Mohamed Arafi is suing his employer for barring him from servicing an Israeli delegation staying at a Washington, D.C. hotel
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 the1964 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.