Religious Coercion at a Mile High

From less leg room to additional costs being snuck in at every turn, declining airline service is nothing new. With a man violently removed from a United flight earlier this year, it seemed to reach a new dismal low. El Al has also seen its fair share of complaints; particularly when it comes to acquiescing outrageous and discriminatory behavior from its more religiously observant customers. El Al’s policy of condoning this behavior reached such epic proportions that a lawsuit had to be filed by a female Holocaust survivor to fight against it. In a landmark ruling in mid-2017, El Al was ordered to discontinue its policy of requesting women to move seats when ultra-Orthodox men refuse to be seated next to female passengers. This was a huge triumph against religious coercion in the public sphere in Israel. One that I, and many other people, hoped would be the beginning of the end of discriminatory practices and religious coercion. However, after my flight the other day, I realized that religious passengers are still finding ways to make the public Israeli company do their bidding for them.

I will be the first to admit that I am particularly alert to the issue of religious coercion. From my first trip to the Western Wall at thirteen years old, which I write about in my book, Chutzpah & High Heels, which was severely diminished due to the lack of religious freedom and the separation of genders, to my status as a Jew not being recognized by the Rabbinut because the institution refuses to accept my mother’s conversion, I have my fair share of criticisms about the religious institutions in Israel. While I don’t go looking for examples of religious coercion, they certainly find a way to appear in my life. On this particular flight, I was on my way back from the U.S. to go home to Israel following my book tour, in which I, ironically, had presented to Jewish American institutions about how religious coercion in Israel not only obstructs my basic human rights, but impacts all of American Jews.

About an hour or two into the flight, when the first meal was being served, I pulled out the food that I had brought onto the flight in order to eat. I always pack food with me on intercontinental flights for multiple reasons: 1. I like to eat healthy 2. I like to eat food that tastes good 3. I am vegan. But honestly, none of these reasons should matter. It is a passenger’s prerogative to bring his/her own food if it meets security requirements. I have packed food with me for years without any problem. I have never had a comment from anyone – not a passenger, nor an El Al representative about the food I have brought on a flight. We have all seen people bring food on flights without incident. However, like we say on Passover, this night was different.

The flight attendant, seeing that I was eating my own food, asked me if I wanted an airline meal. I explained to her in Hebrew that I was vegan and as such had brought my own food. After offering me some salad from the tray and me politely declining, she then, without comment, moved on to serve my seatmates. Then a few minutes later I heard her explaining, in English, to a passenger in a row behind me that I was vegan. Immediately, she returned to me and asked me if my food was kosher. In shock that a representative of a public company would have the audacity to inquire into my personal food selection, which I was enjoying privately and quietly, I did not immediately respond. The flight attendant continued and said that the airline was kosher and that my food needed to be kosher. Not knowing whether my food was kosher and still in shock, but still wanting to eat, I muttered something like, “yeah, sure.” A few minutes later, I discussed the incident with my fellow seatmate, who I had just met, and he said to me that he kept kosher and he was shocked and offended by the flight attendant’s question and remark.

After finishing the meal that I had packed, but still disturbed by the incident, I pondered the absurdity of it all. Does El Al actually require that all travelers keep kosher on their flights? They have plenty of non-Jewish passengers, how could they expect those passengers to bring only kosher food onto their flights? I did not sign a terms and conditions waiver when I purchased my ticket informing me that I could not bring any non-kosher food or products onto the flight? Is there a new rule? What’s next? How far is El Al willing to go in order to appease its religious customers? Will they start having a kashrut supervisor inspect all our bags? Will they start asking men to prove that they have had a circumcision in order to buy tickets?

At the end of the flight, while everyone was de-boarding, I approached the head flight attendant in order to discuss the incident with her. I had hoped that she would ease my concerns by telling me that the flight attendant’s behavior did not represent company policy and that she would look into it. Instead, the head flight attendant endorsed the other attendant questioning my food choices and its kashrut status and then she further tried to shame me. She continued to explain that following the kashrut laws was similar to being vigilant for food allergies. I found this comparison farcical and insulting as one is a tenet of a religious belief system while the other can be a life-threatening health condition. It is a false narrative. The conversation ended with the head flight attendant dismissing my concerns and deciding it was more important to part ways from her first-class customers as opposed to taking the matter of religious coercion seriously – despite the recent legal troubles the company has experienced on this very issue.

So it seems that even if we are a mile high we can not escape religious coercion. As I wrote in my book, “Isn’t it enough that they have control of the Western Wall? Do they get control … in this plane too?”

Jessica Fishman is the author of Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land. She speaks and writes about her experience with the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel in order to inspire social change.

About the Author
Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel; Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon