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Lawsuit fights hotel’s decision to bar Muslim employee from serving Israeli officials (UPDATED)

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Mohamed Arafi is suing his employer for barring him from servicing an Israeli delegation staying at a Washington, D.C. hotel

Scroll down to see Max Blumenthal’s thoughts on the case.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in town to address the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, and Mohamed Arafi, a Moroccan-born U.S. citizen, was ready to work. An entire Israeli delegation, including Barak, was staying at Washington, D.C.’s high-end Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where Arafi has been a valet dry cleaner since late 2009. But when he showed up to work on December 10, 2010, he was told that he was barred from working the two floors where the Israelis were staying. The reason given, according to Arafi, was because he is Muslim, and the Israeli delegation did not want to be served by Muslims.

Now, Arafi and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) are fighting back in the form of legal action alleging employment discrimination by the hotel against Arafi. The recently filed case is currently in district court in Washington, D.C, and comes on the heels of an inconclusive Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling on the case.

The hotel is not backing down, and responded in a Nov. 28 filing (pdf) that they were following a national security directive from the State Department that barred Arafi and 11 other employees from serving the Israeli delegation.

Arafi says that the hotel has also punished him for speaking out by cutting his workweek from five days to two days, and that his work colleagues said demeaning things about Muslims to him after the incident became known to them.

“What they want me to do is just quit,” Arafi said in a phone interview. “I don’t want to run away…I want to stay there until I have my rights.” The company has denied Arafi’s charges.

The case could also be seen as a stark illustration of the consequences of Israeli-style “war on terror” attitudes towards Muslims.

The lawsuit describes what happened (pdf), according to Arafi, when the Israeli delegation came to the hotel:

Ms. Escander, [Arafi’s supervisor], stated to Boris [another employee], “Boris, Israel is here. You go up and get the dry cleaning for Mohamed.” Mr. Arafi was confused and asked for an explanation. Ms. Escander stated to Plaintiff, “You know the Israeli delegation is here. You cannot go on the 8th and 9th floor (to pick up or deliver laundry).” Plaintiff asked for further explanation. Ms. Escander stated, “You know how the Israelis are with Arabs and Muslims. It’s better if you just let Boris go.”

The lawsuit alleges that the hotel first claimed to be complying with an Israeli government request not to have Muslims serve them. Arafi said that after he went to the Washington Post with his story, the hotel’s reasoning changed to saying they had no choice in the matter because of the State Department directive. The hotel says the directive came as a result of the department finding “irregularities” in Arafi’s and the other employees’ background checks.

A Mandarin Hotel spokesman repeated that reasoning in a phone interview, and said the lawsuit was “all sizzle and no steak.” The State Department press office did not respond to two phone calls requesting comment.

But Nadhira Al-Khalili, the CAIR attorney working on Arafi’s case, says that neither of the reasons the hotel has given excuse their actions.

“Even if [the State Department] did [issue a national security directive], we say that it was unlawful and the hotel cannot use this national security exemption to discriminate against Mr. Arafi,” said Al-Khalili. She noted that “this is an untested area of the law” and that a ruling could set a precedent.

The specific law the Mandarin Oriental Hotel says the State Department used is a provision in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The law prohibits employment discrimination but also states that a national security interest provides an exemption to the law’s requirements. But Arafi and Al-Khalili say that it makes little sense that Arafi would have “irregularities” in his background check or be considered a security threat. Arafi has routine access to government officials and he says that he personally serviced former President George W. Bush just days before the Israeli delegation came through.

The case “really does have the appearance of racial discrimination of the rawest kind,” Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a national security expert, told CNN. “But the hotel is able to use the State Department to say, any complaint you have, you should take up with the State Department.”

Regardless of whether it was a State Department directive or an Israeli request that the hotel complied with, important questions need to be asked about the case. Is the State Department ordering private businesses to discriminate because of Israeli attitudes? Or is a private employer being cowed by an Israeli government demand?

If nothing else, the case illustrates how pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment is in some workplaces in the U.S.

“Since I’ve worked at CAIR, employment discrimination has been the number 2, and sometimes number 1, complaint,” said Al-Khalili. “It’s disturbing that one additional aspect of the law is being used to discriminate against Muslims. We’re going to try and challenge it and try to say it does not apply in this particular case.”

