Xavier James Pabon is a 30-year-old Puerto Rican father who decided to join a protest against Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip after his boss showed him pictures of dead Palestinian children being pulled from rubble after an Israeli airstrike.
In May, he joined a caravan of cars that drove past the storefronts and restaurants lining North La Cienega Boulevard, waving Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Israel comments through a loudspeaker.
At a sidewalk table at one of those restaurants, Mher Hagopian, a Beirut-born wedding photographer, was chatting with some Jewish clients when a caravan of vehicles, including the one Pabon was in, idled at a long red light outside the restaurant.
What happened next is settled fact within an outraged, anxious Jewish community, both in L.A. and nationally: video shows Pabon and others leaping from their vehicles and charging the diners in what many saw as an unprovoked antisemitic attack, which is how Hagopian and the high-powered legal team surrounding him are describing it.
“They were targeting,” Hagopian told the Forward.
But Pabon’s lawyer, Mark Kleiman, has a very different, as-yet unheard read on the incident.
An Armenian named Mher defends Jewish diners from #antisemítico attack last night in LA. Story from @jdforward https://t.co/m1jtJXW0D3pic.twitter.com/o85KTWvxVH— rob eshman (@Foodaism) May 19, 2021
“He was cut by flying glass and in fact showed the cut to one of the detectives he spoke with,” Kleiman told the Forward. “There’s broken glass inside of the open Jeep Mr. Pabon was in.”
Pabon, Samer Senan Jayylusi and several other men jumped onto the east sidewalk of North La Cienega Boulevard in a chaotic confrontation with nearby diners, including Hagopian. It was May 18, and Israel and Hamas were still in the midst of heightened violence in Gaza.
Much depends on what exactly happened in those few minutes. Pabon and Jayylusi, who were arrested in the aftermath but quickly bailed out of jail, could face felony hate crime charges that carry substantial prison time. And Los Angeles Jews, shaken by what leaders have characterized as an unprovoked antisemitic attack, worry it’s is a sign of greater dangers to come.
A Forward investigation has found fundamentally conflicting accounts from the alleged victims and perpetrators in the high-profile brawl.
Both claim self defense, with Kleiman decrying any suggestion of antisemitism by Pabon and Jayylusi, while the men on the other side of the fight claim to be victims of an unprovoked, hate-motivated attack.
What the video doesn’t show
At a table outside the popular Sushi Fumi restaurant in the trendy Beverly Grove shopping and dining district, Hagopian and four friends sat dining and talking.
They’d waited an hour for the table, and it was worth their time. “We love that location. Everybody loves it,” Hagopian said.
Hagopian is an Arabic-speaking, Lebanese-Armenian Christian and wedding photographer. His friends are Jewish men whom he met through his business. He had photographed one’s wedding in Iceland two years ago, and had shot the other’s engagement a couple of months before.
That wedding was coming up in June in Cabo San Lucas, and the friends decided to discuss it over sushi, 36-year-old Hagopian said in an interview.
They’d been at the table for about an hour when they heard Pabon and Jayylusi’s caravan.
“I thought there was a wedding, with the microphone and the music,” Hagopian said.
He said he quickly realized it was something else when glass bottles were thrown from the caravan and shattered near his table. He remembers yelling at the men “to protest peacefully.” About 15 to 20 people were dining outside near Hagopian’s table when the men jumped from the caravan.
“They actually asked ‘Who’s Jewish?’ when they came down,” Hagopian said. “I was speaking Arabic, but they didn’t care because I was defending Jews.”
Bystanders captured some of the confrontation on their cellphones. But the videos don’t show the caravan stopped at a red light or the men exiting onto the sidewalk.
For Kleiman, Pabon’s lawyer, those early moments are crucial because they show who escalated a shouting match into a violent melee by throwing glass bottles into the caravan. He said police photographed the cut on Pabon’s leg the night of his arrest, and he believes they may have surveillance videos that show why Pabon and the other men left their vehicle.
“It was in response to stuff being thrown at them,” Kleiman said. “The thing is, people on the sidewalk had glassware, not plastic bottles.”
As of press time, police have not released their investigative reports.
But Hagopian’s lawyers, who are pushing for criminal charges against the suspects and considering possible lawsuits, say the men in the caravan threw glass at the diners. And for Hagopian, the very presence of the caravan and the posture of its occupants shows who initiated the confrontation.
“Why is somebody going to drive there from Riverside,” Hagopian asked. “I’m sure they know there’s a Jewish community there.”
Two months later, a case still ‘under review’
Police arrested Pabon outside his home in Banning, a city in Riverside County about 100 miles east of the restaurant, on May 21. He was booked into jail on assault with a deadly weapon and hate crime charges but released two days later after posting $275,000 bond. Jayylusi, 35, was arrested May 25 in Anaheim and posted $150,000 bond about 14 hours later.
