What the Beverly Hills Hotel boycott says about where we draw our lines in a global economy

If you walk up the red carpet and into the Beverly Hills Hotel on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, at the left side of the lobby, inside the Sunset Room, you’ll find an Orthodox Jewish prayer service.
May 21, 2014

If you walk up the red carpet and into the Beverly Hills Hotel on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, at the left side of the lobby, inside the Sunset Room, you’ll find an Orthodox Jewish prayer service.

You’ll see the standard mechitzah dividing male and female worshippers, and you’ll hear tunes that you may never have heard before, music introduced by the congregation’s late cantor, Andre (Tuvia) Winkler. 

Anywhere from 70 to 100 people participate in Shabbat services any given week, almost all residents of the community surrounding the majestic hotel. 

The congregation is led by Rabbi Yossi Cunin, who dresses in the standard black coat, white dress shirt and slacks, but with a sharp-looking bowtie. A Chabad rabbi, Cunin founded the Beverly Hills Jewish Community in 1997 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a presence that is remarkable not just because it is harbored in a hotel that has made its name by lodging, wining and dining the biggest names in entertainment, business and politics, but also because the owner of the hotel is Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei and dictator of an oil-rich country approximately the size of Delaware located next to Malaysia and bordering the Indian Ocean. 

The sultan does not recognize Israel, has publicly supported Iran’s nuclear program and has just instituted the harshest aspects of Sharia, Islamic law, in his nation of 400,000, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. 

Nevertheless, for the past 17 years this Jewish congregation has felt very welcome at his hotel. 

But in recent weeks, the Beverly Hills Hotel has been the target of a boycott and public protests over the sultan’s institution, on May 1, of the first of three phases of Sharia law in Brunei, the first one including fines and jail terms for pregnancy outside marriage, for abortions and for failure to attend Friday prayers. 

In just a year from now, crimes committed by Muslims such as theft and alcohol consumption will be punishable by whipping and amputation. And in two years, acts of adultery, homosexuality and heresy against Islam will be punishable by death.

Since May 1, prompted in large part by protests and criticism from numerous celebrities, more than $2 million worth of events have been cancelled at the Beverly Hills Hotel by dozens of groups, from the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which pulled its annual pre-Oscars fundraiser, “Night Before the Oscars,” to Kehillat Israel, a Los Angeles Reconstructionist synagogue, which decided to move a dinner celebration to another venue. 

Protesters picket on May 5 outside the Beverly Hills Hotel — which is owned by the Sultan of Brunei — over Brunei’s strict Sharia law penal code.  Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/ Reuters

For many L.A. celebrities and power players, including many Jews, what was the place to be seen has quickly become the one place you don’t want to be seen.

And yet, the feeling is not unanimous among the Jewish community. And so, on a recent Shabbat, the synagogue’s lay leader addressed the congregation on the issue of its involvement with the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Dorchester Collection, the London-based luxury hotel operator owned by the sultan, which operates both the Beverly Hills Hotel and the nearby Hotel Bel-Air. 

Cunin and the synagogue’s president told the gathering of about 80 people — most middle-aged and older — that the congregation has no plans to switch locations or to join the boycott.

After services — over sushi, vegetables, snacks and drinks — Cunin’s congregants debated and discussed the implications of remaining connected to the hotel. Most seemed comfortable staying put.

In an interview a few days later, Cunin emphasized that he stands 100 percent behind the hotel that has given his synagogue a home. Even when he first started the Beverly Hills Jewish Community, some Jewish groups objected, he said, arguing that he shouldn’t associate a synagogue with a business owned by the head of a government that opposes Israel. 

The sultan’s position on Israel has never been a deal-breaker for Cunin. The rabbi shrugged it off as an inevitable policy of a dictator of a Muslim country that doesn’t even have a military to defend its vast natural resources — what friends in the Muslim world would the sultan have, Cunin asked, if it normalized relations with Israel? 

“When they brought me downstairs and offered me a room in the hotel where we could begin to pray Friday night,” Cunin said, “They didn’t say, ‘Stop, let me ask the sultan if that’s all right to have a Jewish group here.”

Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei. Photo by Lynn Bobo via Newscom

Cunin described the lengths to which the hotel’s management and staff have gone to welcome and accommodate a house of prayer for the hundreds of Jewish families who live within walking distance — the hotel charges the congregation only $250 per weekend, and even during the Academy Awards, when the hotel’s resources are stretched thin, his congregation is given preference to use the Sunset Room.

“It’s the workers of the hotel that I’m defending, not the policies of Brunei,” Cunin said. “It’s easy to be a good friend when people’s chips are high. But can you stick it through for people who put themselves out for you?”

But, for the rest of us — the individuals, businesses, nonprofits, tourists and residents who use the hotel — this episode offers, in its essence, a case study in both the good and bad of economic globalization. 

These days, it’s more difficult than ever to draw a moral line about what and where we consume, because so many goods we purchase and services we use are partially or wholly owned by people and governments whose values we may not share. From the gasoline we buy, to the phones we use, or the hotels we stay at, there likely are partners — hidden or obvious — who are helping fund governments whose human-rights track records we abhor — including China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Brunei.

Where is our line? Employees such as the ones at the Beverly Hills Hotel, who have been directly impacted by boycotts, have their answer. Activists have another. The synagogue has its own. And Jewish legal experts may have even more. For while the Torah and Jewish law are not silent on the issue of when it is permissible, or obligatory, to boycott a business, the complexity of modern economics can make finding the moral line a tricky business — how much will the employees be harmed? Can a boycott be effective in reaching its goal? Is it OK to deprive a store of business simply out of moral protest, even if without practical results?

Practicalities vs. principles

Anna Romer doesn’t understand why this is happening. For her, the moral protest behind the boycott is endangering her financial security.

Romer is a server at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s famed Polo Lounge, and one day last week she was sitting on a red sofa in the hotel’s posh Bar Nineteen12, so-named for the year this landmark social epicenter opened. She was wearing her standard uniform — a white jacket and shirt with a black tie and black skirt. Her hair is short and her cat’s-eye glasses are rimmed in neon blue.

She said she feels “isolated” and “dismissed,” personally betrayed by her city and the celebrity industry she’s worked so hard to please. Four years of serving lunch to some of Los Angeles’ biggest names in politics, business and entertainment, and this is what she gets? Stars like Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres telling everyone to stay away from the hotel until there’s an ownership change?

That Romer even has time for a 15-minute interview right before the Wednesday lunch rush is “unheard of,” she said. A “slow” Wednesday should see 115 reservations. Today, there are 59.

According to Romer and Polo Lounge server Alec Torrance, as well as a number of other employees who agreed to interviews with the Journal, the staff, like the protesters, strongly opposes the sultan’s new laws. What’s on their mind, though, is they feel they are the ones being punished for laws enacted 8,000 miles away.

Hotel server Anna Romer, center, and other Beverly Hills Hotel employees stand to be recognized at a May 6 public hearing during which the Beverly Hills City Council voted on a resolution to pressure the government of Brunei to divest itself of the hotel.  Photo by David McNew/Reuters

The dramatic loss of business caused by the boycott already has led to an alarming reduction in gratuities. And, in their eyes, the effort will have no impact on the sultan; they believe he won’t let Hollywood’s cause-of-the-month force him to sell “one of his trophies,” as Cabana Café server Paul Sturgulewski characterized the hotel.

Hotel spokeswoman Leslie Lefkowitz wrote as much in an email to the Journal, saying that it is “highly unlikely” that this boycott will force a sale.

Nevertheless, activist groups such as the Feminist Majority Foundation — which helped make this a cause célèbre with prominent assistance from Leno and his wife, Mavis, a board member — protesting the business enterprise of a ruler who would criminalize abortions and stone those who engage in homosexuality is of utmost importance.

We are all sultans now

Everyone knows that very few of the goods and services we enjoy in today’s marketplace are truly “made in America.” Everything comes from everywhere, meaning that tens of millions of Americans every day are helping line the pockets of people and governments whose values differ from ours.

Ever tweeted? In 2011, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal invested $300 million in Twitter via the Kingdom Holding Co., the sovereign wealth fund of the Saudi Arabian government, which beheads and stones citizens who commit adultery, false prophecy and apostasy. 

Who’s your cable service provider? If it’s Time Warner, Prince Al-Waleed thanks you again. In 1997, he invested $145 million in Netscape, which was sold to AOL, which later merged with Time Warner.

