(May 24, 2021 / Jewish Journal) On the evening of May 18, a pro-Palestinian mob attacked a group of diners at the Sushi Fumi restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. Video footage showed the assailants shouting racial slurs and throwing glass bottles before physically assaulting several diners, three of whom were young Iranian American Jewish men. The fourth, a local photographer, was a young man who identifies as an Armenian-Lebanese Christian.
A witness told CBSLA that dozens of assailants stepped out of their vehicles and that one of them asked diners, “Who’s Jewish?” On May 21, the police, with the help of the U.S. Marshal Service, arrested the primary suspect on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, and the LAPD is investigating the incident as a hate crime.
The Jewish Journal spoke with the sole non-Jewish victim of the attack, a 36-year-old Los Angeles resident who is being touted as a hero for defending the Jewish diners. For safety concerns, he asked that only his first name, Mher, be used.
Q: Let’s begin with the most important question: How are you feeling, physically and emotionally?
A: I feel pain everywhere in my body. They beat me in my shoulders, stomach, back and ribs, which especially hurt. My head has a big bump. It makes sense since four people beat me. And it’s been hard to sleep; I only slept two hours in the last 48 hours. I keep seeing everything that happened again and again, and I dream about what happened. And I keep asking myself, “Maybe I could have done more?”
Q: What brought you to Sushi Fumi Tuesday night?
A: We were there to discuss wedding photography since I’m a photographer. One of the guys is a friend; I took photos for his wedding a few years ago. Another one, who also became my friend, booked me for his wedding in June. We became close, so we all went out to dinner, along with one of their friends, to catch up and talk about the wedding.
Q: You’re an immigrant from Lebanon. Can you share more about your background?
A: I was born in Beirut and I’m an Armenian-Lebanese Christian. As a result of the Armenian genocide in 1915, some of my family fled to Syria and others to Lebanon. I love my country, but I had to leave. I left in 2011 when I was 26. The Armenians I knew in Beirut lived in fear and always thought, “Tomorrow, will we die?” It was mostly from Hezbollah. In 2010, my friend and I got into a fight with some Hezbollah members. Eventually, they surrounded us and came after us with guns. I’ve known my friends in Lebanon for decades; I know they’d die for me and always defend me. But I decided that this was no life; there was no humanity there. We [Armenians in Lebanon] were only raised to fight and defend ourselves, because we’re a minority. That’s why I decided to leave.
Q: What happened during the attack on May 18?
A: We were having a good time, talking, as friends do, around the table. Then, one of my friends said that he saw some protesters near us waving Palestinian flags. I turned my back and saw cars approaching us. Then they stopped. I assumed my Jewish friends were targeted because we were in a pretty Jewish area [Beverly Grove]. The men started cursing against Israel. They yelled, “You guys are killing children! You’re raping our women! You have to feel ashamed of yourselves!” Then they started throwing bottles.
We got lucky because one of my friends was sitting in front of me. I saw one guy throwing the bottle and it almost hit my friend in the head. I myself have cuts, probably from the glass.
And then, one of them said, “Who’s Jewish?” I knew they could be violent, so I came closer to them and started speaking in Arabic.
Q: What did you say?
A: I said, “You want to protest? Protest peacefully. We’re having dinner. We’re not in a war zone.” But they didn’t respond. I went closer to them and asked them not to throw glasses. Then, two guys jumped out of a car and ran toward me. I yelled in Arabic, “Chill out!” One of them heard me speaking Arabic and seemed to calm down. Then, I saw about 15 people coming toward me. That was not a situation that I could control by speaking Arabic. A big guy threw a bottle at me and tried to punch me. When I saw that they were beating one of my friends on the floor and kicking him in the head, I knew I had to do something, so I grabbed a stanchion and tried to scare them away. We got my friend off the floor, but four of the men started beating me.
Q: Why did you feel compelled to join the fight?
A: Because I’m human and they’re my friends. The way those guys approached us … throwing glasses at us … if you’re in a war zone, that’s a different story. But we were having dinner. We weren’t harming them. Why were they kicking us in the head? I had to do something. I thought, “Whatever I can do, I must do.” Yesterday, I joked with a rabbi that I only joined the fight because my friend was getting beaten up and since he’s the groom (and my client), and I’m doing the photography, I didn’t want his face to be black and blue at the wedding. That would have been a lot of photoshop work for me!
