Photo by Charles Davis
"People are saying some pretty nasty stuff about you on the internet," I said. It was about as nasty as one could get, actually, with the employees of Liwan Restaurant & Hookah Lounge in Los Angeles accused of everything from anti-Semitism to molestation. One person on Yelp even claimed that they didn't have Wi-Fi, which I knew wasn't true, because I was using the Wi-Fi to display the review.
I had come to investigate these claims after noticing that dozens of reviews of the lounge had been posted on Yelp alleging that the lounge was run by racists who refuse to serve Jews, which would both be outrageous and confounding as it's located in the heart of "Little Tehran," home to a large community of Persian Jews. But the claim soon found its way to Reddit, as bogus claims often do, attracting 61 comments from users shocked that such bigotry could be openly displayed at a business in the year 2014.
"I went to a Liwan Hookah Lounge in Westwood with a few of my friends," wrote the user "cantbelievethis1234" in his first and only post on the site. "They were wearing Jewish stars (Star of David) necklaces and we were asked to leave and told that they don't serve Jews."
Helpfully, the user linked back to the Yelp reviews, where one discovers that a similar story was first posted by "George H." of Beverly Hills. “Never coming here again,” he wrote on Yelp on August 10. “I came with a few friends, they were wearing necklaces of the Star of David (Jewish necklaces) and we were asked to leave,” he claimed. “We were specifically told to leave because we are Jewish. We were told that.”
I contacted both the Reddit user and the poster on Yelp. The guy on Reddit never got back to me. George, on the other hand—or "George," who may have recently joined Reddit—responded by saying that he did not want to reveal his identity to me. I then asked if he could at least offer some more details about the vile act of bigotry he alleged took place and that he definitely didn't just make up: "When did the incident occur? How big was your party?" He wrote back: "Hi, I would rather not answer those 2 questions."
Meanwhile, the negative reviews kept coming. George's post on Yelp was followed by at least 75 consecutive one-star reviews claiming the same thing (some have since been removed).
“One star is too much for this place,” wrote Nina N. “This 'lounge' KICKED OUT my party because we were JEWISH. Maybe they should go back to Saudi Arabia/Gaza/Wherever they are from and serve only Arabs.”
“THEY WILL NOT SERVE YOU IF YOU ARE JEWISH!!!” wrote Richard H.
Photo via Yelp
Staff at the lounge shook their heads when I showed them what was being said online.
“That just sounds nuts to me, to be honest,” said Mahmoud, who told me he'd been working at the lounge as a busboy for six months now. There are lots of Jewish customers, he said—Los Angeles is home to some 660,000 Jews, which is more than all but four other cities in the world, three of them in Israel—and he was pretty sure the two Iranian guys he worked with were Jewish too. It just wouldn't make any sense to open a place in the heart of Jewish culture in LA only to refuse service to Jews.
"We have many, many Jewish customers," my server told me. And at least before this week, the hookah lounge had a fairly good reputation with them. It's a dark place that lends itself to hanging out; it's clean, if not sterile; and it smells like flavored tobacco. The mango juice I ordered was fine, but obviously was the same stuff you can buy in a can for a dollar. It is, in short, a hookah lounge, and it was rated accordingly. The only hint of evil that I got was what they charged for my mango juice.
But that George really started something. With the negative reviews coming at a feverish pace, the lounge's Yelp rating dropped from 3.5 stars down to 2 in a span of 48 hours. In two days, the lounge received more than two-thirds of all its reviews, all of them brutal.
“They are Jew haters,” wrote Tiffany N.
“I wish I could give this place ZERO stars,” wrote Vered B. “If you're Jewish, you won't be allowed in. Are we living in 1930s Nazi Germany?”
“Horrible place,” wrote Fabian B. They “only allow Muslim. If you are Jewish they won't allow you in.”
“Refuse to serve Jews,” wrote Liora K. “I thought we lived in AMERICA.”
“They refuse to serve Jews,” wrote Nate S., his only review.
“They kicked out people on the table next to me for being Jewish!” wrote Yoav E. “Is this America or Germany in the 1930s?”
A few strayed from script. “They do not have WiFi and when you ask for refills they scream at you,” wrote one user. “One of the guys that worked [there] tried touching me inappropriately,” the person added, and another time “I saw one of the workers touch their [crotch] and then touch my food. I was disgusted and I threw up.”
One user was kind enough to provide a suggestion—and, arguably, a clue. “Now that you're completely bummed that this place you heard about or wanted to go to SUCKS, I'll recommend a few fantastic hookah lounges and cafes you can better enjoy, all within close reach...” No, not on VICE you won't.
I basically like Yelp, which I write knowing that it could very well hurt my brand. When a place has lots of good reviews, it tends to be pretty good. When a place has lots of bad reviews, it tends to be bad. A year ago, however, I was stricken by sentimentality and thought to myself: Wouldn't it be nice to put away this phone, actually look at the world around me, breath in the fresh urban air, and just walk down this strip of restaurants and choose the one that feels right, like old times?
Romanticizing the past led to me to a pizza joint that smelled like moldy carpet on the inside and served pizza that didn't taste all that different. I checked Yelp later and learned that literally everyone said the same thing: this place... it isn't good. So I use Yelp, and I generally avoid bad pizza as a result, at least as much as one can in Los Angeles.
But while Yelp has to an extent democratized restaurant reviews, allowing us to choose our dining options based on the palate of not just one pretentious foodie at a newspaper, but the fussy tastes of thousands of pretentious foodies, it is not without fault. It can be gamed. In this case, it clearly has been.
Mahmoud, the busboy at Liwan, suggested that whoever is posting all these reviews is trying to play off perceived tension in the community concerning Israel's attack on Gaza, which seems like a good suggestion. Since the assault begin in July, hundreds of people have gathered every weekend a few blocks away at the Federal Building in Westwood to protest US military support for Israel. Someone, it appears, is seeking to exploit—or perhaps stoke—fear that those protesting Israeli actions cannot distinguish between a nation-state and the Jewish people (which, news flash to the genuine anti-Semites out there: All people who have lots of power and weapons tend to behave badly, regardless of ethnic or religious background). Indeed, the person who posted to Reddit implied as much: “I understand there is a war in Israel,” the user wrote, “but I can't believe this is happening in the US.”
Here's the good news: It's not happening in the US. Jews are deeply ingrained in American culture and the bigot dumb enough to deny service to people for being Jewish because they're mad about Israel would rightfully be run out of town—and it wouldn't take a hundred fake Yelp reviews to do it. It is the hookah lounge which is the victim of bigotry, its Syrian owner smeared as an anti-Semite for no apparent reason other than the fact that he is suspiciously Syrian—and such a smear just might work among those inclined to believe all Arabs probably hate Jews, which is a belief based in bigotry.
What can the much maligned people of Liwan do to clear their name, though? Reddit will be Reddit, with users there enjoying the freedom to be anonymously slanderous, but Yelp has clear guidelines: contributions “should be unbiased and objective,” which means they shouldn't be written by a business' “peers or competitors in the industry.”
Kayleigh Winslow, a company spokesperson, told me that users can flag reviews they believe violate those guidelines and that businesses owners can also "respond publicly to each review" and give "their side of any dispute." That seems inadequate. Yelp shouldn't require its users—or the victims of a bigoted smear campaign—to do the work Yelp should be doing itself. The reviews are fake, rooted in bigotry, and ought to be removed. By Yelp. Right now. In the meantime: If you happen to find yourself in Los Angeles, go to Liwan Restaurant & Lounge. Say Charles sent you. And if you enjoy yourself, maybe go to your favorite website and tell people that.
Follow Charles Davis on Twitter.