The local chapter of a national pro-Israel group called off a protest of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica in the wake of a declaration by the hotel owner supporting Jewish organizations and denouncing anti-Semitism.
The protest was planned for Aug. 26 by the western region of the Zionist Organization of America following a Superior Court jury verdict finding that Shangri-La and its owner, Tehmina Adaya, discriminated against a Jewish group that held an event at the hotel in 2010.
Supporters of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, who were attending a charity event, charged in the complaint that they were ordered to remove banners and literature and leave the pool area after Adaya learned that the group is Jewish. The complaint alleged that Adaya, a Muslim, used profanities and derogatory language when she instructed staff to remove the Jewish visitors and their items from the pool. Some of the event attendees were also refused re-entry to the event, the complaint said.
The jury decided Aug. 15 that Adaya and the hotel had violated the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating based on age, sex, race or religion, when she ordered the eviction of the Jewish group members and the disbanding of their event.
Jurors additionally found that the defendants inflicted emotional distress and were liable for negligence, said James Turken, the plaintiffs’ attorney. The 19 plaintiffs were awarded more than $1.6 million in damages.
“The jury was incredibly hardworking and diligent,” Turken said. “They evaluated the evidence and came to the conclusion, which I believe was the inescapable conclusion, and found against both of the defendants on every claim.”
Regarding the discrimination allegations at the center of the case, Turken said, “it is shocking to find prejudice and hate in 2012 in West Los Angeles.”
“I think the lesson to be learned here is that there are people who hate and we have to be vigilant,” the attorney said.
Adaya has said she plans to appeal the jury ruling. Prior to the scheduled protest by the Zionist organization, the hotel owner issued a statement rejecting anti-Semitism behavior and embracing cultural understanding.
She announced the donations of $3,600 each to pro-Israel groups, the Koby Mandell Foundation and Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization. In addition, Adaya has invited leaders of the Jewish and pro-Israel community to attend a private event hosted by the Shangri-La.
“I care deeply about the hurt, anger and misunderstanding that has resulted and I want the Jewish and pro-Israel community to know I condemn anti-Semitism,” said Adaya, adding that hotel employees represent 12 countries. “I welcome diversity and never made disparaging comments to anyone who attended an event here.”
Steve Goldberg, chair of the Zionist Organization of America’s western region and national vice chair, called Adaya’s statement a “tangible confession that’s meaningful” and said the offerings of support for Jewish groups is a positive result.
“The statements that she made, the actual giving of money to people, which will really make a difference to people, and hosting an event at her expense that will be used for some pro-Israel activity, that’s an accomplishment,” Goldberg said.
The group chose to cancel its protest, which was intended to express outrage toward anti-Semitism and show Jewish pride, when the hotel acted in favor of those goals, he said.
However, Turken took issue with the hotel’s statement that the jury found that the hotel did not have proper business protocols in place but not that discriminatory comments were made to the plaintiffs. He called that claim false and said it does not acknowledge that discrimination took place.
“To say that there was not a finding of discrimination is interesting,” Turken said. “The jury unanimously found that Ms. Adaya and the hotel violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act; that doesn’t apply to shoddy business practices, it applies to discrimination.”
Turken said he believes the hotel owner is remorseful for what happened with the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces event, though not at what she did but rather that “she got caught.”
Shangri-La spokesman Miles Lozano said the hotel was very disappointed at the jury verdict.
“Ms. Adaya maintains she is not liable and plans to appeal,” Lozano said. “She did not say anything discriminatory to any of the plaintiffs and did not ask the group to leave.”
The hotel attributed the disparaging comments to a former disgruntled employee who did not show up in court to testify.
Goldberg believes the hotel’s show of support is a move toward reconciliation but he noted that considering the seriousness of the issue, it will take time for the plaintiffs to move forward.
“This is pretty shocking to happen in this day and age so I think it’s gonna take some time but (Adaya) took a step in the right direction,” he said.
The plaintiffs, many of whom are young, were at the hotel for charitable purposes and have been involved with other than solely Jewish organizations, Turken pointed out. Despite the hotel’s response to the incident, many of them will be forever impacted by what they went through, Turken said.
“These are charitable people and what happened to them they’re going to think about for the rest of their lives,” their attorney said. ¤