Haredi rabbi demands El Al apologize to Sabbath-observant passengers or face boycott


JERUSALEM (JTA) — A haredi Orthodox rabbi who was on board an El Al flight forced to divert in order to allow Sabbath-observant passengers to get off the plane has threatened a boycott of the airline.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin, who heads the Beit Shemesh-based Ateres Shlomo yeshiva network, demanded that El Al CEO Gonen Ussishkin publicly apologize for its actions in allowing the flight to take off and then diverting it, and apologize for accusing the Orthodox passengers of being violent.

The flight, El Al 002, on Thursday, Nov. 15 was delayed by more than five hours due to bad weather and was racing the clock to get to Israel before the start of the Sabbath. Dozens of passengers had demanded that the plane return to the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport so that they could disembark, but instead the plane took off.

It is unclear whether passengers, both religious and non-Sabbath observant, were violent toward the flight crew. Several accounts on social media and in blog posts have offered differing accounts of what occurred on the flight.

In a letter to Ussishkin sent on Friday, Sorotzkin thanked the CEO for what he called a “friendly” meeting, adding “to my dismay and embarrassment a full week has passed in which the religious community has been slandered over events that did not occur.” He also said that the incident and the airline’s response “debase all those who observe the Shabbat and Jewish tradition.”

He threatened to mobilize a boycott of El Al by the entire haredi Orthodox community, which he called “holy.”

“I wish to inform you that following negotiations over the last few days in which the disparagement of those who observe Shabbat and tradition has continued, if an unambiguous apology is not forthcoming by Sunday evening… we will be forced to work within the holy community towards a preference for other airlines who do not discriminate between different people, do not belittle that which is beloved and holy to the people of God and [who] appreciate their principles,” Sorotzkin wrote.

An attendant on the flight on Thursday, who was not named, told Israel’s Channel 10 news that the religious passengers were violent on the flight, and accused the company of backtracking to save its reputation.

“It isn’t possible to refute a team of 12 staff members who say they did experience violence and to say it never happened,” the flight attendant said.

Ussishkin last week set up a committee to study the events that led to the flight to stop in Athens to allow the Sabbath observant passengers to get off the plane, and said the committee also would investigate allegations of passenger violence.

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