Al-Khalili has a lawsuit filing due in the coming weeks, and vowed to appeal even if Arafi’s case is ruled against. The entire process, she acknowledged, could take years.

Update: I asked Max Blumenthal, the author of an important piece on the “Israelification” of U.S. law enforcement, to weigh in on this case:

It shows how American institutions and law enforcement take such a deferential attitude to Israel and Israeli officials that they are willing to violate basic American standards of behavior and the rule of law, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, gender or religion. And it is more evidence of the price Americans pay for treating Israel as a normal, democratic country.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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19 Responses

  1. Potsherd2 on December 9, 2011, 8:53 am

    When the Saudis come to town and don’t want to be served by Jews, what happens?

    • on December 9, 2011, 9:53 am

      Saudis?? What about an Iranian delegation???
      Iranian delagation not wanting to be served by Jews, for security reasons? Wow. THAT could be an additional pretext to start the war on Iran.
      Apart from non-existing nuclear weapons , who are ,however,probably, kept by a Genie in a Bottle, and if Iranian’s leader decides to get them, he will have to rub the Bottle, free the Genie, who in turn is going to grant his wish.

    • Charon on December 9, 2011, 3:33 pm

      You wouldn’t hear about it. The Saudis discriminate heavily against Jews and Christians and even when the MSM brings it up, it gets buried. Because of the oil. Israel is more of a parasitic leech than valued trade partner. I don’t think it’s right in either case.

      Do the Saudis really have such a ‘requirement?’ Because despite their border policy pertaining to Jews, that doesn’t seem to stop them from doing business with companies run by Jews. That and the house of Saud has a crypto-Jewish family tree and origin story.

    • Taxi on December 10, 2011, 12:49 am

      When the saudis come to town, they bring with them their own halal kitchen and muslim service entourage.

      When madonna comes to town, she brings her own macrobiotic chef and kabala service entourage.

      When I come to town, no one knows about it and I DO bring my own lunchbox heheheheh.

      • annie on December 10, 2011, 2:18 am

        and I DO bring my own lunchbox heheheheh.

        i’ll just bet you do..


  2. Dan Crowther on December 9, 2011, 9:12 am

    That hotel is gonna get hammered… the Israeli’s. Unless they have written documentation of the “israeli government request” – that guys supervisor and the hotel are in deep. The Israeli’s will say, “there were “irregularities” that the US state department found…not us; it had nothing to do with race or religion, this was a security matter handled at the state department – this is just another attack on Israel and it’s government…”

    And Im sure the “liberal zionists” will say, “israeli’s are viewed as the oppressor of all muslims, they were just trying to be sensitive, by not wanting to be served by muslims – an unfortunate circumstance, but one that we can learn from” right hasbara-ists?

    you know its coming… great report alex…

  3. Chu on December 9, 2011, 9:32 am

    Funny how the ‘delegation’ doesn’t want to see the Muslims,
    but they can starch their shirts on the lower floors. I mean, that’s not racist.
    It’s all part of the special relationship and being the chosen people,
    and eventually the USA will begin to understand how special they are.

    But, the Israel delegation could always say: ‘you don’t want
    to serve us anyway.We’re complete a**holes.”, and the plaintiff could not deny this.

  4. seafoid on December 9, 2011, 9:34 am

    Israel is going right back to the 1930s

    Arab town’s ‘noisy’ prayers annoy Jewish neighbors
    Rosh Ha’ayin mayor, residents want government to turn muezzins’ volume down.
    By Gili Cohen and Jonathan Lis

