Is a Utah bar’s ‘No Zionists’ policy antisemitic? Illegal? A rabbi and a law professor weigh in.

The owner of Weathered Waves said Zionism is a form of ‘hate speech.’

(Jose Davila IV | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weathered Waves in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, March 6, 2024.

The owner of a bar in downtown Salt Lake City ignited a social media firestorm earlier this month after he announced that no Zionists would be allowed in his establishment — but what, exactly, is a Zionist, and is such a ban legal?

Michael Valentine, owner of the Weathered Waves cider bar at 158 S. Rio Grande St. in The Gateway shopping center, said in a March 3 Instagram post that “we are horrified by the ongoing genocide in Gaza and are even more horrified to see so many Americans ignore and rationalize ethnic cleansing.”

“That is why,” the post continued, “we are pleased to announce we are banning all Zionists forever from our establishments.”

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on March 6, Valentine said he wrote the post and doesn’t see it as antisemitic.

Rabbi Samuel Spector of the Salt Lake City synagogue Congregation Kol Ami said that Valentine “doesn’t get to make that determination. He doesn’t have the authority to define what is and isn’t antisemitism.”

Spector said he defines a Zionist as someone who believes “that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination and independent statehood.” He defines self-determination for Jews as “being able to be in charge of their own fate.”

On March 6, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services notified the Utah attorney general’s office about Valentine’s Instagram post, “so they may conduct an investigation on whether the business is violating discrimination laws,” said department spokesperson Michelle Schmitt.

She told The Tribune in an email last week that “the A.G. investigation is ongoing.”

Valentine doesn’t believe the ban is illegal. In an op-ed Valentine wrote for The Tribune, he argued that “it’s not discrimination to ban hate speech from our bar. We are not discriminating against anyone, have violated no policies, have broken no laws.”

Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah, said that Valentine may have violated public accommodations laws at the federal and state level. Apart from the law, Rosky added, “it is not a wise business practice to open up a new business and get yourself in the paper for all the people you’re not willing to serve.”

What is a Zionist?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Sam Spector speaks to supporters of Israel that gathered to mourn those murdered by the Hamas terrorist attack, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Spector himself identifies as a “cultural Zionist,” he said, “which means that I think that the Jewish state should be a light unto the nations of the world, and that it’s our job to actively work towards perfecting that state to be in line with our Jewish values and ideals.”

He said he also identifies with what’s called “labor Zionism,” which centers around the idea of Jews having a connection to Israel and that they should work the land and build up a country.

As for the Palestinian people, Spector said, “I support humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. I support Palestinian rights, and I hope for the establishment one day of a Palestinian state living side by side next to Israel.”

Spector said that people who are “ignorant” to what Zionism is believe that it refers to support for current Israeli policies. If someone is truly anti-Zionist, Spector said, “I do consider that to be a form of antisemitism,” because “what you’re saying is that Jewish people do not have the right to self-determination.”

Spector — who co-wrote an op-ed about the Israel/Hamas war with Iranian American industrialist Khosrow B. Semnani, which The Tribune published Sunday — said Zionism is part of multiple movements of Judaism, and to say that “‘we don’t have a problem with Jews, we just have a problem with Zionists,’ you’re excluding probably close to about 90% of American Jews then from your bar.” He said he has gotten phone calls from Jews asking if Salt Lake City is safe for Jewish people.

“At best,” Spector said, Valentine is “doing something that is ignorant. And, at worst, he’s doing something that’s antisemitic.”

Valentine, after his bar’s initial Instagram message, clarified his stance in a in a follow-up post. “We didn’t just ban Zionism, we banned all hate speech,” he said. “We banned neo-Nazis, we banned transphobes, we banned sexists, we banned homophobes — any and all hate speech.”

In his op-ed, Valentine wrote, “I do not create solidarity with hate speech and genocide deniers. I am not interested in breaking bread with those who can’t see the humanity of Palestinians. ... It’s not antisemitic to be anti-Zionist.

“... As an atheist, I don’t believe in a Jewish, Christian or Muslim state,” Valentine continued.

Is such a ban legal?

Rosky said Valentine may have violated public accommodations laws. They say that “if you have a business that’s open to the public,” the law professor explained, “you can’t discriminate against customers based on their race or religion.”

The issue may come down to how the ban could be enforced.

Distinguishing between Zionists and non-Zionists is impossible, Rosky continued, “because people don’t wear T-shirts saying, ‘I’m a Zionist’ or ‘I’m not a Zionist,’ right? It’s a political belief. And so, there’s a risk that [Valentine] would enforce this policy by targeting people who he thinks look like Zionists. Well, who’s that going to be?”

“You can also just imagine, for example, a person who wears a Star of David on a necklace walks down [to the bar]. Do they get banned because they’re a Zionist?” Rosky asked. “If there were any evidence that [Valentine] were enforcing this, or attempting to enforce it, in a way that would exclude people because they’re Jewish, then he would be violating federal and state public accommodations laws.”

On Weathered Waves’ Instagram account last week, the bar posted that it is “proud to stand in this moment in history firm as a little cidery and bar even if it means standing alone. ... If anything, this experience has only made us hate racism, nationalism, Nazis and Zionists even more.”