Q: What happened after the attack?
A: My hand and forehead had cuts on them, but I don’t know from what … maybe the bottles. A medic came, but didn’t even treat my wounds, and then left. The police officers came and did their job. I came home and showered. As soon as the water hit my face, my eyes and then my whole body felt like they were on fire. For 20 minutes, I thought I was in hell. I was burning everywhere and I realized that one of the attackers had pepper-sprayed my hair. Because I had scratches all over, I burned even more.
I called 911 and they said they couldn’t do anything, and that the burning would go away on its own. So, around 1 a.m., an ambulance took me to the hospital. They took an X-ray and MRI of my head to check for internal bleeding. The doctor said that my shoulder muscles were hurt pretty badly and that my body would hurt for a while, but that my head was okay.
Q: Prior to the attack, did you know much about anti-Semitism?
A: I knew, and I also knew what was happening between Israel and the Palestinians. I’m all about peace on both sides. But when something like that attack happens, you realize you’re not prepared. I don’t think I was targeted, but I was with Jewish people who were targeted. I just didn’t want to see my friends getting beaten up. In Beirut, the Armenians always fought with the Arabs; I was raised to always defend my friends. After the attack, I got texts from friends in Beirut saying, “We’re not surprised. Again, you decided to defend your friends.”
On the streets of Beirut, you defend yourself. I do everything for my friends. My mother, who’s in Canada, called me and said, “Again? You did it again?”
I told one news source that I don’t get the point of people like those attackers. If they left another country to come here, didn’t they come to Los Angeles for a chance at a brighter future? I approach people without seeing religion or color. I want peace everywhere, not only in Israel and Palestine. The Hamas rockets cost millions of dollars … and they were used to kill. It’s unbelievable. These people are weak and brainwashed.
Every person has a family in this world and loved ones they care about. I’m nobody in this world, but it’s important that everyone knows that God gives us life to live it, and we have to love and respect each other.
Q: How do you respond to being called a “hero”?
A: I’m not a hero. I was there at the right time to protect my friend. If I would be called a loyal friend, it would be better than being called a hero. I was invited to speak at a synagogue this [coming] Friday evening. I’ll do it, but told them that I’m not a speaker.
Q: What will you say during your talk?
A: I’m not going to talk about race or color, but about humanity. We need to do good deeds while we’re still alive, not after we die. I pray every night that we’ll all be healthy and safe. I do everything for love. If someone is nice, he’s nice. I’m colorblind.
Q: A friend of one of the diners started a GoFundMe campaign that raised $36,000 in less than 48 hours to help with your medical expenses. How do you feel about this?
A: I don’t know what to say. I really don’t know. My head isn’t here right now. I don’t want to take advantage of what happened. I’m not that kind of guy.
Q: The Los Angeles Police Department has announced that it has arrested the primary suspect in the attack. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I hope that the police and the justice system will make an example out of this guy. If they let him go, others will be motivated and they’ll never give up this kind of violence. If I see him and the other attackers locked up, then I’ll feel safe. But I’ll also say this: Just give me an hour with him in a closed room, one on one; not four against one.
Q: Will you still be the photographer at your friend’s wedding?
A: Of course. The wedding is in June. Before the fight, I did the couple’s pre-wedding pictures and their wedding shower. I’m going to do my job. Today, my body really hurts, but 20 years from now, they will still see those pictures. After I do my job at the wedding, I can enjoy dancing with them.
Q: What kind of support have you received from around the world since videos of the attack went viral?
A: A lot of dentists, lawyers, and doctors said they’ll cover my bills. I don’t want all that. The pain will go away. But the support will stay forever.
I booked two [photography] jobs this week—a birthday and bar mitzvah. Someone told me that he wanted to cancel a photographer he’d already booked and hire me, but I said, “No. That photographer might need that job to put food on his or her table.”
On Instagram, I received almost 4,000 messages of thanks, mostly from Jewish people. Two Palestinian clients in Los Angeles texted me and said the attackers are animals. They said, “They don’t represent us.”
Q: From where are you receiving all of these messages?
A: Oh, my God. From Israel, Columbia, Canada, France, Italy, all over the world, and a lot from New York. I’ve been invited to Israel. I said, “OK, I’ll come. I’ve never been there.” So I texted our group—all of us who were attacked at the restaurant—and said, “Let’s go to Israel.”
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.
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