Seven Muslim women, of whom six regularly wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, are suing Urth Caffé, alleging they were forced to leave its Laguna Beach location because of their religion.
The May 2 lawsuit against the artisanal coffee shop, which has five Southern California locations, asserts the cafe’s management ejected the women from a prominent spot near the entrance to hide the presence of Muslim clientele following a series of nearby allegedly Islamophobic crimes, including a tire slashing and an egg-throwing incident.
An attorney for the restaurant, which is owned by Shallom and Jilla Berkman, who are Jewish and Muslim, respectively, claims it is the target of a lawsuit motivated by an international Muslim political agenda.
The incident in question took place on a Friday evening, April 22, when the seven women were asked to vacate their tables in accordance with a “45-minute policy” the restaurant maintains to clear tables for waiting customers during peak hours. Police officers called to the scene by a security guard escorted the women out.
“What began as a night out with some friends ended as a painful and embarrassing reminder of what it is like to be visibly Muslim — even in liberal California,” Sara Farsakh, the lead plaintiff, wrote in a Facebook post that quickly went viral.
A video she posted to the social network shows a number of tables were unoccupied, both outdoors and inside, while the women were being ejected.
“Rather than take proactive steps to ensure that Muslim clients felt welcome at their location, Urth Caffé appeased the taunters, egg-throwers, and tire-slashers by attempting to cleanse the location of the visibly Muslim Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit alleges.
Laguna Beach Police Department Capt. Jason Kravetz said the police have no evidence the incidents referenced in the lawsuit leading up to April 22 were racially motivated. He added that outside those events, the city hasn’t experienced any alleged hate crimes.
Nonetheless, the case quickly developed political overtones. On April 26, the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement saying it is “investigating the matter and is very concerned about the possible bias motive involved in this incident.”
Meanwhile, Urth Caffé’s pro bono attorney, David Yerushalmi, is a conservative activist known for combatting the influence of sharia, or religious Islamic law, in the United States. He’s also the co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center, a conservative public interest law firm.
Yerushalmi, an Orthodox Jew, called the lawsuit a frame-up motivated by Islamist politics, pointing out Farsakh’s connection to the pro-Palestinian movement.
“This was a manufactured, fraudulent lawsuit from the get-go,” Yerushalmi said.
He added, “It’s part of the Muslim Brotherhood political manifesto to get involved in the West, to utilize the laws that we have for anti-discrimination and free speech and to leverage them against what they consider to be their enemies.”
He said Farsakh is involved with the group Al-Awda, which says on its website it supports the “rights of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands of origin, and to full restitution of all their confiscated and destroyed property.”
Daniel Stormer, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said Yerushalmi’s decision to investigate Farsakh’s “completely lawful and legitimate First Amendment activity” reveals his anti-Muslim bias.
The Pasadena-based attorney called Yerushalmi “probably the leading anti-Muslim activist this side of Donald Trump.” Stormer said Urth Caffé’s decision to retain him supports his clients’ allegations that the chain engaged in anti-Muslim profiling.
“They have a right to hire whatever lawyer they want,” he said in an interview. “But in my experience, likes attract. In my experience, you go to people who think like you, who have friends that think like you.”
In an email to the Journal, Shallom Berkman said of Yerushalmi, “We don’t consider him anti-Muslim — we believe him to be pro-justice.”
“We hired David because he has a wealth of experience in these types of issues; because he has an excellent success rate; because he is a passionate and intelligent advocate for our business; and because he understood our issues and had great insights and compassion,” he wrote.
Yerushalmi also vehemently rejects the claim of Islamophobia.
“If I were anti-Muslim, why would I represent Jilla Berkman?” he said of the chain’s Muslim co-owner.
The conservative litigator said he hopes to prove in court that the lawsuit is part of a broader agenda to put forward a Muslim “victimization narrative.”
“The court of law has a level playing field and they’re not going to be able to manipulate the facts in court like they can in the media,” Yerushalmi said.
In a letter to customers posted at the Laguna Beach location, Shallom Berkman echoed the allegation that the suit is politically motivated.
“We find this incident both sad and frustrating in that they chose one of the most welcoming and diverse businesses in the area to target with their political agenda,” he wrote, speaking for himself and his wife.
He added, “These accusations are absolutely false and we remain confident that when the whole truth is known, we will be completely vindicated.”
In the email to the Journal, Berkman attached a picture of what he said was a handwritten note left at the Laguna Beach location on the evening of May 6, signed simply, “A Muslim woman from the Middle East.”
“You brought a piece of the Middle Eastern culture here,” the note reads. “I just wanted to say that I experienced nothing but respect.”