Ultra-Orthodox rabbi to El Al: Apologize for slander or face boycott

The airline must apologize for “slandering” the passengers of the Friday flight that took off too late to land in Israel before the Sabbath, says prominent rabbi.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin, who heads a large religious education network in Israel and was on the infamous flight two Fridays ago that was diverted to Athens because it could not make it to Israel before the Sabbath, has sent a letter to El Al CEO Gonen Ussishkin threatening to call for a boycott of the airline unless a public apology is made by Sunday.

In explaining the decision to divert the aircraft, El Al alleged that ultra-Orthodox passengers had “exercised heavy and violent pressure against the cabin crew” when told the flight would not make it to Israel in time. This was the reason for the landing in Greece, which would prevent them from being forced to break the Sabbath, El Al claimed.

Two non-religious passengers also said that haredim hit flight personnel and even tried to force their way into the cockpit. But according to the religious passengers, there was no violence, only raised voices.

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There was good reason for the them to be upset, they added, saying that the captain and crew had repeatedly lied to them.

According to the religious passengers, when they requested to disembark from the plane in New York after several hours of waiting on the tarmac, in their anxiety over the approaching Sabbath, the pilot said he would allow them to do so but then took off instead. The pilot also assured them that they would make it to Israel on time, but after a few hours announced that they would land in Athens, they said.

When Rabbi Sorotzkin spoke with Ussishkin on Tuesday, according to Israel Hayom, the director reportedly said, “I never said that the haredim on the flight attacked anyone. There was no physical violence.”

This admission was not good enough for the haredi leaders, passengers or community, as both its traditional and social media have been full of anger at the “fake news” and “slander” of their community that spread quickly over the internet during the Sabbath and beyond.

As Sorotzkin wrote, “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 [haredi] community towards a preference for other airlines who at least do not discriminate between people, do not belittle that which is beloved and holy to the people of God and [who] appreciate their principles.”

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Even if the apology is made, however, the argument over the events of the ill-fated flight is not yet over, as demonstrated by the claim made by an unnamed attendant to Channel 10 News on Thursday.

“It isn’t possible to refute a team of 12 staff members who say they did experience violence and to say it never happened,” she said, adding that the only reason El Al might apologize would be to “protect itself” and “not lose customers.”

Another reason could be a letter sent Tuesday by lawyers representing 180 religious passengers demanding NIS 9 million in compensation for the monetary loss and distress caused to them by the airline’s personnel of Flight 002.