Ultra-Orthodox passengers onboard a pair of Israel-bound El Al planes that took off from New York on Thursday caused an uproar, with some reportedly becoming violent, over fears they would be mid-flight after the start of the Jewish Shabbat.
One of the planes, which took off late from JFK, ultimately diverted to Athens. The second plane was also considering diverting, to Rome, but in the end continued its flight to Ben Gurion Airport as scheduled, because of a medical condition affecting one passenger.
Both of the flights had been delayed by hours on Thursday due to stormy weather in the Midwest and East Coast that led to the delay or cancellation of hundreds of flights.
As a result, in the course of the flights, a number of passengers grew angry they would not arrive in Israel until after the start of Shabbat, despite being assured by the crew they would arrive before sundown Friday when Shabbat begins, according to a passenger on one of the planes.
Religious passengers later pushed back against the claims of violence, accusing the airline staff of causing a delay on one of the flights, falsely telling them they were heading back to the gate before taking off, and lying that the plane would make it to Israel on time.
In accordance with the laws of Judaism, observant Jews do not use electronics or light fires on Shabbat and also refrain from traveling in cars or airplanes. Exceptions are made for medical or security situations in which a life is threatened.
אחרי מעל 24 שעות להגיע לישראל …אני שבורה… שבורה בעיקר מחוסר כבוד של אנשים מאמינים, שומרי מסורת ושבת שלקחו את העניין…
A passenger aboard one the flight uploaded a short video showing the commotion and a message to Facebook slamming the behavior of the passengers.
“After 24 hours to reach Israel, I am broken, broken mainly because of the lack of respect of people who are observant, who observe tradition and Shabbat, who took this issue a step too far,” wrote Roni Meital.
Meital praised the patience and the attempts to calm the situation by the El Al crew, but described the aggressiveness and unruliness of some the passengers even before the flight took off amid scares they would not reach Israel in time.
Meital said that “after six hours of flying, I suddenly heard screaming and saw a flight attendant crying after she was hit, pushed, amid threats they would break open the door to the cockpit.”
“I found myself standing and [physically] protecting flight attendants who were crying and who just wanted to catch their breath after the [violent] behavior toward them,” she wrote.
Shimon Sheves, a director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under former premier Yitzhak Rabin who was aboard one the planes, gave a similar account on his Facebook page. He wrote that he was awaken during the flight by shouts from religious passengers who realized they would not land until after Shabbat.
“Within a deep sleep, I hear shouts of ‘liars, fraudsters’ and hands waving and beating flight attendants who broke down in tears. If I didn’t see it, I would not have believed it,” he wrote.
Due to the uproar, one plane landed in Athens, where the ultra-Orthodox passengers disembarked to spend Shabbat before continuing on their way to Israel.
Those who wished to keep traveling, however, also had to exit the plane and wait three hours until an Israir flight took off for Israel.
On the second plane, the El Al flight was going to divert to Rome following protests from ultra-Orthodox passengers who did not want to violate Shabbat, but the flight continued to Ben Gurion Airport due to the medical condition of a woman on board who needed to reach Israel.
“The extreme weather in New York caused cancellations and delays of takeoffs for hundreds of flights for airlines, including El Al flights on Thursday evening,” the airline said in a statement to Hebrew media.
“Despite the many cancelled flights we succeeded in getting flight 002 out of New York for our passengers, with a stop in Athens. El Al made sure passengers had a flight that same day that continued to Israel,” it added.
El Al said representatives of the airline were in touch with the passengers who got off the plane in Athens and that they would travel to Israel after Shabbat ended on Saturday evening.
“We apologize for any discomfort caused to our customers, but as said we preferred to have the flight leave New York the same day,” the statement said.
“It should be emphasized the company does not tolerate violence toward the [flight] crew and we will determinedly and without compromise act in accordance with the law against any passenger whom a complaint is filed against, as we have done so far,” El Al added.