Controversy Erupts Over El Al Flight Diverted to Athens to Accommodate Sabbath-observant Passengers

Some passengers in social media posts accused the religious Jewish passengers of going too far, saying they became physically and verbally abusive during the flight

El Al's first Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft
Amir Cohen/Reuters

An El Al plane travelling on Friday from New York to Israel diverted to Athens to allow Sabbath-observant passengers who feared they would not make it to their final destination on time to disembark.

El Al Flight 002, which had been scheduled to leave John F. Kennedy Airport at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, took off more than five hours late.

Bad weather had delayed the arrival of the crew by at least a couple of hours, and then prevented the take-off of hundreds of planes. The plane required deicing more than once as it waited in line to take off.

By 11:30 p.m. dozens of passengers on the plane demanded to be allowed to disembark in New York, fearing they would still be airborne once Shabbat began. After being told to take their seats so that the plane could return to the gate and allow them to disembark, the plane instead took off.

Here is where the stories diverge.

Some passengers in social media posts accused the religious Jewish passengers of going too far, saying they became physically and verbally abusive during the flight when they realized that they would not land in Israel in time for Shabbat.

Others say that the El Al flight attendants withheld information and then service to the religious passengers during the flight, and did not tell them until several hours later that the plane would land in Athens.

Ben Chafetz, director of Client Services for 121eCommerce.com, said that he was one of the people who asked to leave the plane, even if it meant losing his ticket. Chafetz wrote: “Four hours into the flight the Captain announced that because of the “haredim” the plane would stop in Athens. At which point, all the people who want to get off for Shabbos can get off the plane first, and then, (and here is the kicker), all the people who want to continue to Israel will also have to get off the plane and go on a different plane from IsraAir to go to Israel.

“What a shame… I wish El Al had announced the truth. We were stopping in Athens because El-Al made a series of bad calls, and once they landed they could not depart on Shabbos which is why they needed an non El-Al plane to continue to Israel on Shabbos,” he wrote.

The decision to land in Athens angered both Orthodox and non-Orthodox passengers alike, for different reasons.

“To be very clear, no one was angry at the stewardesses; everyone understood that they did not make the decisions. We were requesting to speak to the pilot or someone who can speak for the pilot. Again, there was no attempts to break into the cockpit, there were no physical altercations. Yes, there were some raised voices, but most of the time (I have the videos to prove it), it was secular Israeli passengers who came to yell at the passengers who were concerned about Shabbos that we were ruining their weekend,” Chafetz wrote.

Passenger Roni Meital told a different story in a post on Facebook.

“After 24 hours to reach Israel, I am broken, broken mainly because of the lack of respect of people who are observant, who observe tradition and Shabbat, who took this issue a step too far,” Meital wrote in her post.

Meital thanked the flight crew for their patience and tolerance despite the aggressiveness of some of the passengers.  She wrote that “after six hours of flying, I suddenly heard screaming and saw a flight attendant crying after she was hit, pushed, amid threats they would break open the door to the cockpit.” She also wrote: “I found myself standing and [physically] protecting flight attendants who were crying and who just wanted to catch their breath after the [violent] behavior toward them.”

She called on others to share her post.

Yehuda Shlezinger, religious affairs reporter for the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, was on the flight and saidreports of the behavior of the religious passengers was exaggerated.

“I, like hundreds of other Israelis, was on the flight that departed from New York on Thursday night. I must confess, when I opened the news sites Saturday night and saw the crazy headlines about ‘bad’ haredim who ‘pushed flight attendants and threatened to break into the cockpit,’ I was livid. Thousands of likes, hundreds of shares, tons of venom on social media, and the news was completely fake. I double-checked the boarding pass in my pocket, to make sure we were talking about the same flight,” he wrote.

Chafetz went on to describe the beauty of the Shabbat spent in the hotel literally across the street from the airport with meals provided by the local Chabad. “Hasidim sat and schmoozed with Zionists, Modox sat with black hats… I only use these labels so you can visualize the seating, but there were no labels at this seuda (meal); we sat in true achdus (unity).”

El Al issued a statement saying, “Extreme weather in New York caused numerous cancellations and delays for hundreds of flights, including El Al flights that departed for Israel Thursday evening. Despite the cancellation of many flights, we succeeded in releasing Flight 002 from New York for our passengers, including an intermediate stop in Athens. El Al arranged onward flights to Israel that day for all passengers. Passengers who preferred to remain in Athens for Shabbat were cared for by company representatives, and El Al will return them to Israel after Shabbat is over.

“We apologize for any discomfort caused to our customers, but as said we preferred to have the flight leave New York the same day.”