Unruly Israeli on Plane Would Have Been Heroes in France

Europeans believe that a person is first and foremost an individual, whereas Israelis view any unusual or disgraceful behavior by someone as a sign of disrespect to the herd.

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Illustration by Eran Wolkowski

One day, to paraphrase the Israeli song, the herd gets up in the morning and feels that it’s a united nation upon viewing a video clip showing a few of its members behaving shamefully during an Israir flight to Varna, in Bulgaria, attacking a flight attendant who refused to sell them duty-free chocolate and cursing him roundly.

It’s a salient herd trait: uniting around the banal and the self-evident. And in this case, around the concept that you have to behave nicely on flights and heed the instructions of the aircrew.

What people don’t notice is that their eagerness to nod their heads collectively in regard to the self-evident is no less bestial than the bestial behavior of the passengers who were unruly on the flight to Varna. I was enlightened on this point by a French guest, a writer and journalist named Frederic Martel, who’s here to report on the pre-election atmosphere. When I showed him the clip, which everyone in Israel deemed outrageous, he did not react with the same automatic disgust as everyone else.

My French friend’s initial impulse at the sight of the situation captured on film was to try to understand or to justify the behavior of the restive Israelis, and not to blame them but to blame the situation in which they found themselves and which drove them to behave as they did.

Herein, perhaps, lies the difference between those of European culture and those of Israeli culture. The former believe that a person is first and foremost an individual with a face and personality of his own, and that his improper behavior might be due to the constraining framework and the anomalous situation in which he finds himself. Whereas those of Israeli culture, who are members of a herd, immediately view any unusual or disgraceful behavior by someone as a sign of disrespect to the herd. They couldn’t care less about the individual himself or about his motives.

To illustrate, my friend told me about two famous episodes related to the issue of shameful behavior on flights. The hero of one episode is the great actor Gerard Depardieu, who drank alcohol during a flight, and then wanted to go to the toilet, but because the plane was about to land was told that he would have to wait. He ignored the instructions, and when the crew rushed to order him back to his seat – he opened his fly and relieved himself on the floor of the plane.

Another famous flight disrupter is the film director Claude Lanzmann, who was detained in Ben-Gurion International Airport three years ago for allegedly sexually assaulting a female security guard who was interrogating him in the annoyingly grinding way familiar to everyone. My friend, a former French cultural attache in his country’s consulate in Boston, also remembered another episode involving Lanzmann, in which he boarded a flight tipsy and drove the flight crew crazy with wild behavior.

In all these cases, French public opinion sided with the violators of the rules. That’s because true people of culture understand that flights and all they entail thrust people into an abnormal situation in which they are temporarily deprived of freedom of movement, freedom of expression and sometimes the freedom to relieve themselves, and that sometimes a nerve pops and a person loses control of himself.

In contrast, in the case of the video from the Israir flight to Varna, the Israeli public automatically sympathized with the flight attendant under attack, the representative of law and authority, which were infringed upon. What can be at the root of this eagerness always to justify the person in control if not a type of herd mentality?

Everyone knows that flights have become a nightmare these days, because of the many restrictions and the endless prohibitions the passengers are subjected to, the bizarre orders that we have no choice but to obey, and the unjustified humiliation – like the security questions in the course of which a young guard could mistreat a distinguished director like Claude Lanzmann, though he is not allowed to emit an angry word. Everyone knows this, but all accept the situation, other than a few exceptions who, if they have the bad luck to be Israelis, will be pilloried in the town square.

My French friend also drew my attention to an Argentine film “Wild Tales,” a black comedy in which passengers on a flight lose control of their tempers and scream at one another in a way that recalls the Varna flight video.

All of which goes to show that there is a range of ways – more forgiving, less stereotypical – to treat the phenomenon of passengers who lose control of themselves on flights. And second, that maybe it’s time to stop viewing flight crews as master sorcerers who have your fate in their hands, and to see them more like what they really are: crews and drivers of airborne buses.

And third: the chocolate. As those who viewed the clip know, the quarrel between the passengers and the flight attendant was triggered by his refusal to sell them duty-free chocolate. I have to say that personally, when I heard the passenger’s desperate repeated outcries, “I want chocolate,” I was filled with true compassion for her – and I say that without an iota of sarcasm.

There was something real, primeval, instinctive and tragic here: a woman whose whole subconscious burst into the open, and who reverted to being an infant who wanted to suck milk from her mother’s breast, and who, in her cosmic blindness, screams and will not be consoled until the nipple returns to her lips. And her older sister, who understands her distress, seems to go berserk with anger.

I have to admit that it was a riveting human show. And the person who came across as a synthetic puppet declaiming hollow sentences was the flight attendant. Watching him, I suddenly understood why I never buy duty-free items on a plane: because I have no desire to have recourse to the favors of the ushers on the bus, who, only because it happens to be flying in the air and not rolling along on a road, think they’re God.

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