The story behind the Hotel Shangri-La anti-Semitism trial

It was late in the afternoon on Aug. 15, a Wednesday, when the jury delivered its verdict to a Santa Monica courtroom. The discrimination case that had been brought against the oceanfront boutique Hotel Shangri-La by a group of young Jews had been going on for nearly four weeks, and the jurors had taken five full days for their deliberations. It was so late in the day, in fact, that James Turken, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, and some of his clients who were still standing by, had to be let into the locked courthouse building in Santa Monica by a security guard.

And even though Turken was already hopeful that the jury’s prolonged deliberation might mean good news for his side, it wasn’t until the attorney took a seat in the courtroom that he found out for certain just how overwhelming their victory was.

A court employee had already begun reading the jury’s verdicts for each of the 18 individual plaintiffs, and, with each additional decision, the message became increasingly clear: The jury firmly believed Turken’s clients’ allegations that the hotel and its president, CEO and part-owner, Tehmina Adaya, had illegally discriminated against them, solely because they were Jewish.

The total amount in damages and statutory payments awarded to the plaintiffs on that day added up to about $1.2 million. On the following day, because the jury found the defendants had acted with “malice, oppression and fraud” against most of the plaintiffs, they would also impose a fine on Adaya and the hotel of $440,000 in punitive damages — bringing the size of the total penalties to more than $1.6 million.

But Turken was already elated on Wednesday.

“Home run,” Turken whispered to this reporter. “Home run.”

This story dates back to two years before, to July 11, 2010, when the plaintiffs, most of them affiliated with the Young Leadership Division of the local chapter of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), all attended a pool party organized by the group at the Shangri-La.

The group had made arrangements for the event through an event promoter, Scott Paletz, who had been bringing people to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant since March of that year. Starting at 11 a.m. on that Sunday, the FIDF group had been allotted a cordoned-off area on the pool’s deck, where members had installed a pair of banners announcing their presence. At a check-in table in the courtyard, a blue shirt was displayed with the word “Legacy,” the FIDF program the group was fundraising for that day. It’s a program that brings the young relatives of Israeli soldiers killed in the line of duty for a month-long stay at a summer camp in the U.S.

Adaya, 48, a Pakistani-born Muslim, was also at the pool that day, there to watch the World Cup final game in her cabana. After examining some of the FIDF group’s promotional literature, Adaya instructed members of her staff to take a number of actions against the group — including forcing the FIDF group to take down its banners, literature and other evidence of the organization’s presence. Many of the plaintiffs testified to seeing hotel security guards inform some of the FIDF guests, all easily identified by the blue promotional wristbands they were wearing, that they were not allowed to swim in the pool, or even dangle their feet into the water. The plaintiffs also alleged they heard from a hotel employee that Adaya had made comments about wanting to remove “the [expletive] Jews” from the hotel or the pool.

The hotel staff did not forcibly kick out the attendees of the FIDF party, but their actions, the plaintiffs said, ruined the party. Though it had been expected to last into the evening, the day ended when the plaintiffs left the hotel, around 5 p.m., according to testimony during the trial.

Many of the plaintiffs (most, but not all, of them Jews) also testified that they could not believe they were experiencing discrimination of this sort, at a chic hotel in Santa Monica, in 2010. But that’s precisely what they came to believe had happened, and they were able to convince the jury that Adaya and the hotel had violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a far-reaching California state law that outlaws discrimination on the basis of “sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.”

The law entitles all Californians to “the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever,” and though it was adopted in 1959, a time when the most egregious forms of discrimination were directed against African Americans and other people of color, the statute clearly applies to religious groups, as well.

None of the legal experts interviewed for this article could point to a previous case in which the Unruh Act had been used to affirm the rights of Jews in the way that it was in the Shangri-La case, however. (One case, Sinai Memorial Chapel v. Dudler, had been brought in 1991 by a Jewish plaintiff and cited the Unruh Act, but in that instance the plaintiff was accusing other Jews of discriminating against her because she came from Russia.)

“I don’t think it makes new law, because it simply affirmed that there was a violation of existing law,” Turken said of the Shangri-La victory. “But do I think the case is important? Yeah, I think it’s important. My clients wanted the defendants held up to the world and found liable — and that happened.”

Built in 1939, the Art Deco Hotel Shangri-La is situated on the corner of Ocean and Arizona avenues, with a pool set in an interior courtyard, protected from any winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. The clean, white exterior of the 71-room facility glistens in the Southern California sunshine.

