August 29, 2012
Hotel Shangri-La, ZOA find common ground
On Aug. 21, on the heels of a jury decision that found the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, along with one of its part-owners, had discriminated against a group of Jews during an incident in 2010, the Western Region of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) sent out a notice that it was planning a protest in front of the Hotel Shangri-La on Aug. 26, to “express outrage.”
Then, on Aug. 24, the ZOA announced that it had canceled the rally after coming to an agreement with the hotel and its owner.
In a statement released on Aug. 24, Hotel Shangri-La President, CEO and part-owner Tehmina Adaya condemned anti-Semitism and declared her support for Israel, even as she reaffirmed her intent to appeal the jury’s decision and maintained that she had never made any discriminatory comments to any of the plaintiffs who had brought the lawsuit.
In the case in question, Adaya and the hotel were found to have violated the civil rights of 18 Jewish and non-Jewish plaintiffs when members of the hotel’s staff, allegedly acting on Adaya’s instructions, disrupted a pool party that had been organized by a pro-Israel group.
At the conclusion of their deliberations, the jury in California Superior Court ordered the hotel and Adaya to pay the plaintiffs a combined $1.65 million in damages, statutory payments and punitive damages.
The hotel’s press release — which made no mention of the ZOA’s planned protest — also announced donations from Adaya of $3,600 each to two Israeli foundations, the Koby Mandell Foundation, which supports Israeli victims of terror, and the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization, which supports wounded Israeli soldiers.
The ZOA announced the cancellation of the protest in a separate release, circulated just moments after the hotel’s statement was sent out.
“The mere fear of a protest evoked these concessions,” Steve Goldberg, chairman of the ZOA’s Los Angeles region and its national vice chair, said in an interview. “We actually got something tangible, as opposed to a group of people walking in front of a hotel.”
“I care deeply about the hurt, anger and misunderstanding that has resulted and I want the Jewish and pro-Israel community to know I condemn anti-Semitism,” Adaya is quoted as saying in Friday’s statement. “I welcome diversity and never made disparaging comments to anyone who attended an event here.”
However, one point in the hotel’s statement — an invitation from Adaya to “leaders of the Jewish and pro-Israel community” to attend a private event sometime in the next 12 months to be coordinated with the ZOA and hosted by the Shangri-La — has provoked criticism from one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
Lou Sokolovskiy, who was awarded more than $115,000 by the jury, said in an interview that while he hadn’t intended to attend the canceled ZOA’s protest, he was “quite disappointed” that ZOA had agreed to host a pro-Israel event at the Shangri-La and had not demanded that Adaya apologize for her actions.
“That’s basically playing along with a public relations campaign that Ms. Adaya is trying to build and becoming a puppet in her hand,” Sokolovskiy said.
ZOA’s Goldberg countered that the “vast majority of feedback” his group had received about the agreement with the hotel had been positive, and he called Sokolovskiy “one of fewer than a handful of malcontents.”
“We’re not giving her [Adaya] any cover,” Goldberg said. “We’re simply taking her money and giving it to pro-Israel charities.”
James Turken, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in their successful lawsuit, declined to comment specifically on the hotel’s agreement with ZOA, but called the hotel’s statement “clearly an effort at damage control” and “spin control.”
As an example, Turken pointed to the statement’s interpretation of the jury’s verdict. “While the jury found that the hotel did not have proper business protocols in place,” the statement read, “they did not claim or believe she made discriminatory comments to any of the plaintiffs.”
Yet the jury unanimously decided in the cases of each of the 18 plaintiffs that the hotel and Adaya had violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act, and further found that in most cases, the hotel and its owner had acted maliciously.
The verdict made no comment about the hotel’s business protocols, Turken said, and he called the hotel’s portrayal, “100 percent false.”
“There’s no way to spin the verdict as anything other than what it was,” Turken said. “All that one needs to do is look at the court record. This isn’t something you can hide.”
Asked how the hotel had come to that interpretation of the verdict, Miles Lozano, the hotel’s director of PR/Marketing, wrote in an e-mail, “None of the plaintiffs claimed to have heard any discriminatory comments, it was based on hearsay from a former disgruntled employee who did not show up in court to testify.”
Sworn testimony from a deposition of that former employee, Nathan Codrey, was read into the court record for the jury during the trial. In addition, a number of plaintiffs who testified during the trial said under oath that while they had not heard Adaya make discriminatory comments, Codrey had reported to them on the day of the event in 2010 that Adaya had instructed him to “Get the [expletive] Jews out of the hotel.” At the time, Codrey was serving as the hotel’s assistant food and beverage manager. He was terminated from his position shortly after the event.
The complete text of both statements is below.
The Hotel Shangri-La’s: