In the face of an imminent boycott of El Al, haredi businessmen in the US have expressed interest in setting up a haredi-owned airline, Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknoph, secretary of the Rabbinic Council for the Holiness of Shabbat, said Monday. "The airline would fly the most popular haredi routes to the US and Europe," he said. Goldknoph refrained from divulging the names of the haredi businessmen, and his announcement was received with skepticism by the Israeli business community.
Haredi boycott of El Al looms
Analysis: El Al Shabbat debate inevitable
"Goldknoph hasn't got the first idea what it takes to run an airline, even a charter company," said one haredi businessman. "He thinks he is putting more pressure on El Al to reach an agreement, but he is just making himself look ridiculous."
Goldknoph's announcement came after three of the most prominent spiritual leaders of haredi Jewry approved an official announcement that called for a boycott of El Al.
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman, the two most senior leaders of Lithuanian Jewry, and the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, the head of the largest Hassidic group in Israel, have already approved the announcement that will soon be plastered throughout haredi neighborhoods and appear on the front pages of haredi newspapers.
"The announcement could be published as soon as this evening," Goldknoph said Monday. "We are waiting for all the leading rabbis to read it and approve what it says."
Although individual rabbis, including Alter and Elyashiv, have already called on their followers not to fly El Al, an official statement by the Rabbinic Council for the Holiness of Shabbat would represent a broad base of haredi spiritual leadership - Sephardi, Lithuanian and Hassidic.
El Al stands to lose a significant chunk of its clientele if, as is expected, the boycott is called. Haredim make up as much as 20 percent-30% of passengers on certain flights to the US and Europe. They are among the most faithful clients, and continue to fly even during difficult geopolitical situations in Israel.
In theory, El Al could offset some or all of the losses by flying on Shabbat.
According to Avraham Rachshefer, editor and publisher of the haredi business magazine Minahalim Nechon, El Al was testing the resiliency of the haredi boycott.
"I don't think El Al purposely flew on Shabbat," he said. "But I do think that once it did, Izzy [Israel Borovitz, El Al's controlling owner and chairman] decided to take advantage of the opportunity to check whether the haredi public would listen to their leaders. If the boycott holds up, El Al can always reach a deal later."
A source in El Al said the airline had already checked the economic feasibility of flying on Shabbat, including the resulting loss of haredi clientele, but "did not reach any conclusive results."
El Al chief executive officer Haim Romano said the company would continue its policy not to fly on Shabbat and with it the status quo of 25 years.
Company spokesperson Amalia Glaser added that the airline would not relinquish its right to decide on emergency flights.
"El Al is a private company and decisions surrounding its flights are hers alone," Glaser said.
Avi Krawitz contributed to this report.