    Rosh Ha’ayin’s mayor and his constituents are taking a stand against Muslim muezzin prayer calls emanating from nearby Kafr Qasem, objecting that the sounds are a disturbance that harms their quality of life. Rosh Ha’ayin Mayor Moshe Sinai has turned to the government, demanding that the Environmental Protection Ministry’s director of central region affairs, Gideon Mazor, take action to enforce noise pollution laws.
    This appeal stems from a number of complaints lodged by town residents in past years, particularly from Rosh Ha’ayin’s northern neighborhood. “Our neighborhood are located on a hill; and this location means that residents hear muezzin calls very strongly,” said one Rosh Ha’ayin resident.
    Another resident, Shalom Darav, says that a solution must be found whereby “we are not disturbed, and they continue with their rituals. The situation is insufferable, and my neighbors agree with this description. I am prepared to fight for their right to worship, but it doesn’t have to be like this.”
    Over the past year, most of the mosques in the area agreed to hook onto one broadcast system which regulates the intensity of the muezzin calls. At first, this shared audio system appeared to solve the problem, but Rosh Ha’ayin residents continued to complain and the town’s authorities appealed to the government.
    In a letter sent a month ago by Mazor to counterparts in the Interior Ministry, he alluded to “negative influences with regard to neighborly relations between residents from these two locales.”
    For their part, Kafr Qasem residents complain about intolerable infringement of their worship. “We are doing everything, in terms of acoustics,” explains Kafr Qasem Mayor Nader Sarsur. “We lessened the tone and decibels, but we can’t do anything beyond that because this is part of Islamic religion. What’s happening here is straightforward racism. We will make sure the muezzin is heard tomorrow and the next day. Anyone who wants to live next to us is welcome.”
    Rosh Ha’ayin’s mayor rejects Sarsur’s contentions. “This is neither a national, religious nor historical problem,” Sinai claims. “It’s an issue about noise and residents.”
    He explains that if local councils in Israel have to refrain from various activities owing to ordinances regarding “noise pollution,” mosques need to adhere to these rules with regard to muezzin calls. “You can pass bills about noise, and then not enforce them,” Sinai says. “Government ministries are supposed to enforce the law.”
    Environmental Protection Ministry officials relay in response that “questions relating to mosques are the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry’s branch for religions and ethnic groups.”
    They added that the environmental protection and interior ministries worked together to hook up local mosques to one central sound system. With regard to enforcement of the law, the officials state: “Regrettably, the police will not accompany inspectors from our ministry in proactive activities against mosques that break the law.”
    Meanwhile, the issue has reached the desks of cabinet ministers. On Sunday, the ministerial legislation committee will discuss a controversial proposal formulated by Yisrael Beiteinu MK Anastassia Michaeli, which would ban the use of public sound systems by mosques. “Freedom of religion does not need to cause harm to the quality of life,” the bill’s preamble declares. Among others, Likud MKs Miri Regev and Tzipi Hotovely have signed the proposed bill.
    • Published 01:40 09.12.11
    • Latest update 01:40 09.12.11
    Kashrut inspectors: Jerusalem burger joint workers must don kippot
    On-site inspectors tell managers of restaurants under their supervision that only observant, kippa-wearing Jews are permitted to place food on the grill.
    By Nir Hasson Tags: Jewish World Orthodox Jews Jerusalem

    In some kosher Jerusalem restaurants, even male employees who are not observant Jews must wear a kippa. In some cases restaurant managers cite a desire to show respect for their customers, while in others the request or directive apparently comes from the on-site kashrut inspector, or mashgiah.
    Ran Bassa, a lawyer who works in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul industrial zone, says he noticed a few months ago that workers at the Bar Burger hamburger joint near his office were all wearing kippot. “That made me suspicious, because all the kippot were identical and placed at an unnatural manner, as if temporary. I asked and the cashier admitted they all had to wear them because of kashrut,” Bassa said. “It’s very annoying, I see it as an insult. I have no problem with the kashrut certification, but I don’t understand; is the food more pure if it’s prepared by someone with a kippa? The place serves the entire population, and when you force a religious facade on such a place it’s infuriating,” Bassa said.
    Burger Bar’s kashrut certification, or hekhsher, is from Rabbi Avraham Rubin of Rehovot. Although this hekhsher is known to be strict and acceptable to large portions of the ultra-Orthodox community, in recent years Rubin has faced accusations of laxness from rivals, mainly from the Eda Haredit organization.
    Rubin’s on-site kashrut inspectors tell the managers of restaurants under their supervision that only observant, kippa-wearing Jews are permitted to place food on the grill. In the case of Burger Bar, where the grill is in sight of the customers and all employees work the grill, everyone is asked to wear a kippa.
    According to Rabbi Yitzchak Weinberg, one of the heads of Rubin’s certification agency, the agency does not get involved with employee apparel issues, which is left up to the owner “who wants to respect his religious and Haredi customers.” Weinberg adds, however, that anyone who places food over a flame must at least observe the Jewish Sabbath. “It’s not a question of clothing, it’s Jewish law,” Weinberg says. “Not the servers, though.”
    The on-site inspector, however, speaking to Haaretz on condition of anonymity, said that anyone working at the restaurant has to wear a kippa; “it’s important for the public,” he said.

