Haredim rage over El Al Shabbat flight

Tourism minister: Airline had no choice; "We live in a competitive world."

el al plane 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
el al plane 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A landing - gear malfunction that forced a New York-bound El Al flight to return to Ben-Gurion Airport on Monday was seen by the haredi community as a heavenly sign that God is unhappy with the national carrier's Shabbat desecration. Half-jokingly, half-seriously, the haredi community - already anticipating an official rabbinic call to boycott El Al - sees the technical problem as a divine revelation. "Every religious Jew knows that when you keep the Shabbat, the Shabbat in turn keeps and protects you," said a haredi businessman connected with El Al. A warning made two days ago by Rabbi Haim Kanyevsky, a quasi-mystical spiritual leader of the decidedly rational Lithuanian haredi Jewish community, that in the wake of El Al's blasphemous flight policy, it was "safek sakana [borderline life threatening]" to board an El Al plane probably led to the providential interpretation to what is normally considered a mundane mechanical breakdown. The Shabbat flights, unusual for the national carrier, which has an unwritten agreement with the haredi public to refrain from Shabbat desecration, came in the wake of a general labor strike that paralyzed the airport and left hundreds of prospective flyers stranded. Whether there were 18 El Al-labeled Shabbat flights, as the haredi press claims, or just one and another 17 flights via code-sharing, as claimed by Gal BSD, the haredi advertisement firm that does publicity for El Al in the haredi market, is a moot point. Little hope for reconciliation remains after two of the haredi community's spiritual heavyweights - Kanyevsky and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv - condemned El Al for the desecration, while in parallel, El Al defended it. The nonagenarian Elyashiv, considered the most respected living halachic authority among haredi Jews, expressed his dismay when he heard about the desecration from his aide, Haim Cohen, who was a firsthand witness. "Does El Al lack [dangers] that it is desecrating the Shabbat," asked Elyashiv, according to Cohen. Cohen, who was bumped off his El Al flight to Miami and rescheduled on a flight that left Friday night at 5 p.m., nearly an hour after Shabbat candle lighting time, was the first to bring the Shabbat desecration to the attention of haredi leadership. Haredi and religious MKs vowed to call lack of confidence votes in the Knesset in protest against the flights. But sources close to El Al doubted that the government could interfere in the business policies of the carrier which has been privately controlled for over a year. Also, Shas is the only religious party that is part of the government coalition. And with just 12 MKs, it lacks the strength to even threaten to topple the 79-member government coalition. Instead, the battle to influence El Al's flight policy is taking place in the marketplace with haredim using their buying power as leverage. Unless there is a sudden, unexpected change, all haredi leaders - Sephardi, hassidic and Lithuanian - will call on their followers to boycott El Al, Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknoph, secretary of the Rabbinic Council for the Holiness of Shabbat, which represents all walks of haredi Jewry, said on Monday. "The way things look now, the haredi public will be told on Wednesday to refrain from flying El Al," said Goldknoph. "We tried to warn them on Thursday evening not to launch those flights," said Goldknoph. "But nobody at El Al listened." According to haredi sources, the boycott is already being enforced albeit not strictly. For instance, Shas Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai used El Al Sunday to fly to India for a business conference and there were several haredi flyers on the plane to New York that was forced to return to Ben-Gurion on Monday. But many haredi consumers are doing their best to switch airlines, say haredi sources. "Rabbis are telling people to do everything in their power to reach an agreement with a different carrier," said one source close to the haredi rabbinic leadership. With its planes sporting Israeli flags and blue and white trimming, El Al is considered the State of Israel's national carrier. But technically it is a private company. The airline began privatization in June 2003 with an initial public offering and completed the process in January of 2005 when it appointed a new board of directors, headed by Israel "Izzy" Borovich. Knafaim Arkia Holdings, headed by Borovich, is the controlling shareholder of El Al with 40 percent. Knafaim has an option to purchase an additional 12% of shares by June 2007, raising its El Al ownership to 52%. Speaking with reporters at an annual Eilat Travel Agents Conference, an El Al official said "that despite being a private company, El Al does not operate flights on Shabbat and is very stringent in keeping to that. "But under certain, rare circumstances, like last Shabbat, when we had hundreds of people stranded in Israel because of the strike, we have to fly on Shabbat. We had no other solution but to fly 70 flights to make up for the backlog. Otherwise, people would have been delayed for days in Israel. We decided not to leave any groups in Israel without hotel accommodation. "Obviously, we made it clear to everyone and no one was forced to fly on Shabbat against their will. But we also gave other passengers, including women with babies, the elderly and sick people, the option of flying on Shabbat. "This event is irregular for El Al and we hope that the haredi community will understand and consider the feelings of other customers." Avi Krawitz contributed to this report. However, Goldknoph saw El Al's move as a breach of faith. "The haredi community put their complete faith in El Al," said Goldknoph. "We encouraged the entire haredi public to cater El Al; leading haredi figures took high-profile trips using El Al. "Then, all of a sudden, El Al reneged on its promises and desecrated the Shabbat. If El Al was willing to respect the labor strike and refrain from flying for a few days as a result, it could also respect the holy Shabbat," added Goldknoph. Avi Krawitz contributed to this report.