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July 30, 2012

In heated Hotel Shangri-La discrimination trial, first FIDF witness keeps his cool [UPDATED]

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/in_heated_hotel_shangri-la_discrimination_trial_first_fidf_witness_keeps_hi/

Photo

The Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Is the word “Jew” offensive? What about “f***ing Jew?”

That rather provocative question was posed on Friday by Philip Black, one of the attorneys defending the Muslim owner of the Hotel Shangri-La, a boutique hotel in Santa Monica. Black’s client, Tehmina Adaya, has been accused of discrimination by more than a dozen members of a local pro-Israel group, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Young Leadership Division in Los Angeles. The plaintiffs say Adaya discriminated against them when she allegedly shut down a pool party they were holding at the Shangri-La in July 2010.

The trial, which began with opening statements on July 26, may focus in large part on who knew and authorized the pool party in advance and the vagaries of how event promoters and venue owners relate to one another.

But because part of what underlies the accusations of discrimination against Adaya is that she allegedly told one of her employees on that Sunday in July two years ago that she did not “want any Jews in the pool” and that she “wanted those f***ing people gone,” the result of this trial could also hinge on whether or not the jury believes that anti-Semitism was the motivation for the hotel owner’s alleged actions vis-à-vis FIDF’s event that day.

Which is how it happened that defense attorney Black, during his cross-examination of witness and plaintiff Ari Ryan on Friday afternoon, tried to illustrate for the jury that calling someone a Jew doesn’t make one an anti-Semite.

“Sir,” said Black, who wore a yellow tie with a matching silk square in the pocket of his taupe suite, “you are a Jew.”

“Yes sir,” Ryan, one of the cofounders of the FIDF young leadership group, replied. “Born and raised.”

“And that, sir, in and of itself, is not offensive,” Black said.

“It can be,” Ryan said, adding that it depended on the context and tone in which the word “Jew” was said.

“But ‘Fucking Jew’ offends you.”

“Of course,” said Ryan.

What was Black trying to prove with his line of questioning? That even if his client did say the word, “Jews,” that her utterance might not have been anti-Semitic.

That’s just one of the “Big Jewish Questions” that this case has touched on so far. Black also queried Ryan as to whether the FIDF, which supports all members of the Israel Defense Forces, regardless of religion, could be considered a “Jewish” group. It’s unclear why the defense might want to pursue this kind of questioning, but it provided an interesting insight into the challenges that the FIDF as an organization faces.

Nicholas Morrison, another plaintiff who began his testimony near the end of the day on Friday, was one of the lead planners of the FIDF event. Morrison told the court that in his one meeting with the member of the hotel staff responsible for booking events on the property, the conversation covered topics well beyond towels and cabanas. “I told her that our organization provide[s] aid to Israeli soldiers,” Morrison said, “that we are not buying bullets, not buying flak jackets.”

The first witness called to take the stand on Friday—Joshua Glaser, the former head of food and beverage at the Shangri-La—told the jury that he had made the arrangements with the promoter who put together the event for the FIDF group. That promoter, Scott Paletz, is expected to take the stand on Monday.

But it was Ryan, who was described in a Los Angeles Times article about the trial as “a real estate entrepreneur who lives in Westwood,” whose testimony provided the clearest illustration of just how determined the plaintiffs are in their pursuit of this unusual—and highly charged—case they have brought against Adaya and the hotel of which she is a part owner.

Many of the plaintiffs have attended every day of the trial so far, including the three-and-a-half day process of selecting a jury. They sit clustered into a group of seats on the right side of the observers’ section of the courtroom.

And the outcome of the trial is far from certain – not least because the plaintiffs are a group of white, articulate and apparently well-off people in their 30s. Black’s cross examination of Ryan included a mention of the damages the plaintiffs are seeking – on friday, attorney Black submitted into evidence a document signed by Ryann saying that he was seeking $150,000 in past and future medical expenses, despite his not having undergone any formal physical or psychological treatment as a result of the incident at the Shangri-La.

Other plaintiffs may tell different stories when they take the stand – many are expected to testify at trial, as is Rabbi David Wolpe, who will be called by plaintiffs’ attorney James Turken to take the stand on Tuesday morning.

I talked to two observers who were present in the courtroom on Friday, neither of them linked to a side of the case. One told me she had doubts that the plaintiffs are suffering from emotional distress deserving of compensatory damages of more than $3 million.

The other, Eli, an Israeli-born Santa Monica resident who gave only his first name, said he was looking forward to when Adaya would take the stand, and wasn’t certain that the plaintiffs had been discriminated against at all. 

And indeed Ryan, in his testimony, seemed to suggest that he couldn’t quite believe he was being discriminated against.

“It was very surreal, it almost felt like I was in a movie,” said Ryan, who studied cinema as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California. “It took a while to set in because you just don t expect that to be happening.”

The trial resumes at the Los Angeles Superior Court in Santa Monica on Monday, July 30, at 9 am.

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