You don’t have to understand to be aware
Recently, for the first time in my life, I was called an antisemite.
It wasn’t by a friend, trying to be provocative. Rather, it was by a man, who, in the same breath, also told me that I was not a Jew.
Just minutes before these accusations, on a flight from Tel Aviv to London, I had volunteered context to a seemingly illogical situation.
A man arrives at his seat on a plane. In the row, there is already a man sitting in the aisle seat and a woman by the window. The man tells Mr. Aisle, “This is my seat.” Mr. Aisle says, “No, I’m pretty sure this is my seat — it says so on my ticket.”
What ensues is perplexing: the man won’t sit in the empty middle seat. He needs the aisle. Of course, Mr. Aisle isn’t going to move to the middle seat. And the woman by the window isn’t budging unless it’s to switch with Mr. Aisle. But that won’t solve the situation.
Why can’t the man just take his designated middle seat?
Without context, this puzzle is puzzling. Which is why I tried to do the “right” thing by tapping on Mr. Aisle’s shoulder.
This man doesn’t want to sit next to the woman, I told him. That is the issue — it’s cultural.
By now it should be obvious that the the middle man is Haredi.
I had the context to understand the problem. I tried to give it to Mr. Aisle, not so he could understand, but so that he could be aware.
I’m not sure if even I understand, but I have the context, and therefore I am aware.
I am aware that when another Haredi man boarded the plane, he took one look at the aisle seat next to me and chose to sit in the other aisle seat, across from me.
It’s the same situation, but the solution was simpler.
The plane took off and turbulence soon followed.
It wasn’t the plane shaking, but Mr. Across the Aisle placing his hat in the empty seat beside me.
It bothered me. I am aware enough to know that my irritation stemmed not only from my spatial issues, but also from bias.
The same man who refused to sit beside me had no qualms about using his forfeited seat as a resting place for his hat.
So I asked him to move it.
Mr. Across the Aisle informed me that he would not move his hat. That was the seat he paid for, so he could do as he pleased with the empty space.
He had a new seat, I said, perfectly suitable for his hat. Yet he paid for the seat beside me, he stressed, and who was I to tell him where to put things — what, was this airplane my home? It wasn’t, but if he wanted to sit beside me with his hat, he was more than welcome to do so.
At some point in the exchange, he whipped out his phone and began recording. He wasn’t going to move the hat.
So I called over a flight attendant, explaining the situation. She said she would escalate it to the flight manager, who I’m certain had a different title, but Mr. Manager will have to do for this recount.
Mr. Manager approached me. I explained what had happened and what I wanted: I wanted the hat moved and any recording the man had of me deleted.
He had to check the legitimacy of the request, not with the hat, but with the recording.
It was a quick check, so he came back to ask Mr. Across the Aisle to please move his hat and delete any recording he took of me.
Mr. Across the Aisle opted in a lifeline — a man behind us who had witnessed the exchange.
The witness told Mr. Manager that I had yelled. I had screamed! I told the manager that due to the precautions I take pre-flight, I am incapable of being anything but calm and level.
Then the turbulence hit again.
Mr. Across the Aisle forwent his translator and addressed me directly.
We both know why you don’t want the hat there, he said. You are an antisemite and you are no Jew.
I don’t have to prove my Jewish credentials to anyone, but I’ll provide a few for context: I am a 13-year Jewish day school veteran. In high school, I even had to wallow through two whole years of rabbinical literature, arming me with knowledge about shatnez, the one about the Levi in the cemetery, and not much more. I begrudgingly had a bat mitzvah, which is a credential I would leave off my CV in this case. I made aliyah. I served the Jewish homeland (another one I’ll save for a different time). We do kiddush and eat challah and sometimes I remember to light the candles on Shabbat. I am a Jew. And a proud one, at that.
As for the antisemite claim? Please refer to the above points.
Without context, those are baseless claims, especially coming from a stranger.
But I have the context, so I am aware.
I didn’t want the Haredi man’s hat next to me if he wasn’t willing to take the seat himself. I knew that. He knew that.
He also knew that I wear pants, and he may have even picked up on my American accent. It’s not that I’m not a Jew — it’s that I’m not his kind of Jew.
It’s also not that I’m an antisemite, I was just anti-that-Semite putting his hat where he refused to sit.
I have my biases and he has his. I don’t hate him, nor do I definitively “hate” all Haredis. I simply have my principles, like he has his.
So when Mr. Manager asked if we had worked out the hat situation, I alluded to us having bigger issues. Mr. Across the Aisle apologized to me for his comments and wished me nothing but the best. I wished him the same.
“Yeah,” I decided, “we’re good.”
The hat was across aisle, on the head of its owner who had so kindly relented.
I still don’t understand, but I have the context so I am aware.