In college, at the University of Michigan, I was given the opportunity to write a paper about a metaphor. The metaphor I chose was an El Al airplane. We were told to write anywhere from eight to ten pages, I wrote fifteen. In 2005, my Taglit Birthright experience was the first time I traveled to Israel. Our group flight was booked on El Al and I was forever changed. Since then, I have traveled to Israel over twenty times, almost always, but not exclusively on El Al. Why did I choose that metaphor in my creative writing class that took place two floors above the regularly scheduled BDS protests in the quad? Because from the first time I saw that plane I didn’t see it as a metal tube to get me from point A to B on an all expenses paid trip of a lifetime; I saw the entire past, present, and future of our people and knew that I would never take the existence of a national airline for the Jewish people with a Magen David on its tail for granted. You can count on me to tear up right before I am asked questions in the security line about my bat mitzvah or favorite Jewish holiday. On Sunday night, my husband and I were traveling home from Boston to Chicago. I didn’t check monitors at Logan International Airport to see if my flight to O’Hare was on time, I checked to see when the next flight to Tel Aviv was. I joked to my husband that I might disappear to get a bottle of water and next thing he’d know I would be calling him from the sheirut line at Ben Gurion Airport letting him know I landed.
Why am I writing this now? Because I am disappointed to see the way that the situation this Shabbat that took place with El Al was presented in the media. In a time where the Jewish people are already so fragmented, the way this story could have also been presented is in my view a totally missed opportunity. This could have been a beautiful story about a flight that experienced a delay due to weather, involving passengers and a flight crew who despite being in a tricky, tense situation, worked together with the airline and with the wonderful people of Chabad in Athens to make the best of a difficult situation, maintaining El Al’s shomer Shabbat policy that has been in place since its inception. In the latest account I read about what actually transpired, El Al got the observant passengers in need to the closest hotel and checked in to their rooms before Shabbat began. The group that chose to stay in Athens enjoyed a beautiful meal, complete with centerpieces on the tables, put together by Rabbi and Mrs. Hendel, who I actually had the pleasure of meeting on my honeymoon this past summer in Athens. Those who wanted to continue to Israel were accommodated as well, re-booked on an Israair flight, another Israeli airline that does not adhere to the shomer Shabbat policy. In the grand scheme of things, after everything our people have been through, nothing happened.
I wasn’t there, I can’t possibly pretend to know that I know every detail of what happened, I’m not Shomer Shabbat, and I am confident that it was incredibly uncomfortable for everyone. That being said, I am a believer in this self identified concept of El Al as a metaphor. I wasn’t on the plane this time, but I have been there many times before. I can tell dozens of stories about my experiences on my flights to and from Israel, but one in particular sticks out in my mind. I had a window seat and next to me were two religious men traveling together. I settled into my window seat, and could sense their discomfort in sitting next to me. I immediately offered to switch to the aisle seat to ease some of this discomfort. They seemed to greatly appreciate this and I thought the matter was settled. As the safety video began to play, and the plane began to taxi, the men changed their mind. Our arrangement wasn’t okay with them at all, and I played musical chairs with seven other passengers to accommodate their needs. I, an “inconvenienced passenger” by definition did not see it as an inconvenience. This story isn’t unique to anyone who has flown El Al, but I hope that my message is. My overwhelming gratitude to live in a time where I can fly on an airplane bearing a Magen David on its tail is something that transcends almost anything. I too have the power to write op-eds and other articles each and every time I am “inconvenienced” or “surprised by” the behaviors of some of the more observant members I have flown to Israel with. But I never would. Because it is simply about so much more. This could have been an opportunity for these vocal observant fliers to step back, see the bigger picture, and advertise how well we can all work together because we are so lucky to live in a time where an incident such as this could even occur. The article where one author compared their situation to the hostages of Entebbe was beyond the pale. Casual use of the word “hijack” in several articles made a mockery of the word.
I may be El Al obsessed, but I am objective enough of a person to understand that it isn’t always perfect. That being said, I am brought to tears each time I walk on the plane and am greeted by pilots and flight attendants with a smile and a friendly “Shalom”. I am proud when I read of El Al’s participation in a humanitarian mission, showing off all of the good Israel brings to the global community. I feel safe when I think about the fact that wherever Jews are in the world, we have a national airline that will help protect us should the need arise. I never miss a Nefesh b’Nefesh Aliyah group flight ceremony video when it is posted.
This incident was a missed opportunity. I hope that there isn’t a next time, but if there is, as my husband always tells me “assume the best”. To that I wish to add, “present the best” as well because we should all, during this week of Thanksgiving, feel tremendous gratitude for our own, single national airline that at the end of the day, has all of our collective Jewish interests in mind in a time where such an incident could even occur.