September 19, 2018

Jewish Cafe Owner Targeted for Trump Views

Several weeks ago, Ruben Duran, 51, was driving on the 101 Freeway when he noticed a restaurant in the heart of Boyle Heights that he didn’t recognize. “I remember thinking it looked nice,” he said. “I Googled it and figured I’d come in when I had a chance.”

The restaurant in question was Asher Caffe and Lounge, which officially opened its doors on July 12. Earlier this week, Duran, who is Mexican American and lives in Highland Park, finally visited the cafe for a late breakfast with his twin brother, Tony.

Less than a week before, the kosher cafe made national headlines when the owner, Asher Shalom, an Israeli immigrant who has called Los Angeles home for 30 years, became mired in controversy over his pro-Donald Trump and perceived anti-immigrant views.

During the grand opening, around 30 protesters, led by a group called Defend Boyle Heights, clashed with Los Angeles Police Department officers. Shalom also had private security on hand in anticipation of the protests.

“The words they used outside weren’t, ‘You’re pro-Trump’ or ‘You’re a Republican,’ ” Shalom said. “It was much worse than that.”

Shalom told the Journal he heard anti-Semitic slurs hurled his way, including “dirty Jew.” He found feces smeared on his establishment, received threatening phone calls at the cafe and noticed a flurry of negative Yelp reviews.

Defend Boyle Heights, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, describes itself on its blog as an “anti-gentrification coalition devoted to community and our hood.” It organized the protest after discovering posts Shalom shared from pro-Trump accounts on his Facebook page, including, “I wish Democrats would fight as hard for Americans as they do for illegals.”

Shalom defended the accusations against him and was largely apologetic about his Facebook posts, referring to them as “a mistake” in a phone interview with the Journal.

“I myself am an immigrant and most of the people working for me are immigrants,” he said. “They love me and I love them and I’ll do anything for them. I don’t have anything against immigrants. I apologize and this was all a mistake. With this business, I’m trying to do something that’s good for the community, not just for Jews.”

He added that his pro-Trump views have less to do with immigration policy and more to do with business policy and U.S.-Israeli relations.

A Westwood resident and member of Westwood Kehilla Synagogue, Shalom moved his business Asher Fabric Concepts to Boyle Heights five years ago. The cafe is across the street in a mostly industrial area with few food options.

The posts also caught the attention of the Boyle of Heights Chamber of Commerce. Just before the grand opening, Shalom’s membership was revoked.

“These statements are not in line with the Chamber’s values and objectives,” the organization wrote in a statement. “In accordance with our bylaws, Asher Caffe and Lounge’s membership was revoked, membership dues were refunded and our participation in their grand opening was cancelled.”

In an email to the Journal, Jennifer Lahoda, the chamber’s board president, denied previous reports that the chamber was involved in the protests and had called for a boycott of the cafe.

Shalom said he appealed the board’s decision and is waiting to hear back. Lahoda told the Journal the board is set to make a decision in the next 30 days.

“I’m not sure what they’ll do,” Shalom said. “Both sides have apologized to each other. [Lahoda] said I’ll get a meeting with them soon. I’m sure they’re under a lot of pressure.”

Duran said that beyond curiosity, a compulsion to defend Shalom brought him and his brother, who both identify as Trump supporters, to the cafe.

“We’re here because we thought we needed to come back this place up,” Duran said. “I heard about them throwing feces and I was so upset. I just thought, I can’t believe they’re doing this crap.”

And what about the food?

“It’s great,” Duran said, between bites of salad. “We love it.”