Imagine an America where anti-Semitism has plummeted to new lows and Jews now scale the highest heights of success; where African Americans, once forced to sit on the back of the bus, today occupy a place at the head table of major corporations and the nation's most prestigious universities; where gays can not only come out of the closet but can decorate it, be admired and even land a television show for their creativity.
David Lehrer and Joe Hicks believe we live in such a tolerant and compassionate place. The founders of Community Advocates Inc., a year-old human relations organization based in Los Angeles, think that the United States has made tremendous strides in overcoming past hatreds and divisions, although more remains to be done. In their view, acknowledging those positive changes would allow Americans to move beyond the outmoded fear mongering espoused by many civil rights' groups. Instead of pointing fingers at one another, Americans could focus on addressing the health care crisis, the scourge of gangs, the yawing gap between the haves and have-nots and other important issues.
"There are cases of discrimination. There are cases of hate crimes," said Lehrer, 55, president of Community Advocates and former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). "But the fact remains it's a vastly different world than it was 30 years ago, whether you're talking about Jews, gays or blacks. We're not talking about nirvana but we've come a long way."
Not everyone shares that optimistic world view. Abraham Foxman, ADL national director and author of "Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism" (Harper San Francisco), said in a recent interview that worldwide anti-Semitism is higher than at any point since World War II. A recent poll revealed that nearly one in five Americans has anti-Semitic beliefs and one-third thinks Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States, he said.
Michael Hirschfeld, former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, said he had the highest regard for Lehrer and Hicks, the Community Advocates vice president who served as executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Rights Commission. He said the pair's organization could become the voice of civic unity in a divided city. Still, Hirschfeld said Community Advocates might have less influence than other civil rights groups such as the NAACP or the ADL that represent clearly defined constituencies. Community Advocates "doesn't have institutional weight," he said.
That's why Lehrer and Hicks are working so hard to get their message out, they said. The Jewish liberal Democrat and African American Republican have penned opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News and other publications highlighting changing attitudes toward race, religion and ethnicity. They have appeared on KCET, KNBC's "Sunday Show" and KTLA's "Pacesetters." The pair have also recruited a high-profile 16-member board to oversee Community Advocates, including Chair Richard Riordan, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Irene Hirano, executive director and president of the Japanese American National Museum.
"Joe Hicks and David Lehrer are my heroes. They represent the new color-blind solutions to society's needs," Riordan said in a release.
On Nov. 16, Community Advocates held a party to celebrate its first anniversary. An estimated 160 people drank white wine and munched smoked salmon. The outfit is more than just an organization that knows how to throw a good party once a year.
Community Advocates and the California Community Foundation co-sponsored a leadership training program for 45 young Southern Californians. During the 10 four-hour sessions, participants from diverse communities discussed a wide array of issues, ranging from the history of Los Angeles to demographic changes in the city. More important, they built bridges, Hicks said.
"Hopefully, in four to five years, you'll have 200 young leaders who have contacts in the city across racial, religious and ethnic lines who can pick up the phone and talk to each other," he said.
In this spirit of crossing boundaries, Community Advocates hopes soon to co-sponsor with the USC Annenberg School for Communication a media workshop for journalists. The goal: to acquaint reporters with a variety of new sources so they can pen richer and more nuanced stories about large swaths of the city that largely go ignored, Lehrer said. Reporters would also get a bus tour of the less-traveled parts of the Los Angeles to show that "you can go south of the Santa Monica Freeway and emerge in one piece. It's important that people have some notion of what lies in parts of the city there not familiar with and that they share similar concerns," Lehrer said.
Lehrer and Hicks founded Community Advocates in fall 2002 with $5,000 of their own money to rent an office and buy furniture. Although neither said he was eager to start a new organization, their frustration with groups focusing obsessively on racism, sexism and anti-Semitism to the exclusion of major social, economic and cultural issues led them to join forces.
For Hicks, creating Community Advocates represents the latest step of his personal odyssey from the radical left to the center. Growing up in Watts, he embraced the black nationalist movement of the 1960s and preached hatred toward whites. He later visited the former Soviet Union as a member of the American Communist Party in the 1970s, but grew disillusioned.
In the late 1980s, he landed a position as the communications director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, before moving on to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After the L.A. riots, he co-founded the Multicultural Collaborative, which brought together leaders of the city's different ethnic and religious groups, a kind of precursor to Community Advocates. Today, Hicks is married to a Jewish woman with whom he has two children. He has three kids from a previous marriage.
Lehrer, a Phi Beta Kappa and law school graduate of UCLA, began working as the ADL's regional chief counsel in 1975. Little more than a decade later, he assumed the top spot at the local office. However, his relationship with Foxman, the ADL national director, slowly deteriorated as Lehrer began arguing that anti-Semitism was on the wane, a position antithetical to his boss. After 27 years, Lehrer was fired by the ADL in December 2001, a move that stunned and angered the Jewish community.
Looking ahead, Lehrer and Hicks hope that Community Advocates will be the crowning achievement of their careers. They concede, however, that much remains to be done.
"I think we're having an impact, but two guys out there making noise isn't a waterfall," Hicks said. "Not yet."
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