Haredi boycott of El Al looms

Talks stall after El Al heads insist on the right to decide on Shabbat flights.

el al haredim  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
el al haredim
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Threats of an irrevocable haredi boycott of El Al flights loomed again after negotiations between El Al and haredi leaders stalled Sunday night. The two sides are at loggerheads over El Al's flight policy on Shabbat. El Al management insists on the prerogative to decide which emergency incidents justify flying on Shabbat, while haredim want El Al to appoint a rabbi who would have the right to veto any future Shabbat flight. "If you have a question in halacha [Jewish law] who do you go to - El Al or a rabbi?" asked Haim Cohen rhetorically; Cohen is an aide to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected living halachic authority for haredi Jews. "El Al will not decide when it is permissible to fly and when it isn't." Cohen said that unless there is a last minute breakthrough in talks with El Al, the haredi rabbinic leadership would issue an official joint statement to slap a boycott (cherem) on El Al. A spokesman for the Israeli airline said in response that El Al CEO Haim Romano continues to demand operational freedom in emergency situations. Romano refuses to give a haredi rabbi the power to decide when El Al can and cannot use its fleet. "In the past two years, El Al flew only four times on Shabbat," said the spokesman. "One time we sent planes to save Israelis stuck in Thailand during the tsunami. Another time, about a year ago, we sent a plane on Shabbat to help evacuate Israelis from a flood in India. "In both incidents haredi rabbis did not protest. But we are afraid that if a haredi rabbi is responsible for making the decision when to fly to he will be too punctilious. Passively refraining from protest is much different from actively deciding to fly." Meanwhile, until a final decision is made to boycott El Al, leading haredi rabbis have called on the faithful to refrain from flying Israel's national carrier. . A haredi travel agent at Eisenbach Travel, located in the heart of Mea She'arim, said that his haredi passengers are canceling their flights with El Al. "People are willing to pay the $50 to $100 cancellation fee," said the travel agent. "But if they are already in the US and they cannot get a refund they are willing to come back on El Al." According to Cohen, a number of haredi businessmen have devoutly adhered to the rabbis' calls despite the resulting financial damage such as loss of frequent flyer points. "Rabbi Elyashiv has said on a number of occasions that there are two types of Shabbat that protect the Jewish people," said Cohen. "The Sabbatical Year [shnat shmita] protects Jews inside Israel and the Shabbat provides physical protection to Jews all over the world." Cohen said that haredim all over the world are obeying the rabbinic call. "Now if Rabbi Elyashiv says that because El Al desecrated the Shabbat it is now dangerous to fly El Al, wouldn't you book a flight with another airline?" Relations between El Al and their haredi clientele have deteriorated since El Al launched flights on Shabbat two weeks ago in an attempt to catch up with the backlog created by a labor strike that paralyzed Ben Gurion International Airport for several days. El Al argued in its defense that although as a rule of thumb it does not fly on Shabbat, the national carrier retained the right, in certain emergency situations, to exercise discretion. Haredim argued that El Al betrayed their trust despite years of faithful haredi consumer support.