Ultra-Orthodox Threaten to Boycott Israeli Airline El Al Over Shabbat Incident

Controversy emerged over an El Al flight that diverted to allow religious passengers to disembark and avoid violating the Shabbat ■ Rabbi behind boycott threat demands formal apology and clarification of the events by Sunday night

File photo: An El Al Airplane
Amir Cohen/Reuters

The Haredi community is threatening to boycott the Israeli flag carrier El Al Airlines due to its dissatisfaction with the handling of events during a November 16 flight from New York to Tel Aviv, which had to stop in Athens to allow religiously observant passengers to disembark and avoid desecrating Shabbat.

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin said on Monday that El Al will set up a committee to investigate the events of the flight, after contradictory narratives emerged on social media.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin, who heads the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva and was one of the passengers on the flight, wrote to Usishkin on Friday, warning him that if El Al does not issue an apology and an explicit clarification by Sunday evening, he will act to start a boycott among the Haredi community .

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Flight 002, which had been scheduled to leave John F. Kennedy International Airport at 6:30 P.M. last Thursday, took off more than five hours late due to bad weather. Dozens of passengers demanded to be allowed to disembark in New York out of concern that they would find themselves flying after Shabbat began.

Passengers were told to take their seats so the plane could return to the gate, but instead the plane took off.

What happened after that has been disputed over social media posts. Some accuse the religious passengers of being physically and verbally abusive during the flight. Others say flight attendants withheld information and service to religious passengers, and did not tell them until much later that the plane would land in Athens to let them off.

In his letter, Rabbi Sorotzkin writes that incident and the airline's response "debase all those who observe the Shabbat and Jewish tradition." He added that if his conditions are not met, he and the entire ultra-Orthodox community will be forced to change their allegiance to an airline that "does not come between a man and his devotion, does not ridicule the value and the holiness of the nation of God, its institutions or its principles."

Rabbi Sorotzkin thanked Usishkin for their meeting the previous week, which he characterizes as friendly. However, he noted that "to my dismay and embarrassment a full week has passed in which the religious community has been slandered over events that did not occur."

Rabbi Sorotzkin blames Usishkin and El Al, saying that "instead of praising and glorifying" the observant passengers who chose to leave the flight so as to avoid desecrating the Shabbat, the airline chose to "exploit an event that was your fault and divert attention to create a dispute" between religious and non-religious sectors of the public.

El Al refused to comment on this report.