On Saturday evening, Dov Bergwerk, the senior vice president and general corporate counsel for Teva, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, walked into the Avis rental car offices on Manhattan’s West 76th Street. Bergwerk is the sort of man who travels a lot, and is no stranger to the fine arts of renting cars. As he had done so many times in the past—most recently last Thursday—he walked up to the counter and handed the agent his Israeli driver’s license as well as his Avis Wizard loyalty card.
Sorry, said Angelline, the woman working the counter, the reservation cannot be honored. Avis did not recognize Israeli documents.
Bergwerk argued that he’d rented cars from Avis on many occasions in the past, using the exact same documentation, but to no avail. Angelline wouldn’t budge. Incensed, Bergwerk demanded to speak to a supervisor; Shamoura Welch-Robinson, the manager on duty, appeared, and immediately took Angelline’s side in refusing to recognize the Jewish state’s documentation as valid. Bergwerk called Avis’s customer service phone line, and was assured by the representative there that his papers were indeed in order. When he put Welch-Robinson on the phone, however, the manager changed her story and claimed she was refusing Bergwerk a car because he had argued with her in front of other customers and disrespected her authority. Angry and hurt, Bergwerk and his wife Ruth left the office carless.
I wrote Avis for a response. Here’s what the nameless corporate PR entity had to say:
On Friday, a customer seeking to rent a car from Avis Car Rental in Manhattan was not allowed to do so because he failed to provide the required documentation. Visitors to the U.S. from other countries must provide both a valid drivers license from their country of residence as well as either a valid International Drivers License or passport in order to rent from Avis. We are aggressively investigating the customer’s allegations regarding the handling of this matter, as we do not tolerate any form of discrimination. So far, our ongoing investigation suggests that this customer is unfairly maligning us with unfounded allegations.
The response seemed odd, and the inclination to blame the customer—especially as the allegations on hand involve ugly discrimination on the basis of one’s nationality—was a touch cringe-inducing. The Federal Civil Rights Act, after all, mandates “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” If Bergwerk was not discriminated on the basis of his nationality, why was he denied by Ms. Welch-Robinson while presenting precisely the same documentation he’d presented Avis employees so many times before?
“That’s what we are looking into,” wrote the laconic Avis corporate mouthpiece. “Nevertheless, on Friday, he refused to provide the required documentation needed to rent a car.”
According to whom, I asked, and who, other than the manager in question, could attest to this alleged turn of events, especially as Bergwerk’s wife is on hand to support her husband’s story? Is it the manager’s word versus the customer’s? And if so, how does Avis adjudicate? Was the customer service representative Bergwerk had called deposited? And are future customers facing discrimination by Avis employees to assume that the company will always take its employees’ word over any other possible version of reality, no matter how plausible?
Avis never wrote back. This holiday weekend, as you’re looking for a car to rent for that long Thanksgiving slog home, perhaps you’d like to choose a company that…tries harder.