Respect my values; I’ll respect yours

Haredi versus secular 1

Who is the real Jew, me or you? The tension between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews exploded in a ruckus aboard an El Al flight from New York to Israel, over shabbat observance. Above, an ultra-Orthodox and a secular Jew face off in Jerusalem (photo Times of Israel)

THE STORY which went viral in Jewish circles last week about chaos on an El Al flight to Israel which was delayed due to a snowstorm, would have been funny to an outside observer, like a scene in a British comedy, with black-coated Haredim running up and down aisles shouting, and secular passengers cowering in their seats. But for Jews, it captured the poisonous antagonism amongst them about religion. The plane, which left New York late, landed in Athens instead of Tel Aviv to avoid desecrating Shabbat.

Although Haredi passengers have been roundly condemned in the media for the ruckus they caused after believing they had been lied to by El Al, and voicing this vociferously to the crew, they were displaying the schism in the Jewish and Israeli world, with its own logic. Secular passengers have a right to be furious at the commotion, but need to look deeper.

Haredi and secular Jews both tend to see each other negatively. But what should a person do when his most precious symbol – such as Shabbat observance – is violated, beyond his control? Should he throw his proverbial toys out of the cot? Or step back and look for another way? And what about simple good manners?

The Haredis’ raucous behaviour is objectionable, and they would never have behaved like that on a Lufthansa or Swissair flight. But open-mindedness must allow for a contrary view. The truth is, most secular Jews don’t understand how important Shabbat observance is to religious Jews. They “just don’t get it!” as one commentator said. But perhaps the religious Jews should have planned their travels better to avoid any chance of violating Shabbat – things can always go wrong in the messy world of global travel.

Israelis are not, in general, an easy-going, tolerant people. Many Israelis of all stripes, secular and religious, have an anger issue and an unwillingness to hear the other side.

So here, roughly, are the two sides of the story. Secular passengers claim that 10 or 15 Haredi passengers, dressed in their black hats and coats, ran up and down the aisles,  yelling at the staff, “Liars, cheaters, you lied to us!” and started shoving flight attendants, some of whom apparently ended up crying, leading other passengers to intervene. Later, after the flight, other religious commentators claimed it was not as serious as that.

It sounds ugly. But one can also understand the Haredi anger, despite their inappropriate response. They had been hesitant about boarding the flight in New York. But after the pilot told them the plane would reach Israel before Shabbat, and then would not let them off, they were understandably furious at landing in Athens, having to spend all of Shabbat there. The scenario ended up as a power stand-off between Haredim and secular Jews.

What’s to be done? There has always been tension between religious and secular Jews. The genius of Jewish society derives partly from this. Each side has produced great minds. But the rift today is bitterer than ever, the sides more militant. Even the split between ‘secular’ Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast and ‘religious’ Israel in the Jerusalem hills displays this.

Step back for a long view. Jewish survival derives not only from study of Torah and Talmud, but also oppression by non-Jews over centuries, which made Jews stick together. Now that they are not oppressed, must they turn against each other by choice? It is sad and embarrassing; non-Jews must look at this scenario, and see not a comedy, but a community in vicious chaos, eating its own.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


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