  5. seafoid on December 9, 2011, 9:38 am

    I can’t imagine anyone in Europe refusing to serve or be served by a Jewish person because of their Jewishness.

    And this is brutal

    “Arafi says that the hotel has also punished him for speaking out by cutting his workweek from five days to two days, and that his work colleagues said demeaning things about Muslims to him after the incident became known to them.”

  6. clenchner on December 9, 2011, 9:52 am

    Most liberal Jews will denounce this sort of thing and wonder if those workers are represented by a union. Shit would have gone down very differently if HERE was around.
    As if Israeli VIP’s are not routinely receiving services from Arabs and Muslims in Israel. Ridiculous.

  7. Scott on December 9, 2011, 9:59 am

    They should hire some evangelical Christians, who would serve Israelis for free.

  8. Tristan on December 9, 2011, 10:23 am

    Great reporting, Alex. This is truly vile. It brings to mind so many parallels, like the one Potsherd made above about the Saudis. Or, if the employee was black, would the hotel be so smug and glib as to say the lawsuit was, “all sizzle and no steak”? That’s what really infuriates me. In this hyper-sensitive country of ours, Muslims are the last frontier of acceptable bigotry. And why? Because some mass murdering war criminal doesn’t want to see a dark-skinned man? Maybe he needs to go back to Israel and cower behind his ten foot concrete walls. This is supposed to be our country.

  9. American on December 9, 2011, 11:03 am

    So this is America now?

    Section 703(g) provides that:

    Notwithstanding any other provisions of this title, it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire and employ any individual for any position, for an employer to discharge any individual from any position, or for an employment agency to fail or refuse to refer any individual for employment in any position, if–

    (1) the occupancy of such position, or access to the premises in or upon which any part of the duties of such position is performed or is to be performed…….
    ((is subject to any requirement imposed in the interest of the national security””….
    of the United States under any security program in effect pursuant to or administered under any statute of the United States or any Executive Order of the President; and

    So by this part: …..has there been a requirement established since 703 was written that deals with specifically with the protection of visiting Israelis being in the US National Security Interest. I would bet that someone at the State Dept consulted in advance with the Hotel and when finding a Muslim employee told the hotel management not to let him be near the Israelis.

    “is subject to any requirement imposed in the interest of the national security of the United States under any security program in effect pursuant to or administered”

    Mabe Hostage can go into this further for us.

  10. ehrens on December 9, 2011, 11:51 am

    The hotel’s case states that several people were denied access to the floors of the hotel where they worked because of security “irregularities.” I wonder what those irregularities were and what nationality all the “irregular” people were.

  11. annie on December 9, 2011, 11:57 am

    “The entire process, she acknowledged, could take years.”

    yep, they’ll drag it slowly thru the courts. i’m a little surprised they have not offered him a generous settlement. he’ll win this. i can’t imagine how he wouldn’t. i’m reminded of the irvine 11 case which was a completely different circumstance but it was an instant where american law was turned upside down for an israeli official. they are not about the laws here and this was outright discrimination.

  12. MarkF on December 9, 2011, 12:06 pm

    “…he personally serviced former President George W. Bush just days before the Israeli delegation came through.”

    Well there it is. If he was a real security threat, precautions were taken for a foreign government above one of our former presidents. But we know he wasn’t a threat. It’s rump-covering time.

  13. dbroncos on December 9, 2011, 12:30 pm

    Another outrageous disgrace. An American citizen is asked to suspend his rights to accommodate high and mighty Israeli foreigners. One upside to this case is that the coverage will chip away at the public image of the corrupt to the core Israeli state in the minds of Americans who are tired of seeing AMERICAN CITIZENS shafted in deference to the militant, bigoted Israelis. I hope his case will be well covered.

  14. iRevolt on December 9, 2011, 6:37 pm

    This article makes my brain hurt; then again, the only reason I would “serve” an Israeli delegation would be if the service they’d require would involve me spitting on their faces and pelting them with shoes.

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