Neither man has been formally charged with a crime. A Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokesman said last week the case “remains under review.”
David Fleck, a criminal defense attorney and former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, said the length of review is “unusual though not unheard of.”
“When there’s a spotlight on a case, they’re going to look at it much more closely and make sure they have all their ducks in a row before they make one side or the other angry,” said Fleck, who’s not involved in the case.
Fleck said prosecutors could be presenting the case to a grand jury for a charging decision, which he said is “a perfectly reasonable thing to do in a hot potato situation like this.” The D.A.’s office does not comment on grand jury investigations, and Kleiman said he does not know whether one is currently considering the case against his client.
“They absolutely could be doing it without us,” Kleiman said. “We would know about it only if any of the people we knew were getting grand jury subpoenas, which has not happened.”
Meanwhile, Hagopian has enlisted lawyer Michael Yadegaran, who has teamed with the Law Office of Arash Khorsandi and the prominent Century City law firm Glaser Weil, LLP, as well as the Sitrick And Company public relations team, to represent Hagopian in any civil litigation and to press the D.A. to file charges.
A GoFundMe campaign Yadegaran organized to defray Hagopian’s medical treatments raised $36,000 in 48 hours following the incident.
Like Yadegaran and his co-counsel, Kleiman, the lawyer representing the suspects Pabon and Jaylussi, is Jewish. He also has a history of defending people accused of antisemitism, including Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, a professor at San Francisco State University, who was sued by Jewish students in 2017 for alleged antisemitic activities.
In a news release after a judge dismissed the case, Abdulhadi said the lawsuit was an attempt “to silence people who challenge Israel’s colonial and racist policies” and “anyone who dissents from the status quo on Palestine/Israel.”
‘There is not an antisemitic bone in either of these guys’ bodies’
Kleiman expressed similar views about the case against Pabon and Jayylusi, saying he shares their views that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is unjust.
“I’ve been one of a number of lawyers who’ve not made any bones about what we think is going on and what we think needs to change,” Kleiman said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kleiman, 71, was born in Chicago and attended public schools there. He also attended a Hebrew school in nearby Skokie and remembers being called an antisemitic slur at a young age.
He moved to Los Angeles with his parents in 1963, and worked as an organizer for community health-care groups before earning a law degree from Southwestern Law School when he was 34. He built a practice suing companies on behalf of whistleblowers, and started occasionally advising the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace about 12 years ago.
He said he’s not a practicing Jew, explaining, “I would say I was a philosophical and moral Jew.”
Kleiman said he met Pabon through other men in the caravan who contacted him after the police seized their phones. He described the men as working class and removed from the typical college-educated crowd of protesters.
“These are generally people who would love to be able to go to college but are holding down a job or two, and not very fancy ones,” Kleiman said.
Kleiman said he’s representing Pabon pro bono, but he isn’t formally representing Jayylusi. He said Jayylusi has talked to attorneys, but he doesn’t know to whom. Kleiman said neither man is ready to speak publicly, but he said they eventually will try to combat accusations he said are unfair and do not fit the men he’s come to know over several in-person meetings and phone conversations.
“I am totally convinced that there is not an antisemitic bone in either of these guys’ bodies,” Kleiman said. “Frankly, the whole idea that this was an antisemitic attack is something that I’m having a very hard time understanding.”
Though eye witnesses told reporters the men in the caravan shouted “Where are the Jews?” and antisemitic slurs, Kleiman said he’s seen no videos that capture such comments, and no one has connected any comments to Pabon or Jayylusi personally.
“If somebody wants to come forward and say, ‘I heard this man say something’ let them come forward and say it,” Kleiman said. “They’ve been pilloried in the press. What has happened has been characterized as an antisemitic hate crime when nobody has an ounce of evidence.”
Videos posted on Twitter show a man in the caravan shouting through a megaphone, “Israel kills children and women every day. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Natalie Schneider, who witnessed the incident, told the Forward at the time that the attack “was worse than what the clip is showing. You can’t hear the profanity and antisemitic slurs they were using.”
Yadagaran, the lawyer representing Hagopian, said it’s clear what happened.
“These were individuals who were ostensibly supporting Palestinians,” Yadegaran said. “We believe that they were specifically looking for a group of Jews or just Jewish individuals in a very heavily populated Jewish area.”
Who threw glass first?
But Kleiman said the megaphone comments captured on video about Israel killing women and children “are factually accurate” and not antisemitic. He said diners at the restaurant escalated the situation by throwing glass objects at the caravan, as evidenced by Pabon’s cut and broken glass in the Jeep. The video records someone yelling, “Fuck you!”— it is unclear whether the curse is coming from the cars or the sidewalk. A lengthy red light, Kleiman said, led to a prolonged confrontation that prompted the men to exit their vehicles in self-defense.
