newspaper and Israel bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
But they did not appear in print until the publication this month of Landau’s book, “Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism.”
“I don’t think mainstream Jews feel very comfortable with the ultra-Orthodox,” Dine was quoted in the book as saying. “It’s a class thing, I suppose. Their image is — smelly. That’s what I’d say now you’ve got me thinking about it. Hasids and New York diamond dealers.”
In response to this passage, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America, a group representing fervently Orthodox Jews, wrote a letter to Dine in protest, calling the remarks “both shocking and heartbreaking.”
Had similar remarks been made about African Americans or Reform Jews, wrote Sherer, “you would be compelled to resign your position. Are Orthodox Jews,” he asked, “entitled to lesser respect?”
CONCERNED ABOUT EFFECTIVENESS
In a letter sent last week to Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, a member of AIPAC’s executive committee and a leader in the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Dine distanced himself from the quoted remarks, saying they were meant to describe perceptions, but that he did not personally subscribe to those sentiments.
Nonetheless, at a weekly conference call of senior AIPAC officers last Thursday, “a consensus developed about the serious nature of the book, and the potential for damage to the organization and the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Steven Grossman, AIPAC’s president.
Grossman told JTA he accepted Dine’s resignation “because Tom obviously gave it a great deal of thought.
“Tom was deeply concerned that those words may have had an effect on undercutting his effectiveness as a leader of this organization,” Grossman said in a telephone interview.
At Agudath Israel, Sherer said he would have been satisfied had Dine made a “public, meaningful display of good will” that “would have to be very drastic” but still shy of the resignation that was proffered.
“The resignation is the decision of the board of AIPAC,” he said.
Some longtime observers of AIPAC and the Orthodox community expressed skepticism that Dine would have been allowed to leave solely because of pressure from the Orthodox community.
They suggested that other considerations must have convinced him to end a 13-year tenure during which he built the organization from one that had 24 employees and 8,000 members when he started to one that today boasts 150 employees and over 55,000 members.
“I think it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said one of those observers. “Agudah’s not so important to it.”
Grossman, however, denied that the issue went beyond Dine’s quoted remarks.
A TOUGH YEAR FOR AIPAC
Dine’s resignation is the latest in a series of high-profile embarrassments for the lobby.
AIPAC suffered a humiliating rebuke last August, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin charged that the lobby’s confrontational style on behalf of Israel during a battle for U.S. loan guarantees had actually undermined the Jewish state’s interests.
There was also a scandal centering on the organization’s information-gathering activities and the recent public rebuke of an AIPAC officer for publicly attacking the Israeli government’s policies of territorial compromise.
But perhaps the most embarrassing incident came in November, when AIPAC’s president at the time, David Steiner, resigned after admitting he had untruthfully exaggerated the lobby’s clout in a telephone conversation secretly taped by a man posing as a would-be contributor.
Among other things, Steiner admitted boasting falsely that he had been “negotiating” with Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team on candidates for secretary of state.
But Grossman denied AIPAC had been badly weakened by these incidents and even predicted the lobby would emerge from the controversy over Dine’s remarks in a stronger position.
“The organization is as strong and as self-confident as it has ever been,” he said. “That’s Tom’s legacy.”
Still, Dine’s departure is being lamented by some who see him as one of the organized Jewish community’s most effective voices in Washington.
“It’s regrettable; he has done a tremendous job,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
For Sherer, there are two lessons that the Jewish community should learn from the affair.
First, “those Jews in the Jewish establishment with positions of responsibility have to learn” who and what the Jews in “all circles of Orthodoxy stand for,” he said.
Second, “the Jewish establishment has to rethink its policy as to who its leaders are,” he said. “One cannot become a leader purely on his or her technical abilities,” but has to be “endowed with a deep understanding and commitment to Judaism.”