Don’t Blame Seat-switching ultra-Orthodox Men for Air Rage

If we want to see ourselves as belonging to the enlightened section of the Jewish people, there are better ways to use our time in the air than getting offended by the Haredim.

Tomer Appelbaum

“You fly more than anyone else at the paper. Why don’t you write something about all these stories of the Haredim on planes?” asked my editor last Sunday.

My first instinct was to deny that title, with its negative connotation of what a burden I am on Haaretz’s precious budget. But I immediately realized I was onto a losing case. And, of course, I can hardly claim not to have been irked at times over the years when asked by a black-hatted, bearded man to change places with him so he wouldn’t have to sit beside a woman (Move for you? You’ve got to be kidding! Hold on, is that an exit-row seat you’re offering?); or waking up mid-flight with urgent needs, only to find a minyan praying shaharith blocking my way to the toilets; or being asked for the 20th time in an hour by an earnest Chabad Hasid whether I want to lay tefillin (I am going to strangle you with your leather phylacteries, young man, if you dare bother me again!).

I could fill this column with such anecdotes. Why, only on my last flight to Kiev I met a famous rabbi – and convicted sex offender, to boot – surrounded by his acolytes, urging me to join him on a pilgrimage to a Hasidic sage’s grave. That was a laugh.

But there is almost something too easy about sneering at our outlandish cousins, with their bulky hatboxes and double-wrapped glatt-kosher meals, intruding on our presence. How dare they invade our space with their Neanderthal customs and demeaning demands! Don’t they know there are respectable goyim on board? How dare they give all us normal Jews a bad name! And anyway, where do all those parasites get the money to fly with their enormous families, all those squealing babies and snotty-nosed kids trying to catch a glimpse of the television screens they aren’t allowed at home? Why can’t they stay in their ghettoes, instead of ruining our hard-earned vacation before it even begins?

Yes, we love the liberating feel of (relatively) cheap air travel, which occasionally frees us from our earthbound, mundane existence and transports us to a different continent in the space of hours. But there are also few social equalizers like a commercial flight, in which we are suddenly reduced to just a letter and two-digit number, and accorded the same status as 200 or 300 other ordinary mortals. What we won’t do to avoid that dismal state – beg, argue and scrape frequent-flyer miles for an upgrade to business (and once in business, up to First) ... anything to avoid being just another face in the crowd.

When we were younger, there was still a tiny bit of glamor in boarding a plane. But everyone flies nowadays, and once we have accepted our fate in coach and have ensured that at least we got an aisle or window seat, we are down to our last resort in setting ourselves apart from our fellow passengers. Those plebs who talk in loud voices, act as if they have never seen the inside of a Boeing before, and make us cringe when they applaud as the aircraft lands. No, we’re not one of them – we’re suave and cosmopolitan world travellers with our iPads. We don’t belong to the hoi polloi; we may only have the money to fly cattle class, but we know how to ask the steward for a Bloody Mary and correctly fold our jackets into the overhead compartments.

And who better to set ourselves aside from than the cumbersomely clad and uncouth Haredi crowd? Our very own white trash. We hate sharing a plane with them, but oh, do they make us feel better about our station in life. I may not have the money (or the generous employer) to enable me to turn left upon boarding, but at least I know the cabin crew doesn’t sigh inwardly when they see me on the gangway.

I am not for one moment excusing shameful scenes such as the one that took place a few weeks ago on an El Al plane about to take off from New York, which was delayed by 20 minutes as Haredi men stood in the aisle and refused to sit down until they were allowed to change seats so they wouldn’t have to sit next to a female passenger. One women wrote a piece describing her humiliation and tears at being treated like a “second-class” citizen after being involved in a similar incident recently. She tried to admonish the Haredim around her, asking them to imagine that, instead of men refusing to sit next to women, it was non-Jews shunning Jews.

I’ve no doubt her feelings are sincere, but I hate to break it to her – she is no Rosa Parks. And since this woman is also a noted expert on gender and religious feminism, I doubt she really thinks her imagined comparison is valid.

We feel these Haredi passengers are monopolizing us with their norms and intolerance and warped values. To a certain extent, within the confines of the aircraft cabin – they are. But once the plane lands in Tel Aviv, New York or London, they take a taxi immediately back to their closed-off neighborhood, while we allow ourselves to roam the world. No, we are not the second-class citizens. They are the segregated ones living in their ghettoes, while we get to choose where we live and visit, where we travel to, and when.

If they had the chance to fly on a Haredi-only plane, with no legroom or complimentary drinks, they would. But until the day Kosher Air is launched, they will remain a flying minority, stuck with everyone else in the same claustrophobic metal tube. For the space of a few hours, they are forced to join and sit right next to us in our world, and I don’t envy them. They didn’t choose their self-segregation: it was forced upon them by their rabbis and the accident of birth, and nothing they were taught prepared them for the cultural shock of air travel.

The majority of Haredi passengers adjust to this situation in a polite and tactful manner. But some feel they have to impose a bit of their world on ours.

Being forced to share a small common space with people very different from you can sometimes lead to fascinating meetings, but it often brings out the worst in people. I’ve been on planes delayed by passengers who wanted 10 more minutes to choose perfume in the duty-free; by drunk and rioting England soccer fans; and by obnoxious individuals pretending to be on the verge of sealing a business deal, refusing to switch off their mobile as the plane is about to begin its pushback. And talking of pushback, there have been no shortage of violent altercations over over-reclining.

I admit, I’m no better than the next passenger. When I get to fly from Ben-Gurion airport on Friday afternoon or Shabbat, I enjoy the calmer, Haredi-free atmosphere. I challenge any secular reader to claim they feel otherwise. But to make a virtue out of that? No religion or community has a monopoly on boorishness. It just happens that ultra-Orthodox boors are the easiest to identify.

Probably your best chance for having a meaningful conversation with an ultra-Orthodox Jew is on a plane. Flying back from Kiev a few months ago, I was seated next to another rabbi. A fascinating man who works as a consultant for kashrut committees and inspected breweries, bakeries and factories in over 40 countries, who told me more secrets of the global alcohol and food industry in two hours than I could ever have discovered for myself.

I am not saying it is the non-Haredim who are to blame for the lack of communication between communities. But if we want to see ourselves as belonging to the enlightened section of the Jewish people, there are better ways to use our time in the air than getting offended.

Yes, there are horrendous issues of intolerance and gender inequality within the ultra-Orthodox world, and the self-imposed isolation has produced a young and ignorant generation, woefully underprepared for 21st-century life. We should be thankful that, at most, we very rarely have to suffer it (and no, these midair incidents are not the same as the battle against gender-segregated buses in Jerusalem, which is a political one since the ultra-Orthodox there are not a small minority). If these issues bother you, and they should, then 37,000 feet is the worst place to begin dealing with it.

Instead, suck up your pride and get to know your neighbors for a few hours. You may go some way to breaking down their prejudices and, who knows, perhaps even overcome some of your own. And when you land, find out about the handful of struggling organizations supporting the brave and bewildered young men and women who have left the Haredi community without any financial resources or relevant education for the modern workplace. Donate to these volunteers, who fulfil a vital role that no government department or Jewish community body is prepared to take upon itself. They deserve an upgrade.