Kleiman dismissed any suggestion that the caravan targeted a heavily Jewish area, saying pro-Palestinian demonstrators had driven through Los Angeles for the five or six nights before without incident.
“Throwing things at people on sidewalks or throwing things at people in moving vehicles is certainly stupid,” he said. “It may even be misdemeanor stupid, but that’s all it is. That it escalated from there I think is a reflection of the personalities involved and what was being thrown at people.”
Hagopian talked to police that night, while Pabon and Jayylussi left the area. Kleiman said they went home, and that some of the other men from the caravan went to the Habibi Cafe in Westwood for Middle Eastern food.
“It’s not like people were fleeing the jurisdiction,” Kleiman said.
But Yadegaran said the violence of the event will go down as a moment of reckoning for Jews in Los Angeles.
“As a member of the Jewish community here in L.A., we’re very proud to live here,” Yadegaran said. “We have felt safe here for a long time. But this incident, I think, was a flashpoint for our community.”
Not Palestinian, Puerto Rican
When police and federal agents arrested Pabon at gunpoint later that week outside his home in Banning, “he says they were floored to realize that he was not Palestinian,” Kleiman said. Pabon’s toddler son was in his car with him when police approached with their guns drawn, which Kleiman said continues to haunt Pabon.
“He was freaking terrified that someone was going to get nervous and his 3-year-old would be killed,” Kleiman said. “He really can’t believe that people are accusing him of being antisemitic, given the fact that there’s nothing in his history about this, and he has known and hung out with Jewish people before. It just doesn’t make any sense to him.”
Kleiman said Pabon is of Puerto Rican descent but has been in the continental United States “at the very least since infancy.” He became interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the lawyer said, because his boss at a small retail business is Palestinian and once showed Pabon videos of dead Palestinian children being pulled from rubble after Israeli bombings.
The experience “was really triggering for him,” Kleiman said, because Pabon had another son who died at a young age. “He has gotten involved in this even though he is not Palestinian.”
Kleiman said that Pabon and Jayylusi did not know each other well, meeting either during that day’s protest or over social media beforehand. He said Jayylusi works full time but did not know at what kind of job.
“A lot of the people who were in these caravans did not know each other before the Israelis started bombing Gaza in May,” Kleiman said.
Pabon has no criminal record in Los Angeles County. Jayylusi was arrested in December for domestic violence and child endangerment; that case is pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court. He also pleaded guilty in 2018 to misdemeanor false imprisonment and battery in Orange County.
Anti-Israel, or antisemitic?
As the brawl on La Cienega Boulevard unfolded, videos posted online show the photographer Hagopian swing a stanchion, the pole used to demarcate Sushi Fumi’s outdoor dining area, at the men as they approach the sidewalk diners from the caravan. One of the men grabs the stanchion then throws a punch, then he and several others push Hagopian down onto the curb near a parked SUV and punch and kick him.
Yadegaran said Hagopian was protecting a friend who was on the ground “and about to get kicked in the head.”
“Our client took attention away, then got ganged up on, cornered against a parked SUV, and they beat on him for about 15 to 20 seconds,” Yadegaran said. The friend sustained some injuries. “They weren’t as serious as the injuries that our client sustained, but they could have been very, very serious if our client hadn’t stepped in,” Yadegaran said.
But Kleiman questioned why the men whom Hagopian wielded the stanchion against are considered assault suspects.
But Hagopian’s legal and PR team see this as a fight against rising antisemitism. The same day of the incident, two motorists with Palestinian flags on their cars followed a Jewish man as he walked toward a synagogue, according to various media reports. Two days later, Los Angeles city and interfaith leaders denounced antisemitism in a press conference outside Los Angeles City Hall.
In announcing Yadegaran’s partnership with Glaser Weil and Sitrick And Company, Sitrick said the “powerhouse legal and PR team’s pro bono commitment underscores the urgent need to confront the increase in antisemitic hate crimes.”
“Doing nothing is not an option,” said firm founding partner Patricia Glaser, who is active in Jewish causes.
Glaser Weil partner Julie Gerchik said the firm is working the case at no charge “to seek justice for our client who stood up against antisemitism even though he is not Jewish.”
“We intend to send a message: The Jewish community will not be intimidated – we will stand up and stand strong, and we will use the legal system to prosecute these hate crimes and fight antisemitism wherever it raises its ugly head,” Gerchik said.
Kleiman said people seem to be conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
He also said the men in the caravan weren’t saying anything about Jews; rather, they were criticizing Israel, which Kleiman said is the same as criticizing the United States for its policies.
“My own subjective experience of this, having been called a fake Jew in federal court because I’m critical of Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians, this stuff cuts very close to the bone, and it’s stuff I take personally,” Kleiman said. “And I can tell you these two guys do as well.”
Conflicting accounts in attack outside L.A. restaurant