Abe Foxman, just why did you fire ADL chief in L.A.

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I sure hope Abe Foxman knows what he's doing, because no one else can seem to figure it out.

By summarily dismissing David Lehrer from his position as regional director of the Anti-Defamation League here, Foxman has managed to unite a good portion of this often divided community. He has united them against Foxman.

Lehrer became regional director in 1986, a year before Foxman became national director. It is not coincidental that the continued prominence of the ADL as a national civil rights organization parallels the leadership of both men. Lehrer's activism and high profile gave the New York-based organization a presence in Los Angeles that other national Jewish organizations envy. A significant amount of donor dollars — by one account, the largest single amount from any location — flowed from Los Angeles to New York.

I cannot think of another local Jewish leader whose firing would be met with such universal dismay. Lehrer isn't just admired because he's a nice guy, which he happens to be. He is also an astute analyst of current events and a straightforward spokesman.

His no-b.s. approach to leadership has earned him the admiration of his opponents as well. Over the past two years, Lehrer has severely criticized the Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Los Angeles. He said the dialogue, which he once championed, now often bestows legitimacy upon Muslim organizations that still fall outside the pale of acceptable behavior. Even so, this week a leader of one of the Muslim groups Lehrer has criticized expressed his support for the regional ADL director.

When the Los Angeles Jewish Journal interviewed local media last year for a cover story on "Who Speaks for the Jews of L.A." Lehrer topped the list.

According to the ADL, he has also been a superlative fund-raiser, finishing this year 30 percent over last, despite the weak economy.

He has managed to do all this while turning current and former staff members into good friends. ADL lay leaders were in shock over Lehrer's firing. ADL staffers were in mourning.

By most measures, Lehrer was the kind of regional director Foxman and the lay leadership will be lucky to find one more of.

Foxman has refused to speak with the press to explain his decision. "I imagine he figures there's no good way to get rid of Lehrer, so why not just do it and get through it?" a close observer of the ADL told me. "He figures he'll just weather the storm."

The ADL is not a membership organization per se. As an agency of the B'nai B'rith, it has lay boards that serve as advisers to the staff. It's unclear to whom Foxman is accountable, but the fact that he can unilaterally make such a controversial and potentially damaging decision points to the extent to which one person's will can affect any broad-based Jewish organization. Perhaps Foxman will at some point explain his decision. Maybe he can even persuade people here of its correctness. The fact that he has so far chosen not to do so only serves to compound the severity of the backlash.

In the wake of such a backlash, maintaining the enthusiasm of lay leaders will be Foxman's first challenge. Cecilia Katz, an L.A.-area ADL president, said board members will be brought into the process of selecting Lehrer's replacement. But what assurances do they have that Foxman will not again negate their opinions and hard work with another fiat?

Los Angeles Jewish leaders who have been involved in national Jewish life often complain of being treated as second-class citizens by their East Coast counterparts. This latest incident strengthens their case.

In the long run, Lehrer's firing will not be a professional setback. Any number of organizations would be fortunate to have Lehrer in the executive office; he'll land on his feet.

The longer-term damage could be to the ADL itself, and certainly to its standing in the community. A great degree of that stature came from the man in charge. And for the majority of Angelenos, that was Lehrer, not Foxman.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is a senior columnist for the Forward. Follow him on Instagram @foodaism and Twitter @foodaism or email [email protected].