Orthodox, El Al Tensions

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 25, 2009, issue of April 03, 2009.
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Orthodox Jews are being urged to shun El Al, Israel’s national air carrier, over its in-flight entertainment — a push that is widely viewed as a gambit in a larger struggle with the airline.

The Rabbinical Transportation Committee, an influential body representing a cross-section of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community, has published a guide telling people how to fly “kosher” around the world — a kind of Michelin Guide for observant travelers.

El Al’s generous provision of in-flight movies — a welcome amenity for most passengers — drew fire from the rabbinic inspectors. They accuse El Al of placing religious passengers under the influence of secular culture and “immodest” images.

The guide is seen by many as an attempt to instigate a de facto boycott of the airline by Haredi travelers. Its publication follows unsuccessful attempts by Haredi leaders to persuade the airline to run some flights according to their religious guidelines. This would have meant segregating the flights along gender lines, ensuring that men are not served by female cabin crew personnel and turning off movie screens.

The guide “is a way to put pressure on El Al, and you have to see it within the wider framework of aiming towards complete separation of men and women in public,” said Orli Erez-Likhovski, an attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, which has initiated an ongoing legal battle against gender-segregated bus lines.

While statements from different Orthodox rabbis deeming one airline more kosher than another are nothing new, the Rabbinical Transportation Committee has demonstrated an ability to bend Israeli transit companies to its will. This body has persuaded Israel’s bus companies to segregate more than 35 bus lines, meaning that men use the front doors and sit at the front and women use the back doors and sit at the back.

The committee is an offshoot of the long-established Modesty Committee, which is backed by leaders of various Haredi factions, including Hasidim, so-called Lithuanian or non-Hasidic rabbis, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox and the militantly anti-Zionist Edah Haredit.

According to a spokesman for the transportation committee, the guide responds to a real need for consumer information in the Haredi community, so that people can find a way of flying without encountering movies. “Many people just don’t realize there is another option,” the spokesman said. “For the religious community, if they want to fly kosher, they can follow this list.”

As for how much extra people should be prepared to pay to travel on movie-free flights when doing so proves more expensive, he said that it is up to “every person to ask his rabbi.”

Netanya-based writer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, one of the leading proponents of segregation on buses, said that the committee has produced a useful resource. “If I had a choice between a cheaper ticket on a flight with movies and a more expensive one without, I would be prepared to pay more to be in an appropriate environment,” she said.

The guide opens with an explanation that it has been released because, with El Al failing to provide flights that are “mehadrin” — meaning extra-kosher — the Haredi community needs to know the most acceptable ways of traveling. The transportation committee spokesman said that while this is an accurate description of the guide’s primary aim, the committee also hopes that it will “put pressure on El Al” to meet his community’s demands.

If the guide does result in a de facto boycott of El Al, it could not come at a worse time for the airline. The guide was released just ahead of Passover, which is high season for Haredi travel.

The last time that El Al was subject to an unofficial boycott by Haredim — estimated to represent a quarter of its customer base — the company estimated its losses at $250,000 a day. That boycott began after the airline, which generally does not fly on the Sabbath, made an exception following an airport strike that had disrupted its schedules.

The boycott, which began in December 2006, lasted just over a month. It ended after the airline agreed that Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar would decide when circumstances are exceptional enough to permit Sabbath flying.

Since then, relations between El Al and the Haredi community had been calm until the latest round of tensions. El Al, responding to questions from the Forward, insisted that nothing has changed and downplayed recent developments.

“We have a great relationship with the Haredi community, and that’s not about to change,” El Al’s CEO, Chaim Romano, said.

Meanwhile, airlines that are widely regarded as offering poor customer service — one symptom of which is the absence of in-flight movies — are highly recommended by the guide, and are likely to experience heightened popularity among Haredi travellers in coming weeks.

For domestic flights within the United States, US Airways is movie-free and therefore deemed the most kosher. US Airways ranked last in the 2008 American Customer Satisfaction Index, a survey of airlines conducted by the University of Michigan.

For European travel, the no-frills approach of state airlines of post-communist countries strikes a chord with the rabbis. They endorse Poland’s LOT and Ukraine’s Aerosvit Airlines, which is ranked as “poor” by the Official Airline Star Ranking run by aviation consultancy Skytrax.

Travelers to Britain are urged to choose British Midland Airways, which shows no movies except on Tuesdays. On Tuesdays the guide suggests that travelers request to be seated in one of the 36 seats between rows 7 and 11, where there is an obstructed view of the screens.

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