A prominent Israeli rabbi has threatened El Al with a boycott unless the national airline issues a full apology for alleging that ultra-Orthodox passengers violently attacked crew members during a mid-flight uproar over a potential violation of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin, who was on board last week’s flight from New York’s JFK airport that was forced to divert to Athens to allow Shabbat-observant passengers to disembark, told El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin in a letter Friday they had been “accused of things that absolutely never happened.”
Sorotzkin, head of the Beit Shemesh-based Ateres Shlomo yeshiva network, accused El Al of “insulting and disrespecting” religious passengers, and said the airline had until Sunday night to issue a “clear apology” and offer restitution to those involved, or he would endorse another airline to his community.
El Al’s flight 002 to Tel Aviv last Thursday night was delayed by more than five hours due to bad weather and was racing the clock to get to Israel before the start of Shabbat. Dozens of passengers had demanded that the plane return to the gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport so that they could disembark, but instead the plane took off.
It is unclear whether passengers, both religious and non-Shabbat observant, were violent toward the flight crew. Several accounts on social media and in blog posts have offered differing accounts of what occurred on the flight.
El Al and some passengers have alleged that a number of ultra-Orthodox passengers became violent toward the flight attendants — charges that were vehemently denied by many of the religious passengers on board. Religious passengers have accused the pilot of deceiving them by promising to return them to the terminal and then taking off without further explanation.
“The captain blatantly lied to us,” Jerusalem-based tour guide Betsalel Steinhart wrote in a blog post on The Times of Israel. “In order to get them to sit down the pilot announced that we were returning to the gate and to please sit. He then drove and took off within a few minutes — and of course in your seat you have no idea where the plane is driving towards.”
But the captain said that he was unexpectedly forced to fly a longer route by ground control, pushing back the flight’s arrival time until after the start of Shabbat.
According to the co-pilot’s report, that was when the violence broke out.
“There were reports of an uproar, shouting, pushing, raised hands. The cockpit crew was called liars by some of the passengers. It was chaos in the cabin, flight attendants were crying,” the co-pilot wrote.
אחרי מעל 24 שעות להגיע לישראל …אני שבורה… שבורה בעיקר מחוסר כבוד של אנשים מאמינים, שומרי מסורת ושבת שלקחו את העניין…
One passenger who posted video clips of the incident to Facebook, described “hearing screaming and [seeing] a flight attendant crying after she was hit, pushed, amid threats [by ultra-Orthodox passengers] that 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,” Roni Meital wrote.
Religious passengers pushed back against the reports of physical violence on board, accusing El Al staff of causing one of the delays, and that the cabin crew had falsely told them they would be allowed to disembark and that the plane would make it to Israel on time.
Following the incident, El Al issued a statement saying it would not tolerate violence toward its staff, and said the company intended to file a complaint against at least one passenger.
But on Tuesday, Usishkin reportedly denied that the passengers were violent, telling Sorotzkin that he himself never alleged that the crew was attacked violently. According to the Israel Hayom daily, Usishkin told the rabbi that “there was no physical violence” on the flight.
On Friday, crew members slammed Usishkin for backtracking on their claims of violence.
“It’s impossible to deny when a team of 12 people say they experienced violence and then turn around and say ‘it never happened,'” one cabin crew member told Channel 10. She said that Usishkin denied the uproar had become violent purely out business considerations.
“The company is trying to protect itself,” the unnamed employee said. “One minute they are on the side of their employees, and the next, they are saying something completely different out of fears they will lose customers.”
Earlier this week, a group of 180 passengers on board the diverted flight filed a complaint letter with El Al, demanding NIS 50,000 ($13,000) each in compensation and an apology from the airline. The letter sent through attorneys claimed that airline staff “deliberately lied to passengers and disrespected them,” and had spread false rumors about the ultra-Orthodox community.
In the wake of the incident, Usishkin established a committee to investigate what happened on both flights. In a letter to staff members this week, the CEO said the complications on the flights “took place in a dynamic and developing reality that was not entirely controlled by the company.”
JTA contributed to this report.