If you bank with Citigroup, you’re not only helping out the Saudis’ sovereign wealth fund, but also that of the United Arab Emirates, whose government criminalizes homosexuality and considers the testimony of a female less valid than that of a male in criminal cases. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority took a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup shortly before the 2008 economic crisis.

Who really gets hurt?

The collateral damage in these boycotts, Freixes said, is always the employees — always. For better or worse, activists who believe the “short-term pain is worth the long-term gain” have to accept that laborers are going to lose money and, possibly, their jobs.

This was the case during the boycott against South Africa’s apartheid government, when Nelson Mandela was willing to accept hurting black workers in the short term to help the black citizenry in the long run. And it was the case when Cesar Chavez led the Delano Grape Boycott in the 1960s. 

Sturgulewski, the Cabana Café server, has seen his tips fall from about $300 on a normal day to less than $100 since May 5, when the boycott began. Although he said he has enough money in his savings to last him for six months, he’s worried he’ll have to dip into that if things don’t turn around. His message for boycotters: “What you are doing is only hurting people in the United States, not 8,000 miles away.”

Leaders of this boycott, though, aren’t so sure.

Cleve Jones works with Unite Here, a North American hospitality workers union that has been trying for years to unionize the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air, both Dorchester properties. The latter was unionized until 2009, when it closed down for two years of renovations after its union contract expired, reopening with a non-union workforce. 

Once an intern for the late Harvey Milk — the gay rights pioneer assassinated while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — Jones is probably best-known for starting the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

“This guy [the sultan] is a real player in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” Jones said in a recent phone interview, discussing the economic pact among Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and other nations in the region. In fact, the Obama administration has been pushing a trade deal — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — to increase trade and investment with a number of South Asian countries, including Brunei. 

Jones also pointed out, however, that many economists are warning that Brunei could run out of its oil reserves within the next few decades. If that were to happen, the sultan’s assets around the world might no longer just be business dalliances, but actual investments, which, in Jones’ analysis, could make boycotts like these impactful, and not merely symbolic. Furthermore, there are some indications that word of the boycott has made its way into the news in Brunei’s neighboring Malaysia, where Sharia law already has a limited place in society parallel to common law, but could very well become more prominent.

“The boycott is being used now by moderate forces within Malaysia as an argument,” Jones said. “Look at the punishment that is being inflicted on Brunei. Maybe we don’t want to go down this route.”

The case for consistency

Jones doesn’t accept the argument made by many opponents of the boycott that singling out the Beverly Hills Hotel is illegitimate because protesters are inconsistent about which businesses they target.

“We do whatever we can with whatever we have wherever we are,” Jones said. “Whenever somebody says to me, ‘Well, why aren’t you concerned about this or this or this?’ What I’m hearing is, ‘Don’t you do anything.’ ”

Still, the question remains: Where do you draw the line?

“We are buffeted as Americans by lots and lots and lots of demands on our conscience,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director of interfaith affairs and adjunct chair of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. 

“We are told, ‘Unless you do X, you are complicit in Y.’ Many people simply tune out, because there are too many of these competing demands,” Adlerstein said. “Can I indeed be complicit in so much of the evil of the world?”

And, he said, agreeing with the concerns of the Beverly Hills Hotel workers, if the motives of groups shunning the hotel really are to advance human rights and oppose Sharia, they should at least grapple with the inconsistency of their moral protest, which begins and ends with the hotel.

“A lot of the protesters, if you shake their closet, a lot of Chanel and Valentino [jewelry] falls out,” Romer said. “Richard Branson [founder of the Virgin Group] says that he will never set foot in a Dorchester property until this human rights issue is resolved. Unless he sold it recently, you can see on the Internet that he owns an island in Dubai.” That island is the “Great Britain” part of Dubai’s World Islands, an artificial construct of small islands roughly modeled off the world map.

Two organizations that joined the boycott after the Lenos and the Feminist Majority Foundation succeeded in making it a media issue — Kehillat Israel synagogue and Aviva Family & Children’s Services — have both moved their planned major events from the Beverly Hills Hotel to a venue just a few miles away — the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons hotel.

The Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

When the Journal pointed out to each that Al-Waleed bin Talal holds a 45 percent stake in Four Seasons, spokespeople for both nonprofits expressed surprise — the groups had not vetted the ownership of the Beverly Wilshire, even after pulling their events from the sultan’s venue out of moral protest.

How to explain the selective moral outrage, whether it’s the willingness to do business with Four Seasons but not Dorchester, or Hollywood’s comfort with filming in Dubai while fearing being sighted in the Polo Lounge? 

In Romer’s view, her employer represents low-hanging fruit — it is convenient to boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air. But boycotting every Four Seasons property, or every Chanel, or every company or brand that does business with governments that enforce Sharia or other immoral legal systems would be difficult. 

“Apparently, their righteous indignation has limits,” said Steven Boggs, the hotel’s head of guest relations. Boggs, showing off his wealth of knowledge about the hotel’s history, checked off the list of its social landmark credentials — one of the first hotels in Los Angeles from which blacks and Jews were not restricted, and a prominent venue in California for same-sex weddings.

He also pointed out that no one is really sure how the new laws will be enforced — since 1957, Brunei has effectively had a moratorium on its death penalty.

Boggs said being affiliated with a boycott target has changed his own view of them. Boggs, who is gay, once vowed to stay away from Target after a controversy erupted around its former CEO, Gregg Steinhafel, when the company donated $150,000 in 2010 to support a Minnesota politician opposed to same-sex marriage. Boggs now feels the pain a boycott can cause employees 

Asked whether someone can be part of the modern economy without somehow supporting oppressive governments, much less policies of executives with which they disagree, UCLA's Gonzalo Freixes responded:

“The Chinese own Marriotts in downtown L.A. You couldn’t buy most of the clothes sold at Macy’s or all these department stores. I suppose it’s possible, but it would be very difficult.”

Judaism and commercial boycotts

Although Jewish law is not silent on the issue of boycotts, and Jewish history has a few significant examples — the 1555 boycott of the Port of Ancona and the 1933 boycott of German goods — where Jewish law draws the line is not black-and-white.

Cunin worries that a Jewish-supported boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel could backfire on supporters of Israel, who have vigorously defended the Jewish state in recent months against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting companies that do business in the West Bank. His line, he told the Journal, depends on United States law.

“If we feel they are out of character, create laws that don’t allow them to invest here,” he said. “Put his [the sultan’s] name on the list of those who cannot travel here.”

But, according to Rabbi Elchonon Tauber, one of the West Coast’s leading halachic authorities, the Torah allows boycotts under certain circumstances, even when the ripple effects hurt innocent people.

“We punish criminals even though the children will suffer terribly,” Tauber said. “If something is evil, then people will have a right to boycott.”

[Related: ‘We’ll survive this’

Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Photo by Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Sturgulewski can’t help but reference disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who has been an object of disdain since getting caught on tape making racist remarks to his girlfriend. Until Sterling was sanctioned by the NBA, there were even some initial calls to boycott Clippers games.

“It’s like boycotting [Clippers star] Blake Griffin because of what Sterling said,” Sturgulewski said. “What he [Sterling] said is irrelevant — he’s just some rich guy with money. The sultan is just some rich guy with money.”

Indeed, it is the sultan’s wealth, and that of the Dorchester Collection, that may be instrumental in helping the hotel’s employees weather this storm.

Lefkowitz, the hotel’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the Journal that while the Beverly Hills Hotel has seen a major drop in revenue this month, largely from event and meeting cancellations, its employees’ jobs are secure and “their wages (including service charges, gratuities and benefits) would be maintained despite the decline in business.”

Although Boggs said he is “very concerned” that business won’t pick up soon, his knowledge of the hotel’s long history gives him confidence in getting through this storm.

“We have survived, in order, World War I, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, a cornucopia of civil rights, race riots, earthquakes, recessions,” Boggs said. “We’ll survive this as well.”

So far, there have been no documented cases of Brunei’s government using its new punitive privileges. But Boggs expressed sensitivity to the protesters’ concerns: “We should honor the things the hotel has done for women, for gays, for African-Americans, for Jews, for everybody — for the community, while at the same time finding a way to fight this horrific law,” Boggs said.

“Now, the minute I wake up and someone has actually been stoned to death, I [will] have to rethink that.”

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