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The Flight 002 Election

Last week, Israeli media reported of rioting Haredim onboard an El Al plane. The true story turned out to be very different, and deeply revealing.

Liel Leibovitz
November 21, 2018
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Last Thursday, as New York was struggling with the obstacles presented by 5 mighty inches of snow, El Al Flight 002 to Tel Aviv, scheduled to depart at 6:30 p.m., was delayed. It finally took off at 11:45 p.m., which, ordinarily, is hardly the stuff of front page news. Except that shortly after its landing, the flight became not only the subject of explosive nationwide controversy but also a perfect metaphor for so much that is wrong—and so much that is right—with Israeli society.

The first accounts of Flight 002, appearing in the Israeli press on Saturday, were grim. The snowstorm, in this version of events, caused an inevitable delay, and when the Haredi passengers on board learned that the flight would arrive in Israel only an hour or so before Shabbat, they began to riot. A poorly lit, grainy video was produced, taken onboard the flight, showing religious men flailing their arms and shouting. And a famous passenger—Shimon Sheves, the former director of the Prime Minister’s Office under the late Yitzhak Rabin—posted a widely quoted account of the flight on Facebook featuring “hands raised in the air,” as Sheves described it, “hitting stewardesses, who, in turn, burst out crying.” El Al’s official statement said bluntly that the company will pursue legal charges, “with determination and without compromise,” against any passenger behaving violently.

For 24 hours, the impudence of the Orthodox was all many Israelis heard about, online, on air, and in print. But then Shabbat ended, and the religious passengers on board Flight 002 returned from Athens—where the flight eventually made a pit stop to allow those who wished to observe Shabbat to deplane—with a very different story.

So what really happened en route from New York to Tel Aviv? As we now know, three noteworthy things: First, the delay was caused because the crew arrived at the airport three hours late. Sure, it was snowing, and the roads were a slushy hellscape, but virtually all of the flight’s 400 passengers realized that and had the good sense to allow plenty of time for travel. The professionals of El Al weren’t quite as attentive or wise.

Even more maddening, once the passengers, still on the ground and growing irate, learned that the flight would not land in Israel in time for Shabbat, many asked to return to the gate so that they could leave the plane and spend the weekend stateside before making other travel arrangements. The flight’s captain asked everyone to sit down and buckle up, promising his passengers that he was merely taxiing back to the gate. Instead, without providing any further updates, without adhering to the requisite safety protocols, and in blatant violation of his promise, he simply took off for Israel.

Under the circumstances, you’d understand why the passengers, having been disrespected and lied to, might be upset. But the best was yet to come: When Yehuda Schlesinger, a passenger aboard Flight 002 and a reporter for Yisrael Hayom, returned home from Athens, he saw the viral video that allegedly documented those rascally Haredi men flexing their muscles and threatening violence. He recognized the clip, because he had shot it with his smartphone on Thursday night and shared it on social media. There was only one small problem: The video Schlesinger took was of Haredi men singing and dancing to cheer each other up under difficult circumstances; the video shown on Israeli TV was edited and given a radically different soundtrack, one featuring men shouting in a menacing fashion. When Schlesinger, incensed, pointed this out to Israel’s Channel 10, they apologized and claimed that the soundtrack was swapped due to technical trouble. The term for that in Yiddish is fake news.

But while Israel’s national airline proved to be incompetent, its media mendacious, and its mandarins seething with contempt for their observant brothers and sisters, there’s another side to the story of Flight 002 that deserves to be heard. Far from being uniformly Haredi, as early press reports insisted, the passengers who rushed against the clock in Greece were a wildly diverse bunch: black hatters and wearers of knitted kippot, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, men and women from all across Israel with nothing much in common save for the tradition that has bound us all for millennia. Welcomed by Rav Mendel and Rebbetzin Nechama Hendel, the local Chabad emissaries, these stranded passengers, according to their own accounts, passed a joyous Shabbat, enjoying each other’s company and the spirit of the holy day despite being separated from their luggage and their loved ones waiting at home.

If Israelis are indeed slouching toward elections—as of this week, the government is still teetering on the brink of collapse—you need only look to Flight 002 to discover the nation’s real divides. With the Israeli left having eroded into irrelevance by insisting that only further concessions can stop the surge of terror, voters aren’t divided by significant ideological differences. Instead, Israelis, like Americans, fall squarely into the two camps visible on board the Boeing that snowy night last week. In one corner are those who keep their faith, who come together in times of crisis, and who expect the conversation to remain respectful and those in power to remain accountable. If you’re wondering about their values, just watch Schlesinger’s undoctored video and ask yourself when was the last time you reacted to a major inconvenience by finding some stream of inner happiness and bursting into song in public.

The group in the other corner, sadly, isn’t quite so cheerful. A former senior government official, news reporters and editors, a major airline: All could’ve returned quietly to their homes, taken a long shower, brushed off the ordeals of their ill-fated flight and gone on with their lives. Instead, they felt a need to concoct a sickening little story of the religious behaving badly, drawing on very little evidence and a lot of animosity toward the deplorables who dare expect that the national carrier of the world’s only Jewish state might show some consideration when it comes to observing Shabbat. There’s a term in Yiddish for that, too: It’s prejudice.

One group sang songs and broke bread together, grateful for the gift of community. The other wasted not a moment before taking to the media and portraying their fellow passengers as a benighted mob disdainful of all that is enlightened and good.

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to politics anywhere in the world, you already know which group is likely to prevail in the long run: In Tel Aviv, in Tampa, in Tottenham, and elsewhere, cataclysmic coalitions of tired citizens are coming together, forming movements that are as much personal as they are political. Often, these movements are composed of folks who have no real coherent agenda except the pain of yet again turning on the TV and seeing themselves cast as the butt of the joke, listening to the news and hearing themselves blamed for all ills, reading the paper and learning that their self-appointed moral and intellectual betters have again dug up an opportunity to scorn them. They’ve had enough, and when they vote, they often just vote against that well-dressed person in the emergency exit seat who gently shook her head at the mere sight of a beard and sidelocks or a covered head.

That’s the troubling news. The good news is that while the aircraft of Israeli statehood may, like Flight 002, suffer some occasional turbulence, it always lands safely, and there’s plenty of room onboard for anyone, of any denomination or disposition, capable of coexistence and respect.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.