The Beauty and the Beast of an El Al Nightmare

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For a religious Jew, being forced to break the Sabbath is a huge nightmare. We rush through our Sabbath preparations every week to avoid this very reality. Much of our lives revolve around this day. We shop early enough in the week to allow us to be prepared for a mass rush of cooking, cleaning, showering, and setting things up…only to come to a stunning stop as the clock draws close to the time when the sun will set.

And then, we let the world go and promise to meet it on the other side of 25 hours of heaven, family, quiet. Lighting the candles, welcoming Shabbat into our homes, and closing the door to the outside world brings incredible peace to our souls and rest for our weary bodies.

screen capture: Israel Hayom

This past Friday was a nightmare of worry and concern. A dear friend was on a flight to Israel; her mother’s body was below. The funeral would be Friday afternoon in a rush so that we could get back in time for the blessed peace of Shabbat. I’d been abroad all week and heard most of the plans as I was rushing to connect to a flight home. Too exhausted to think, I surrendered and went to sleep in the early morning hours on Friday only to awaken to news that the plane would be delayed, the funeral only Saturday night or Sunday.



From there, it got worse. The plane would land after candle-lighting but before “shkia” – the exact moment when the Sabbath begins…maybe. Then, news that the plane would be diverted to Athens. While we knew that Chabad was going crazy preparing for dozens of people, the passengers themselves were not told and thus resorted to not eating on the plane in order to save kosher food for the long Shabbat they expected to spend in the airport of Athens.

Chabad and El Al did come through and the passengers had an amazing Shabbat. But what also happened was a great mis-truth. Shabbat ended with claims (by two secular Jews) that “Haredim” had been violent on the plane. From what I have seen, the worst of these articles appeared in The Forward, a paper which once graced my father-in-law’s home and now has evolved into a great embarrassment.

The title of Ari Feldman’s article shows immediately the slant and direction the author chose. “Ultra-Orthodox El Al Passengers Force Two Flights to Ground So As Not To Be In The Air On Shabbat.” It’s sad that more time was spent capitalizing each word in the title than verifying the accuracy of the title.

No, Ultra-Orthodox El Al passengers did NOT force two flights to the ground. Not even one. One didn’t even land abroad. Rather, with the agreement of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, it continued on and landed on Shabbat to save the life of one of the passengers. The second one was forced to the ground by an agreement between the State of Israel and El Al airlines. In fact, at that point, once in the air, Jewish law would have allowed the Orthodox (and even the Ultra-Orthodox) to continue on the flight and deplane at Ben Gurion. More, passengers on the plane were already preparing for this reality by separating that which Jews are not supposed to touch (electronic devices, etc.) from that which they would be allowed to carry off the plane.

Further, Feldman writes that both planes were delayed because “a snowstorm blanketed New York City.” Well, I won’t speak for why the plane that was supposed to have stopped in Rome left late but the one that eventually stopped in Athens was delayed, at least initially, because the crew showed up THREE HOURS late for take off. In fact, passengers were boarded ON TIME, despite the fact that the crew had not even shown up.

One passenger claims there was violence; the videos show otherwise. Was there yelling? Of course there was. Wouldn’t you yell if you were forced to sit for hours in cramped uncomfortable conditions despite constantly being told (lies) that the plane was taking off any minute, that they were next in line for takeoff and finally that you were being taken back to the gate so you could get off, only to find the pilot taking off?

In his article claiming violence, Ari Feldman posted a picture “a woman on board one flight captured a video of the commotion from the second floor of the airplane.” The picture was taken by Roni Meital, who claims to have witnessed the violence. There isn’t one ultra-Orthodox Jew speaking to the stewardess in that picture, at least not one that is visible. There is no violence in that picture. Yes, there are two stewardesses speaking to a lot of passengers but given what El Al was doing to these people, would that be considered unusual?

No hands were raised in violence and other videos show people singing Shabbat songs as they prepared to face unknown conditions on the ground. Unknown – because the El Al crew didn’t have the decency to tell people that preparations were being made for them. Hotel rooms and food was there and knowing that would have helped these trapped and essentially kidnapped passengers tremendously.

That comfort was denied to them, just as the truth was, by the Captain and crew of that El Al flight. The video that Roni Meital puts forward shows only that people were angry. By contrast, the reality was that the passengers were incredibly understanding despite numerous examples of inappropriate actions by the El Al crew and management.

It was the passengers (and Chabad) that turned what could have been a horrible and uncomfortable Shabbat in Athens into one that would never be forgotten. The Jewish passengers worked together, ate together, sang together.

On Sunday morning, I attended the funeral of a great-grandmother who was brought home to Israel for burial. In that, her dream and the dream of her father was realized. All her grandchildren live in Israel; all her great-grandchildren are here. Below the beautiful skies, she was finally buried.

As her family spends the week of mourning contemplating her life; El Al, Ari Feldman, and Roni Meital should do some soul-searching as well. There was never a reason to lie to the passengers. They should have been allowed to get off the plane in New York as requested or at least been given the decency of an honest reason why that could not be done.

They should have been told that food and hotel awaited them in Athens; that they would not be forced to transgress Shabbat. And perhaps worst of all, in trying to paint a better picture of this horrendous miscalculation by El Al, the passengers should be credited with acting in honor. There was no physical violence aboard that plane; the lies came from those attempting to excuse El Al’s actions. The unity came from those who rose above and remembered that the greatest gift we have isn’t the ability to fly across an ocean but to sit down together at a Shabbat meal amid good food and good people.

All it would have taken to resolve this situation and alleviate the fear and worry of so many was a little bit of honesty and a lot more respect.

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Paula R. Stern is the CEO of WritePoint Ltd, a leading technical writing company in Israel. She is also a popular blogger with her work appearing on her own sites, A Soldier's Mother and PaulaSays, as well as IsraellyCool and a number of other Jewish and Israeli sites.