Comment: Who gets to decide El Al's Shabbat policy?

The preponderance of haredi men and their families at Ben-Gurion airport usually surprises secular Israelis who regard them as one of the poorest and insular groups in society, not the kind of people you would associate with international travel. In reality, they are the Israelis with the closest connections to the Jews of the Diaspora. For a Ger Hassid living in New York or Toronto, his real home is were the rebbe is and he will do everything he can to visit the rebbe's court in Jerusalem at least once a year. Senior rabbis embark regularly on royal tours of their own. Other rabbis go on fundraising trips and young teenagers are sent to Israel to spend years in yeshivot. Families spread over different continents celebrate weddings, brits and bar mitzvas together. And the haredi parallel economy would crash without a regular cash influx from overseas (they don't believe in wire transfers). All things considered, it's no surprise that the number of ultra-Orthodox passengers flying with El Al is out of all proportion to its size in the general population. For many years, haredim have been valued passengers on El Al. The airline caters to them by providing meals with strict Kashrut standards, the option to sit far away from corrupting movie screens, Hasidic music and Idaf yomi (the daily Talmud portion) on the in-flight audio channels and special compartments set for top rabbis. El Al even has its own rabbi. It wasn't always thus, and this week's fracas over an El Al plane flying on Shabbat - returning Israelis stranded abroad during the general strike - brought a sense of d j vu to more veteran participants of the religion wars. A quarter of a century ago, the demand of the Haredi leadership, represented by the Agudat Yisrael party, that El Al, then a state-owned company, be forbidden from flying on Shabbat was a major political and financial issue. The company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, claimed that not operating the lucrative weekend routes would push it over the edge. The rabbis threatened to bring the government down if their demands weren't met. In the end, however, they took a more novel step and threatened to boycott the company. El Al backed down. The haredi community is the only large group in Israel that regularly conducts consumer pressure campaigns. Over the years, they have forced major companies to alter racy advertising campaigns, fire employees belonging to messianic sects and open special branches in their neighborhoods. Now, Egged is bending over backward to supply them with buses with strict segregation between men and women. In El Al's case, surrendering to blackmail seems to have worked out well for both sides. The haredim have an airline in which they can be sure of always receiving a kosher meal and of Friday flights landing in time to get home for Shabbat, and the stewardesses won't make a fuss if they gather a minyan (prayer quorum) in the aisle while the seat-belts signs are on. Foreign airlines don't grant any of these kinds of perks. In return, El Al gained a large and loyal clientele, one that isn't easily wooed away by frequent flyer plans, the latest movies or fine French wines, and, most importantly, one that continues flying during periods of terror and tension - when tourism takes a nose-dive and most Israelis stay put at home anxiously listening to their radios. It must also make business sense, otherwise the ban on Shabbat flying, which is estimated to cost the company in excess of NIS 50 million a year, would have ended on January 1, 2005, when the company was finally privatized. But the new owners seemed perfectly content to stick with the old arrangement. Apparently, haredi loyalty has played a part in El Al's return to profitability. So why is it all falling apart now over a one-off infringement? Perhaps there is actually something different in the new management's attitude. In past years, when something like this occurred, the company would abjectly apologize and promise it wouldn't happen again. In this case, although El Al reaffirmed that it is standing by its policy not to fly on Shabbat, it still claimed it was justified in desecrating the holy day to rescue stranded Israelis. This is an answer that the rabbis aren't going to accept. They are the only ones who get to decide when flying on Shabbat is permissible. If El Al doesn't realize who is the boss on Shabbat, there are newcomer competitors who will go all the way to win this big chunk of the market. This might seem like yet another clash between haredi interests and beliefs and secular society, but it's actually about something much more significant. The Borovich brothers who now control El Al bought the company with the full intention that it would remain to all intents and purposes the national carrier. That means it's the only one to fly the flag on the tail of its planes, it keeps a special cargo fleet in case of an emergency airlift and it has a special obligation to help out Israelis whenever and wherever. The haredim also see El Al as the national carrier, but, to them, that means the airline has to adhere to the rules of the Torah, according to their interpretation.