Notorious Anti-Muslim Lawyer Hired to Fight Cafe's Bias Charge

News & Politics

The notorious anti-Muslim activist lawyer David Yerushalmi, whose baseless conspiracy theories about a Shariah law takeover of the United States have fueled Islamophobic legislative campaigns across the country, is now defending a business accused of violating the civil rights of its Muslim customers.

The company is the southern California-based chain Urth Caffé, which markets itself as a natural and health conscious establishment but now has a  discrimination lawsuit on its hands after management at its Laguna Beach location evicted seven Muslim women, six of whom were wearing hijabs, in late April. While the business cited company policies limiting seating to 45 minutes, video footage shows that the restaurant had numerous empty seats at the time of the ouster. When the women objected to their removal, management called local police to force them from the premises.

“I am completely appalled by the racist and Islamophobic treatment some friends and I were subjected to by staff at Urth Caffé in Laguna Beach last night,” wrote Sara Farsakh on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the incident. “What began as a night out with some friends ended as a painful and embarrassing reminder of what it is like to be visibly Muslim—even in liberal California. By visibly Muslim, I mean women who wear the hijab, or headscarf.”

The café’s owners, Jilla and Shallom Berkman, have denied “any and all claims of racial or religious discrimination,” but their retention of Yerushalmi is already raising eyebrows. The owners of the Urth Caffé did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

“David Yerushalmi is behind many of the anti-Shariah laws proposed across the country in recent years,” Heather Weaver, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told AlterNet. “He is fairly well-known for promoting discrimination against Muslims. Everything Yerushalmi does should be interpreted against the backdrop of his long-term efforts to stoke discrimination against Muslims in this country.”

Weaver is not alone in holding this position. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups, describes Yerushalmi as an “anti-Muslim activist who is a leading proponent of the idea that the United States is threatened by the imposition of Muslim religious law, known as Shariah. His anti-Shariah model legislation has been adopted by several state legislatures, despite the lack of evidence of any threat to U.S. jurisprudence.”

When asked about SPLC’s designation of him as an anti-Muslim activist, Yerushalmi told AlterNet, “My response is, who is the Southern Poverty Law Center to define that? I have a well-published public record. I have been an attorney for 30 years. I have been published in peer-reviewed journals.”

That public record, however, is cause for further concern. In a 2006 article, Yerushalmi argued that white people are intellectually superior to people of color due to their genetic makeup. “But if standardized testing suggests a racial component to IQ, if the New York City and national murder statistics suggest there is a racial component to murder, why is that necessarily a bad racism?” he wrote. “With all of the liberal talk of evolution and biology, why do people find it so difficult to confront the facts that some races perform better in sports, some better in mathematical problem solving, some better in language, some better in Western societies and some better in tribal ones?”

In that same paper, he declared, “There is a reason the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote.”

Also in 2006, Yerushalmi co-founded the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) which, before its website closed to the public, openly called for the sweeping criminalization of Muslims, including the “immediate deportation” of all Muslims who are not U.S. citizens.

As far back as five years ago, New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott described Yerushalmi’s influence, writing: “Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.”

Yerushalmi’s firm, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC), is not shy about its intentions. The outfit declares itself to be “the Nation’s first truly authentic Judeo-Christian, public interest law firm” and says it aims to “advance our Nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage in courts all across our Nation.” AFLC was recently retained by an Oklahoma gun range that hung a sign declaring the establishment “Muslim-free” and, before that, by a Florida gun range accused of similar offenses.

According to his bio, Yerushalmi also serves as outside council to the Center for Security Policy, which produced the shoddy research behind Donald Trump’s infamous proposed ban on non-American Muslim from entering the United States.

Despite this troubling history, numerous media outlets uncritically circulated quotes from AFLC’s aggressively worded statement about the Laguna Beach incident, in which the firm called the lawsuit a “fraud and a hoax” and threatened to countersue the women who were forcibly booted from the café. One CBS local outlet even apparently bought into the AFLC's approach, and ran the headline, “Attorneys: Cafe Owner Targeted In ‘Hoax’ Discrimination Lawsuit By Hijab-Wearing Women Is Muslim”—a reference to Jilla Berkman’s religious background.

Yet, Berkman’s Muslim identity does not absolve her or her company for potential civil rights violations – nor for unleashing one of the most notorious anti-Muslim legal crusaders against women seeking restitution for alleged discrimination. Meanwhile, aggressive retaliatory action could have a chilling effect on efforts to seek justice for rising anti-Muslim hate crimes that extend far beyond this one establishment.

The legal battle could have broad implications. “We are in the midst of a wave of Islamophobia, and we have seen increased reports of harassment, discrimination, and violence against Muslims and Sikhs,” said Weaver. “I think Yerushalmi has had a hand in stoking the wave of discrimination we are seeing."

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