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Jewish Journal

Sultan’s new Sharia laws prompt Jewish groups to shun Beverly Hills Hotel

by Jared Sichel

May 8, 2014 | 4:31 pm

<em>Jay Leno attends a rally protesting against Brunei's new strict Sharia law penal code outside the Beverly Hills Hotel on May 5. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters</em>

Jay Leno attends a rally protesting against Brunei's new strict Sharia law penal code outside the Beverly Hills Hotel on May 5. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Some of Southern California’s largest Jewish organizations plan to stay away from the Beverly Hills Hotel, suspending future events at the landmark venue owned by the state-run Brunei Investment Agency.

Their boycott was spurred by recent Sharia additions to the tiny Muslim country’s penal code, including the threat of execution of homosexuals, adulterers and anyone who insults the Quran or Muhammad.

The pink stucco luxury hotel is owned by the Dorchester Collection, a luxury hotel operator that belongs to Brunei’s government, and is therefore an asset of Hassanai Bolkiah, the sultan and absolute ruler of the tiny, oil-rich, South Asian country. Dorchester also owns the Hotel Bel-Air, a smaller luxury hotel in nearby Bel-Air.

At the same time, one Jewish organization, the Beverly Hills Jewish Community, announced that it will continue its relationship with the hotel. The Orthodox synagogue has held Shabbat and holiday services in the hotel for the past 15 years.

A popular location for high-end dinners, fundraisers and galas, the Sunset Boulevard hotel last week faced protests and announcements that it will be shunned by many local nonprofits and associations as well as celebrities.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los 

Angeles, told the Journal on May 7 that the Federation will not plan any events there.

“The values of the owner of that hotel and the country in which he has power goes against everything we believe in as Jews and as Americans,” Sanderson said, adding, though, that he is not calling for a general boycott. “It’s one of these situations where, right now, given the public stand, I think it would be very difficult for any community organization to do an event there.”

Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist Pacific Palisades synagogue, has relocated a large May 20 event that would have been at the Beverly Hills Hotel to the Beverly Wilshire. Mike Lurey, Kehillat Israel’s president, wrote in an email to the congregation that the event had to be moved “if we are to be true to the values upon which our synagogue was founded,” even at the risk of losing the synagogue’s nearly $100,000 deposit. 


Protesters outside of the Beverly Hills Hotel on May 5. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

“That is a small price to pay for the importance of taking a firm stand against such atrocities,” Lurey wrote.

Aviva Family and Children’s Services already has announced that it also will change  the venue of its May 31 gala from the Beverly Hills Hotel to the Beverly Wilshire, posting on its website that it made the decision “in light of recent reports concerning the decision to adopt Sharia Law by the property’s owner.” 

The Jewish Free Loan Association announced that its June 11 gala will move from the Beverly Hills Hotel to the Luxe Hotel, just a few miles west on Sunset Boulevard.

Dorchester CEO Christopher Cowdray said in a statement that widespread event cancellations would hurt the Beverly Hills Hotel’s 650 employees, saying that the hotel has already lost $2 million in canceled events and alleging its employees could lose about $8 million in gratuities from functions held at the hotel.

“We question why the Beverly Hills Hotel is being singled out,” Cowdray’s statement said, pointing out that many Muslim governments that impose Sharia have interests in American brands.

Although the sultan announced the new legislation in October 2013, its first stage was implemented on May 1, introducing fines and jail terms for offenses such as pregnancy outside marriage and failure to attend Friday prayers. The second phase, which will be rolled out in one year, will impose whipping and amputations for theft and alcohol consumption by Brunei’s Muslim citizens.

By 2016, Brunei’s citizens could be subject to execution for adultery and for insulting the Quran or Muhammad. Although 80 percent of Brunei’s 400,000 citizens are Muslim, many of the sultan’s decrees will also apply to the country’s substantial Christian and Buddhist minorities, in particular a prohibition against proselytization.

In the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, strict Islamic law also governs many elements of society, but Brunei is the only South Asian country to have adopted the criminal element of Sharia.


