Hotel Shangri-La trial raises specter of anti-Semitism

Is the word “Jew” offensive? What about “f—-ing Jew”?

That rather provocative question was posed on July 27 by Philip Black, one of the attorneys defending the Muslim owner of the Hotel Shangri-La, a boutique hotel in Santa Monica, against a discrimination lawsuit brought by more than a dozen members of a local pro-Israel group, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Young Leadership Division in Los Angeles.

The plaintiffs, 18 Jewish Angelenos in or around their 30s, say that Tehmina Adaya, the Pakistani-born, L.A.-bred businesswoman who is part owner of the Shangri-La, discriminated against them when she allegedly shut down a pool party they were holding at the hotel in July 2010.

The jury trial, which began with opening statements on July 26 and is expected to last for two weeks, may hinge on what hotel employees knew about the pool party in advance and whether any had the authority to reserve the space by the patio for the freelance promoter who staged the event for the FIDF group.

But because part of what underlies the accusations against Adaya is that she allegedly told one of her employees on that Sunday two years ago that she did not “want any Jews in the pool” and that she “wanted those f—-ing people gone,” the trial itself is raising some big — and at times difficult — questions about Jews and anti-Semitism.

As might be expected, some of the exchanges grew heated on the first day of witness testimony. Defense attorney Black, during his cross-examination of plaintiff Ari Ryan on July 27, tried to illustrate for the jury that calling someone a Jew doesn’t make one an anti-Semite.

“Sir,” Black said, “you are a Jew.”

“Yes, sir,” Ryan, one of the co-founders of the FIDF young leadership group, replied. “Born and raised.”

“And that, sir, in and of itself, is not offensive,” Black said.

“It can be,” Ryan said, adding that it depended on the context and tone in which the word “Jew” was said.

“But ‘f—-ing Jew’ offends you.”

“Of course,” Ryan said.

Black immediately restated for the court that only one person — Nathan Codrey, who was, in July 2010, the assistant food and beverage director at the Shangri-La — is alleged to have heard his client say anything about the “Jews.” But Black’s intention seemed to be to illustrate for the jury that even if Adaya did say the word “Jews,” her utterance might not necessarily have been anti-Semitic.

That’s just one of many “Jewish” questions this case has touched on so far. In his cross-examination, Black also probed Ryan as to whether the FIDF — which supports all members of the Israel Defense Forces, including its non-Jewish soldiers — could be considered a “Jewish” group.

Nicholas Morrison, another plaintiff who began his testimony near the end of the day on July 27, was one of two members of the FIDF group in charge of planning events in 2010. Morrison told the court that in his one meeting with the member of the hotel staff responsible for booking events on the property, the conversation covered the basics — like towels and cabanas — but also the mission of the FIDF as a whole.

“I told her that our organization provide[s] aid to Israeli soldiers,” Morrison said, “that we are not buying bullets, not buying flak jackets.”

The defense is presenting Adaya’s actions in 2010 as those of a hotel owner with the right to restrict the use of its pool to registered guests and to those particular events whose organizers pay a site fee to the hotel. The FIDF group, which organized the event through an independent event promoter, did not pay a site fee to the Shangri-La.

“This was not a case of discrimination,” defense attorney John S. Levitt told the jury in his opening statement on July 26. While members of the FIDF’s Young Leadership division thought that they had arranged for their event to take place at the Shangri-La pool, Levitt said, no agreement had been made with the hotel’s management.

In Levitt’s words, the promoter responsible for that Sunday’s event — Scott Paletz, who is one of the plaintiffs in the case — had “sold [the FIDF members] a bill of goods.”

The Shangri-La pool has hosted at least one Jewish event in the recent past, a poolside party thrown by the Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in August 2009. 

But dismissing the charges of discrimination may not be so simple. The story the FIDF group’s members tell is one that has unmistakable undertones that hark back to some of the darkest chapters of Jewish history.

In his testimony, Ryan described watching the event’s attendees, who had each been issued a blue wristband upon entry, “being tapped on the shoulder and asked by security to leave the pool.”

The outcome of the trial is far from certain, not least because the plaintiffs — who sit clustered into a group of seats in the observers’ section of the courtroom — are young, white, articulate, apparently well off and not visibly injured. During his cross-examination of Ryan — who was described by the Los Angeles Times as “a real estate entrepreneur who lives in Westwood” — defense attorney Black drew special attention to the damages the plaintiffs are seeking. In Ryan’s case, a document introduced into evidence and signed by Ryan said he sought $150,000 in past and future medical expenses — despite his not having undergone any formal physical or psychological treatment.

Other plaintiffs may tell different stories when they take the stand — many are expected to testify at trial. And plaintiffs’ attorney James Turken intended to call Rabbi David Wolpe to testify as an expert witness on July 31.

“Anti-Semitism is bad and people ought not to practice it,” Wolpe wrote in an e-mail to The Journal on July 30, describing what he intended to say when he took the stand the next morning.

But convincing the diverse jury that the case is, in fact, one of anti-Semitic discrimination, may be an uphill battle. Two observers present in the courtroom on July 27, neither of whom was connected with a side in this case, both expressed doubts that the plaintiffs are suffering from emotional distress deserving of compensatory damages of more than $3 million.

Eli, an Israeli-born Santa Monica resident who gave only his first name, said he wasn’t certain that the plaintiffs had been discriminated against at all. 

Indeed Ryan, in his testimony, said that while he was at the Shangri-La, even he couldn’t believe he was being discriminated against.

“It was very surreal. …It took a while to set in because you just don’t expect that to be happening,” Ryan said.

Defense attorney Levitt described his client in his opening statement as someone who does not have “a discriminatory bone in her body.”

A Muslim, Adaya attended Catholic schools in Pakistan; after moving to the United States, she went to what was then called Westlake School for Girls, which had many Jewish students.

From his opening statement, it’s clear Turken also sees a possibility that the jury might doubt that his clients were victims of anti-Semitism.

“Every case has a theme, and this case is no different,” Turken said on the trial’s first day. “And the theme here is: Just because you can’t believe it could happen here doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”