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No one happy after Shabbat diverts El Al flight to Athens

  • JTAElAlFlight
An El Al plane bound for Israel that was delayed from taking off in New York was diverted to Athens on Friday to allow Shabbat-observant passengers to disembark.
by MARCY OSTER | Nov 22, 2018

That’s what we know for sure. What happened on the plane? That’s another story.

The flight, which had been scheduled to leave John F. Kennedy Airport at 18:30 on Thursday, took off more than five hours late. Bad weather had delayed the arrival of the crew by at least a couple of hours, and then prevented the departure of hundreds of planes. The plane required de-icing more than once as it waited in line to leave.

By 23:30, dozens of passengers on the plane demanded to be allowed to disembark in New York, fearing that they would still be airborne after Shabbat began. The passengers were told to take their seats so the plane could return to the gate and they could disembark, but instead, the plane took off.

Here is where the stories diverge.

Some passengers on social media posts accused religious Jewish passengers of being physically and verbally abusive during the flight when they realised that they would not land in Israel in time for Shabbat.

Others said El Al flight attendants withheld information and then service to religious passengers during the flight, and did not tell them until several hours later that the plane would land in Athens.

Ben Chafetz, the Client Services Director for 121eCommerce.com, said he was among those who were asked to leave the plane, even if it meant losing his ticket.

“Four hours into the flight, the captain announced that because of the Haredim, the plane would stop in Athens,” Chafetz wrote, using the word for fervently religious Jews. “At which point, all the people who wanted to get off for Shabbos could get off the plane first, and then [and here’s the kicker], all the people who wanted to continue to Israel would also have to get off the plane and go on a different plane from IsrAir to go to Israel.

“What a shame… I wish El Al had told the truth. We were stopping in Athens because El Al made a series of bad calls, and once it landed, it could not depart on Shabbos which is why it needed a non El Al plane to continue to Israel on Shabbos.” The national carrier is not allowed to fly on Shabbat.

The decision to land in Athens angered orthodox and non-orthodox passengers, for different reasons.

“To be very clear, no one was angry at the stewardesses; everyone understood that they did not make the decisions,” Chafetz wrote. “We were asking to speak to the pilot, or someone who could speak for the pilot. Again, there were no attempts to break into the cockpit, there were no physical altercations. Yes, there were some raised voices, but most of the time [I have the videos to prove it], it was secular Israeli passengers who came to yell at the passengers who were concerned about Shabbos that we were ruining their weekend.”

Passenger Roni Meital told a different story in a post on Facebook.

“After 24 hours to reach Israel, I am broken, broken mainly because of the lack of respect of people who are observant, who observe tradition and Shabbat, who took this issue a step too far,” Meital wrote.

Meital thanked the flight crew for its patience and tolerance in spite of the aggressiveness of some of the passengers. She wrote that “after six hours of flying, I suddenly heard screaming, and saw a flight attendant crying after she was hit and pushed, amid threats that they would break open the door to the cockpit”.

She also wrote: “I found myself standing and [physically] protecting flight attendants who were crying, and who just wanted to catch their breath after the [violent] behaviour toward them.”

Meital called on others to share her post.

Yehuda Shlezinger, religious affairs reporter for the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, was on the flight and said that reports about the behaviour of religious passengers were exaggerated.

“I must confess, when I opened the news sites on Saturday night, and saw the crazy headlines about ‘bad’ Haredim who ‘pushed flight attendants and threatened to break into the cockpit’, I was livid,” he wrote. “Thousands of likes, hundreds of shares, tons of venom on social media, and the news was completely fake. I double-checked the boarding pass in my pocket to make sure we were talking about the same flight.”

Chafetz went on to describe the beauty of a Shabbat spent in a hotel literally across the street from the airport, with meals provided by the local Chabad.

“Hasidim sat and schmoozed with Zionists, Modox [modern orthodox] sat with black hats… I only use these labels so you can visualise the seating, but there were no labels at this seuda [meal]; we sat in true achdus [unity],” he wrote.

El Al issued a statement saying that the extreme weather in New York had caused numerous cancellations and delays for hundreds of flights including its own flight departing for Israel on Thursday evening.

“In spite of the cancellation of many flights, we succeeded in releasing Flight 002 from New York for our passengers, including an intermediate stop in Athens,” the airline said. “El Al arranged onward flights to Israel that day for all passengers. Passengers who preferred to remain in Athens for Shabbat were cared for by company representatives, and El Al will return them to Israel after Shabbat is over.

“We apologise for any discomfort caused to our customers, but as said, we preferred to have the flight leave New York the same day.”

Arutz Sheva, meanwhile, reported that the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, gave permission for another delayed El Al flight from New York to land on Friday afternoon after the start of Shabbat. Yosef invoked an exception that says Shabbat may be violated in order to save a life. A passenger on the flight was said to be seriously ill. 

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