Beverly Hills Hotel employees during a public hearing where the Beverly Hills City Council voted on a resolution to pressure the government of Brunei to divest the hotel in Beverly Hills on May 6. Photo by David McNew/Reuters

Bolkiah, 67, has been Brunei’s absolute ruler since 1967. Head of an oil-rich country that is also the world’s fourth-largest exporter of natural gas, he was named by Forbes in 2007 the world’s wealthiest royal, worth $22 billion. He is, all at once, Brunei’s prime minister, defense minister, finance minister and head of religion.

A British protectorate until 1984, Brunei joins a long list of Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, that impose brutal punishments such as amputations for theft and execution for adultery and homosexuality. 

Brunei’s embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to the Journal’s requests for comment.

Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno was among recent protesters in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and his presence helped the issue go viral. Hollywood stars Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Osbourne had previously announced on Twitter that they would not stay at either of the sultan’s local properties until his new laws are repealed. Then, last weekend, the Feminist Majority Foundation canceled its planned May 5 annual event at the hotel, instead leading a protest across the street, holding the event later that evening at the Hammer Museum.

Leno’s wife, Mavis, chairs that foundation’s campaign for Afghan women, who have suffered for years at the hands of the Taliban. Appearing alongside protesters on May 12, Jay Leno said, according to the Los Angeles Times, “We get so upset when a team owner says something inappropriate,” referring to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. “Here are people being killed, stoned to death … it’s just a matter of priorities.”


Activist Dolores Huerta, left, protesting Brunei's new strict Sharia law penal code outside the Beverly Hills Hotel on May 5. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Feminist Majority Foundation Executive Vice President Katherine Spillar told the Journal in an interview on May 8 that she does not support a general boycott of the hotel, and said the sultan’s Los Angeles properties are just the current target in the group’s broader fight against anti-female laws in nations such as Brunei, Afghanistan and Iran. She termed the new laws in Brunei as “Taliban-like,” rather than as Sharia.

“We don’t have an issue with the hotel,” Spillar said. “We have an issue with the Sultan of Brunei.” Although the Feminist Majority Foundation won’t be holding any events at the hotel in the foreseeable future, Spillar expressed her gratitude to the hotel for refunding the group’s $70,000 non-refundable deposit for the event.

Jewish groups that have canceled their events told the Journal they are still in discussion with Beverly Hills Hotel about refunds.

Unite Here Local 11, a hospitality workers union that has butted heads for years with the formerly unionized Beverly Hills Hotel, also participated in the picketing. Shortly after its purchase by the sultan in the late 1980s, the hotel closed down and renovated, reopening in 1995, with a non-unionized staff.

Charlie Carnow, a research analyst with the union, said that, in addition to raising awareness about laws forbidding homosexuality and condoning marital rape, Local 11 has previously raised red flags surrounding the sultan’s relationship with Iran, his refusal to recognize Israel and his support of Iran’s nuclear program.

“We are calling for a boycott of both properties,” Carnow said of the Dorchester Collection’s two local hotels. “The best way forward is for these hotels to be sold so they can be returned to be properties that people feel comfortable going to.”


The Beverly Hills Hotel is owned by the Sultan of Brunei. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

On May 6, the Beverly Hills City Council passed a legally non-binding resolution urging Brunei’s government to “divest itself of the Beverly Hills Hotel and any other properties it may own in Beverly Hills.” Hotel staff attended the meeting in uniform and opposed the council’s resolution, highlighting how a boycott of the hotel could hurt their livelihoods.

One local Jewish organization, the Beverly Hills Jewish Community, a congregation led by Rabbi Yossi Cunin, a Chabad rabbi, plans to continue its weekly Shabbat services inside the hotel, which they have held there for more than a decade.

“Never will you feel uncomfortable in that hotel as a practicing Jew,” Cunin said. “They do a terrific job for travelers all over the world who come to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel who are shomer Shabbos

“We have had our shul there for more than 10 years,” Cunin continued, “and have had nothing but respect and cooperation from the hotel.”

Federation’s Sanderson also conceded that the situation is not simple when considering the local impact.

“It’s not so black-and-white when you have our neighbors who work in the hotel,” Sanderson said. “It’s a business in Beverly Hills, and it employs people. It’s a very complicated problem.”

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