Tehmina Adaya’s father, Ahmad Adaya, purchased the hotel in 1983. Reading a March 2010 post on her blog,, one might imagine the Shangri-La to be the Santa Monica equivalent of the Chateau Marmont.

“I had the privilege of growing up in and around an LA institution that as Hollywood’s ocean front hotel had a long history of being a hideaway for high profile figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Bill Clinton, Tom Cruise, Diane Keaton, Madonna and Sean Penn,” Adaya wrote, not long after a $35-million renovation of the Shangri-La was completed in 2009.

But if the hotel does, in fact, aspire to a degree of exclusivity, some of the evidence presented in court appeared to belie that aim. When Adaya took the stand as a witness on Aug. 1, Turken asked her if a formal policy exists as to who is allowed to use the hotel’s pool. Adaya responded that a sign now stands on the pool deck informing visitors that only guests of the hotel and people who have rented cabanas are entitled to swim in the pool.

Asked whether such a sign was posted on the day of the FIDF event, however, Adaya responded, “I’m not sure.”

Attorneys defending Adaya and the Hotel Shangri-La maintained throughout the trial that the FIDF group had not made a formal arrangement with the hotel to hold its party there, and therefore the hotel and Adaya were justified in their actions.

Yet in cross-examination on the witness stand, Adaya retreated from some of her previous allegations about the plaintiffs. Adaya acknowledged that, contrary to the report prepared by the hotel’s head of security, the FIDF group was not behaving in a raucous manner. And when Turken asked Adaya about a lawsuit she had filed against his clients, in which she alleged that they had posted libelous and defamatory comments on various Web sites about her hotel following the ill-fated event, the hotel owner admitted that she had no evidence that it was Turken’s clients who posted the comments.

“But their friends did,” Adaya said.

Whether it was Adaya’s own apparent uncertainty about the Shangri-La’s policies — including those governing the relationship between the hotel and the separate company that in 2010 was running the hotel’s food and beverage concessions — that impacted the jury’s verdict, it is impossible to say. At the close of the trial, before jury deliberations, Adaya declined to speak to this reporter. Adaya also was not present in court when the verdict was announced, nor, despite a request by the court, did she appear to hear the additional penalties read on the following day. Follow-up requests for an interview with Adaya for this article, submitted to her representatives, were declined.

A number of members of the hotel staff were present in the courtroom representing her, accompanied by a recently hired communications counselor with a specialty in crisis communications. They spoke in her defense, saying she intends to appeal the ruling.

Ellen Adelman, chief business development officer at the Shangri-La for the past two years, said she had spoken to Adaya that morning, who, Adelman said, was “disappointed” with the verdict.

“I’ve worked for Tehmina Adaya for over two years, and I have always received the utmost respect from her,” Adelman, who is Jewish, said. Adelman described her boss as one of the “most open people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” and said that the hotel employs staff from “over 12 countries” and welcomed guests from “over 21 different countries” in July.

Standing next to Adelman was Miles Lozano, the hotel’s director of public relations and marketing. Lozano, too, is Jewish, a fact he also made sure to note in a conversation during the morning recess.

“I went to Crossroads School with [Adaya’s] children, her children attended my bar mitzvah,” said Lozano, who declined to state his age but appeared young enough that his bar mitzvah might not be such a distant memory. “I’ve always known Tehmina Adaya to be amazingly open-minded as far as religion or anything like that.”

As for the plans to appeal the ruling, Adelman said that Adaya “firmly believes in the judicial system, and she will appeal this.” Defense attorney Philip Black, meanwhile, wrote in an e-mail to this reporter on the day punitive damages were assessed that he was “mystified, perplexed and extremely disappointed in the jury.”

“Appeal expected,” Black added.

French railway lawsuits divide plaintiffs and country’s Jewish groups

Mayer Grosman thinks back to Feb. 2, 1944, all the time.

French policemen and militia members came to his parents’ apartment in Paris with orders to take two Grosman males — Grosman, age 6, and his father.

But Grosman’s grandfather, whose name was not on the paper, insisted on going in place of 6-year-old Mayer. After jewelry and money exchanged hands, the police and militia agreed.

Grosman’s father and grandfather, both Polish-born Jews, were taken on a train of the SNCF, the French national railway, to the Drancy internment camp north of Paris. From there, another SNCF train took them to Auschwitz, where they were gassed.

Grosman’s mother took him and his sister and fled, hiding in French homes and churches. They survived the war.

