Yigal M. Gross

Flying Higher

Israel is where religion and air travel meet, but not always for the good
A boy looks down at El Al jets parked on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport  (photo credit: Flash90)
A boy looks down at El Al jets parked on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport (photo credit: Flash90)

Let’s face it—air travel is the worst.

Although Americans increasingly travel to destinations that require air travel and spend much of the time and cost associated with vacations on airplanes, air travel is the part of the vacation experience that no one wants to discuss.  In big, colorful trip advertisements, air travel arrangements are usually demarcated by an asterisk referring to almost invisible print.  And while our albums are littered with pictures of the destinations that we reach, they include few pictures of the airplanes that got us there.

The reality is that we categorize air travel, together with packing bags and standing on line, as the “trip” rather than the “vacation.” And for good reason.  Airline travel used to be classy and memorable—the thing of hats, fur coats and champagne.  Today, it has become a Frankenstinian institutional cross between McDonalds and the DMV—removing your shoes, your keys and your laptop, waiting to board while seemingly everyone and their fifth cousin has boarding “priority,” squeezing by people as you board, tripping over luggage thoughtlessly left in the aisle, playing a game of “Carry-on Tetris” with oversize and overweight luggage in impossibly thin overhead compartments, realizing that you forgot to take something out of your now completely packed-away carry-on, trying to calm your screaming toddler only to realize that you packed Tylenol instead of Benadryl, trying to sleep while sitting upright in sardine-like seating, realizing that all the good movies are only for a different route, waiting for half an hour for the “occupied” sign on the bathroom door to become “vacant” only to have the seatbelt sign come on instead, getting stuck behind the food cart as you return to your seat, eating food that looks like, tastes like (and maybe is?) rubber and—the worst—finding out that your luggage has been accidentally rerouted to a far more exotic destination than your own.

As if all this was not enough, passengers on flights to and from Israel are treated to an extra-special kind of on-board entertainment: “seating problems”—Hareidi male passengers demanding seat changes, and sometimes delaying flights, because their ticketed seat is directly beside that of a female passenger.  I mean, really?  Are they afraid of being tempted by the Israeli grandmother with dentures?  Or do they think that the hot blonde will be compulsively smitten by their cholent belly and seductively flat hat?

Now, I will admit that I have had some pretty deviously creative ideas for spiting these annoying “Anti-seat-mites”— “I am flattered that you want me to sit next to you, but I am not gay” or “Sorry, but the woman sitting next to me is incredibly attractive and I’m hoping to remain beside her for much longer than this flight.” And yet, creative as I am, I have never thought to myself—“You know what would make this soon-to-be-airborne cocktail of pain and suffering really sweet?  A nice touch of police.”

And yet, that’s precisely what Michael Luciano suggested in “It’s Time to Arrest Ultra-Orthodox Jews Who Delay Flights Over Seating,” in The Daily Banter about a year ago.

Albert Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  And, I would suggest, insanity also includes proposing a draconian solution to a recurring problem that would make the problem categorically worse when far more reasonable and effective solutions exist.

Calling the police, having the police board an airplane, restrain and forcibly remove a passenger, and then having airport security find and remove such passenger’s luggage from above and beneath the plane (as proper security entails) is certainly an “interesting” way to address a passenger’s request for a seat change.  An equally effective, but perhaps less sensational approach is the one people on Israel-bound flights have traditionally taken—be the “adult in the room,” put things in perspective and, even if you think the person’s request is infantile, just accommodate it for everyone’s collective sanity.

But Luciano’s concern is not about delay and efficiency.  Many people demand seat changes on flights—I have personally witnessed passengers refuse to take a seat on a plane because their ticketed seat was a window seat and made them feel claustrophobic. Would Luciano have them arrested? And what about a passenger who delays a flight because he or she figures that, given that their bags are already on the plane, it’s fine if the massage runs a little bit over departure time?  Would Luciano have that person dragged off the plane and arrested?  In each case, I doubt it (though, in the latter case, I might).

No—for Luciano, what sets apart Hareidi seat-preferences and flight-delaying antics from those of others is that they emanate from “their strange, ignorant, and stupid — yes, I dare call them stupid — beliefs.”  In other words, Luciano’s real problem is not that Hareidim delay flights, it is why Hareidim delay flights.  It is the fact that “Hareidi men”—yes, apparently for Luciano, all Hareidi men—are “sexist troglodytes” who “need to be reminded that this is not their personal theocracy.”

Talk about “strange, ignorant and stupid.”

First, Luciano’s analysis of the situation is simply wrong.  There is a big difference between being personally religious and “theocratic.”  When Hareidi men request that their own seats be changed so that they can sit next to a man rather than a woman, they are not imposing their beliefs on anyone other than themselves.  They do not seek to “segregate” airplanes, but themselves – they do not seek to stop other people from sitting next to women, watching movies or doing other things that they probably disapprove of.  They just want their own personal religious conduct to be respected.

Second, only a person who has not spent time among Hareidim can claim that all Hareidi men are “sexist troglodytes.”  Having lived among Hareidi Jews in the heart of Meah SheArim, I can say that Hareidi Jews eschew such sweeping generalizations—they are complex, colorful, deeply interesting and, ultimately, deeply good people, who deserve far more thoughtful and careful consideration.   And the solutions we propose should reflect that consideration.

It is amazing that the “Start-up Nation” which has been a pioneer and problem-solver in complex areas like desalinization, computer technology, biotechnology and missile-defense, seems utterly incapable of solving a seating problem on flights to and from Israel.  One would think that after so many years, Israeli airliners would get the message and develop a protocol for accommodating Hareidi passengers who prefer to sit among passengers of the same sex.  For example, why can’t flights to and from Israel have single-sex sections which passengers with a preference for such seating can elect to sit in (or not sit in)?   We have Kosher meals, why not also have “Kosher” seats?

Perhaps because Israeli airlines think like Mr. Luciano.  Perhaps because we too have sweeping and ignorant views of the Hareidi community.  And perhaps because our desire to send “messages” and “reminders” to those with whom we disagree obscures our understanding of what doing so entails, and because all of us have allowed arrogance and self-righteousness to transcend common sense, kindness and self-interest.

And so, despite the passage of time and innovations in technology and space, we remain collectively trapped on the tarmac–not by “troglodytes,” but by our own prejudices.

About the Author
Yigal M. Gross is an attorney who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife Tamar Warburg and their children Ella, Sara, Yonatan, Aviva and Norman.
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