Potential ultra-Orthodox boycott threatens to cripple El Al airlines

Haaretz, Israel/December 7, 2006
By Yair Ettinger

Monday morning the storm around El Al's desecration of the Sabbath on Friday was transformed from a consumer uproar and struggle to preserve "the sanctity of the Sabbath," into a saga in which the "finger of God" was visible to many.

El Al flight LY007 had taken off from Tel Aviv for New York a little after 11:30 A.M., when a problem was discovered in the rudder system. As the captain jettisoned fuel over the sea in preparation for an emergency landing back at Ben-Gurion International Airport, panic broke out among the passengers. "People thought it was the end; everyone was shaking," a passenger, Eliezer Karlibach, said. "Even a secular person seated next to me totally panicked and said it was all happening because of the desecration of the Sabbath."

The plane landed safely and repairs were made. Before the plane took off again, Karlibach told Haaretz, "It was a miracle, no doubt about it, it was from Heaven."

Even before Friday's drama, a number of ultra-Orthodox passengers canceled their El Al tickets at the last moment and decided to fly another company. Many are said to believe that the plane's mechanical fault was a sign of divine confirmation of a statement Sunday by Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, an influential figure of the Lithuanian stream, broadcast on the community's Kol Hai radio station, that flying El Al endangered life. The trickle of a cancellation has turned into a stream, with ultra-Orthodox travel agents reporting hundreds of cancellations.

These statements followed Lithuanian sector leader Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv's consternation regarding El Al's failure to "fear desecration of Shabbat," despite the fact that it is the most terror-threatened airline in the world.

The storm began over the fact that despite the efforts of ultra-Orthodox MKs, on Thursday and Friday, El Al decided to permit flights to leave Israel shortly before the onset of Shabbat to make up for flights delayed during a nationwide strike last week. The flights took off on Friday afternoon and continued operating into the Sabbath, in defiance of the national carrier's traditional Shabbat observance.

Another traveler, Nahum Karlinsky, who was on the plane to New York, told Haaretz that about 150 ultra-Orthodox passengers were on the flight to New York. Like him, many had received permission from their rabbis to fly El Al, in spite of the Sabbath desecration. "Many rabbis, including the Gerer Rebbe, said it was alright to fly this time because canceling the tickets would cause financial loss," Karlinsky, a well-known public figure in Bratslav Hasidic circles, said. "My rabbi knows I fly El Al all the time -I'm even a member of the frequent flier club. But he told me 'this is your last fight on El Al.'"

Also in the wake of the strike, on Thursday El Al served non-kosher food to its passengers, adding another infraction of Jewish law to the grievance against them. On the airline's flight from Moscow, non-kosher sandwiches purchased locally were served in lieu of the meals that had spoiled after a 24-hour delay had kept the plane from taking off.

In an El Al official response they said the passengers had been notified ahead of time that the food served would not be kosher, and also fruit was offered as a substitute.

However, it is doubtful that these events will give rise to an organized ultra-Orthodox boycott of El Al. The rabbinic committee on matters pertaining to Shabbat, a forum that includes all central streams of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, met again, Monday, to consider its response to El Al's actions.

Some time this week, they are expected to formulate an announcement to be signed by rabbis of all ultra-Orthodox sectors.

Ultra-Orthodox powerbrokers, who met Monday with Israir representatives, said that the domestic carrier is prepared to cease flying on the Sabbath if the community makes increased use of its services.

In regard to negotiations with Israir, Shabbat committee chairman Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf, told Haaretz, "We were in contact with them in the past, but we didn't take it seriously because we were committed to El Al. After El Al breached our trust, we consider ourselves free of any obligation."

The non-organized boycott began to expand even before leading rabbis came out with statements against the airline. The committee announced it was preparing to announce "harsh steps." An official boycott could deal a fatal blow to El Al as it would obligate not only ultra-Orthodox travelers from Israel, but also tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox travelers from abroad. The rabbis of the national religious stream would also be expected to join the decision.

El Al CEO Haim Romano called the committee of rabbis for a meeting but was rebuffed Monday night.

Romano told Haaretz Monday he did not believe a decision to boycott El Al would pass. "El Al is sensitive to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox public and will, therefore, avoid changing its policy by flying on Shabbat, except in extraordinary cases, like those which took place last weekend. We are convinced that the entire public understands the circumstances and respects El Al's loyalty to its clientele."

El Al CEO Haim Romano however said Monday that he does not rule out the option of conducting flights on the Sabbath under specific circumstances. "One must remember that the airport operates seven days a week," he said, "and I expect the religious community to accommodate us as we have accommodated them over the years."

Ultra-Orthodox passengers represent 20-30 percent of the clientele on El Al flights. Ultra-Orthodox passengers typically fly during certain seasons of the year, and to certain destinations. They represent a larger percentage of passengers on flights to New York and London, than they do on flights to the Far East. The great majority of ultra-Orthodox passengers do not fly throughout the year, like business passengers. They tend to fly during Jewish holiday seasons and in summer, following the three-week mourning period that precedes Tisha B'Av

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