Grosman, along with other deportees’ families, received a settlement worth about $24,000 from the French government in 2000. But when Alain Lipietz, a French deputy in the European Parliament whose father and uncle were rounded up and sent to a holding area during the war, won a cash indemnity worth about $77,000 from the SNCF — the railway is appealing the case — Grosman decided he’d also sue.

“I’ve never forgotten and never forgiven,” said Grosman, 68. “I want recognition, and if my children and grandchildren can receive financial compensation, all the better.”

More than 1,000 people, both Jews and non-Jews, have filed similar claim letters since the Lipietz case in Toulouse last summer. Under French law, the SNCF must respond to each letter individually within two months, or legal proceedings begin automatically.

Jewish community leaders in France have come out against the claims against SNCF. They argue that of all the state-run institutions active during World War II — including banks, insurance companies, the education system and many others run by high-level civil servants in prestigious posts — SNCF officials have made the greatest effort to be transparent and truthful in explaining their wartime activities to the French public.

“I understand the families,” said Roger Cukierman, head of the CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewish groups. “I can feel their pain, but the SNCF has really made an effort to put together exhibits in train stations and other educational tools. If people take the SNCF to court, they could begin doing the same with other state-run groups, such as the police, and then why not private companies? I understand the claims, but is this the right path to take?”

CRIF officials and community leaders — such as Serge Klarsfeld, the well-known Nazi-hunter, lawyer and head of the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France — have criticized the lawsuits, but CRIF has taken no official position.

The story gets more complicated. Klarsfeld’s son, Arno, was highly praised in 1998 for representing plaintiffs in the trial against Maurice Papon, a Vichy police boss who directed deportations from Bordeaux and went on to a decorated civil service career.

Arno Klarsfeld now represents the SNCF in New York, where deportees’ families filed a class-action suit against the French railway. He also works closely with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on providing legal papers to certain illegal immigrants in France, leading some to charge that his SNCF work is politically motivated.

Neither Serge nor Arno Klarsfeld returned phone calls for this article.

Historians consider the Holocaust the industrialization of mass murder on an unprecedented scale. In France, that industrialization is represented by the SNCF’s efficiency in deporting mostly Jews, but also Resistance fighters and even railway workers who joined the Resistance.

“Right after the war, De Gaulle did a brilliant thing,” said Corinne Hershkovitch, a lawyer representing about 500 families who have filed claims against the SNCF. “All the major institutions, the banks, insurance companies, construction companies and so on, were issued a presidential pardon for collaborating with the Nazi regime, in the interest of French national unity. He managed to convince the French people that France had won the war.”

Among the groups receiving the pardon, which was political and not judicial, was SNCF. But now, the railway has a dilemma on its hands: There are no class-action suits in France, so each of those 1,000 letters could lead to a hearing or trial. An SNCF official said the letters were being answered individually and not with a form response.

However, SNCF General Director Guillaume Pepy told a Paris TV station earlier this year that “the SNCF board has decided to reject the requests by plaintiffs for cash indemnities to be paid by the railway. The SNCF was requisitioned and was acting under constraints from the Nazi regime. We think it would be unfair and a historical error to find the SNCF guilty for the deportations.”

Hershkovitch disagrees.

“This is the continuation of the Papon trial. Papon was the first individual to take the stand, and the SNCF may be the first company,” she said.

The SNCF officially opened its wartime archives in 1992. The Bachelier Report, commissioned by the SNCF and written by a private French institute, was issued in 1996 and made available to the public in 1998, revealing some ugly details.

For example, the report noted that the Nazis asked for big barrels of water to be placed in each train car so people could quench their thirst on the trip to Auschwitz.

“French SNCF officials at the time refused to do so,” Hershkovitch said. “They said putting barrels of water in each car could easily delay the trains and upset the schedule. They said that their job was to keep the trains rolling on time.”

Another lawyer handling more than 400 claims, Avi Bitton, said it was normal to ask for financial reparations, “even though the French quickly link the money with the claimants being mostly Jews, and that is negative.

“The SNCF role was about money from the very beginning,” Bitton said. “According to the Bachelier Report, the French railway billed the Vichy government for every person who was deported. And they billed Vichy for the use of third-class cars but put the deportees in cattle wagons.”

Jews Note Role in Historic School Case

Esther Swirk Brown wasn’t the Brown for whom the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case desegregating schools is named — but she is the Jewish woman who helped find Oliver Brown, no relation, to be the lead plaintiff in the historic case.

As a young woman in Kansas, Esther Brown was horrified by the conditions of the school that black children, including the children of her housekeeper, were forced to attend. The one-room schoolhouse in South Park had dilapidated walls and missing light bulbs.

"She went to a school board meeting to press for equal education and was told to go home and mind her own business," said Miriam Katz, who impersonates Brown as part of a one-woman show honoring historic American women that is touring the Midwest.

Instead, Esther Brown stopped black children from attending the school, choosing to home school them in her own house and getting friends to serve as other teachers.

When she took her fight statewide to the capital in Topeka, she met Linda Brown, a young girl, and raised money so that Linda Brown’s father, Oliver, could sue the city’s board of education.

"She just wanted rights for everybody," Katz said. "Maybe she felt like she had to make things right."

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which changed the face of the civil rights fight, Jews are noting the historic role their community played in pushing the movement forward.

"It was disproportionately black and Jewish lawyers that were fighting the civil rights cases," said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Charles Black, a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that argued Brown, used to joke that he was the only non-Jewish name on many of the briefs in that case.

Several Jewish groups are marking the anniversary and the Jewish community’s participation in the landmark case.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has created a six-part educational program for schools on Brown’s legacy, including a section on key alliances, which tells the story of Esther Brown.

At its annual Washington meeting last week, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) showcased a video about the group’s role in the civil rights movement. It featured several television advertisements the AJCommittee funded to promote tolerance.

A predominantly liberal community, Jews felt empathy for the plight of black Americans.

"In the fight for the rights of African Americans, Jews were also in a fight for the rights of all minorities in America," Saperstein said. "There was implicit recognition that Jews wouldn’t be safe in America until they created a country with no room for discrimination."

Jewish organizations lent their names to the civil rights cause, filing amicus briefs for the plaintiffs and funding some of the legal efforts. In fact, the AJCommittee funded research by Kenneth Clark on the effects of prejudice and discrimination on personality development that Chief Justice Earl Warren cited in his unanimous Supreme Court decision handed down on May 17, 1954.

Many individual Jews, like Esther Brown, were part of the effort as well — perhaps none more than Jack Greenberg. As an associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Greenberg was one of several who argued Brown vs. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court. He later succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the fund’s director and counsel for more than 20 years.

"Being Jewish can lead you in any direction," said Greenberg, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of Law. Greenberg said he wasn’t driven by his religion but more by his upbringing in the socialist Zionist movement of Jews who had immigrated from Eastern Europe.

"We were social activists," he said. "Back then, we’d call them socialists; now you’d call them liberals."

Several other Jews who aided the NAACP went on to distinguished legal careers, including Judge Jack Weinstein of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn and Judge Louis Pollack of the U.S. District Court for the East District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

But, Greenberg said, not all Jews were "on the good side."

"Some of the lawyers in the South who led the opposition were Jewish," he said.

The Brown case led to a partnership between blacks and Jews that helped herald the civil rights era.

"It was a landmark in what the relationship could achieve," Saperstein said. It led to the drafting of civil rights legislation.

"This really did prove to them that they could use the political legal system to achieve integration and stop legal discrimination in America," he said.

But blacks and Jews have not enjoyed an entire half-century of friendship. Most significantly, many Jewish organizations broke with black groups in 1978, coming out against the affirmative-action policies for which many blacks were fighting.

The ADL’s leader at the time, Nathan Perlmutter, was one of the leading spokesmen against race-based criteria for admission to colleges and universities. Leaders of Jewish groups said the rejection of quotas for affirmative action came largely in light of numerical limits on Jewish enrollment in European and American universities in the 1920s.

Even last year, when the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policies came to the Supreme Court, the Jewish community was split. The ADL opposed Michigan’s standard of giving minority applicants 20 extra points on a 100-point admission-scoring scale, while the AJCommittee reversed course from 1978 and backed Michigan.

The court ruled last June that affirmative-action programs are legal but struck down the point system Michigan used for undergraduate admissions.

More recently, black and Jewish groups have sparred over policy priorities, each seeking more support than the other for key legislative agenda items. In addition, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments by some blacks have fueled tensions.

The black community was angered by Jewish groups’ call for a boycott of the 2001 United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, because of the conference’s vehement anti-Israel rhetoric.

But black and other non-Jewish groups chose to back the Jewish community last month when it worked to minimize European anti-Semitism at a conference in Berlin.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights joined Jewish leaders in Germany, providing information to European states on tools to combat discrimination.