Wednesday, December 08, 2021

An Inexcusable but Avoidable Antisemitic Incident

Roberto and Elana Birman (Independent)
I’m getting tired of stories like this. There is no reason that this needs to keep happening. And yet it exposes a level of antisemitism that is usually hidden from the public eye. 

In a story widely published in a variety of different news media (Jewish and otherwise) an elderly Orthodox Jewish couple were thrown off an American Airlines flight – which if accurate can only be described as an antisemitic event. From the Independent:

 Jewish couple who were kicked off an American Airlines flight for refusing to store their sacred prayer shawl on the floor have filed a lawsuit against the airline.

Roberto and Elana Birman, a couple in their 70s, were flying from Miami to New York on flight 322 in August when they claim the incident

A flight attendant allegedly pulled Roberto’s Tallit bag, a 8.5 inch-by-8.5-inch clear plastic bag holding his prayer book and shawl, out from the overhead bin and asked who it belonged to.

When the pair indicated it was theirs, the crew member allegedly threw the bag on his lap and said it had to go under his seat.

Roberto claims he told the member of staff that, as an Orthodox Jew, he could not put the shawl on the floor, explaining, “It’s a religious item, it cannot go under the seat,” and removing his baseball cap to show his kippah.

But the flight attendant said it didn’t matter, the couple claim.

“She was screaming at me and pointing her finger,” Roberto told the New York Post.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me in America.

“We use these items every single day to pray.”

When they refused, they were eventually ushered off the plane. 

This is yet another in what seems like a never ending parade of antisemitic events played out on  major carriers. Of which American Airlines is one of the largest.

I have in the past defended flight attendants that were merely doing their jobs. Espcially under the current exasperating  conditions of flying under COVID restrictions. When the rules aren’t followed things can easily get out of hand. Overreactions can occur that may not be  antisemitic – but appeaer to be - when it involves identifiably Orthodox Jews. I have in the past given flight attendants the benefit of doubt. 

Being kicked off a flight could have been avoided in many of those cases. When a flight attendant tells you to do something, you do it. End of story. They are in charge. Those are the rules. Antisemtism aside - had they listened instead of arguing with them they would not have been thrown off the flight. 

But this case seems to be categorically different. While it’s true that the flight attendaent is in charge, arbitrarily removing an item from an overhead bin and tersely telling a passenger to put it under his seat despite being told that it was a religious item (which makes putting it on the floor disrespectful) - and and then being kicked off the flight for that - can only be seen as antisemitic.

That being said, the entire confrontation could have been avoided since placing religious items that are enclosed in a container on  the floor – while not ideal – is technically not against Halacha. As long as the items themselves are not placed on the floor.

I don’t know if it was naiveté about Halacha  - but had Mr. Birman placed his Talis bag which also contained a Siddur and Tefilin (which was in its own bag – thus being double covered) under his seat - it would not have been the end of the world. He should have done it – as uncomfortable as it may have been for him to do that.

But as I said at the outset, this flight attendant seemed to have no reason to pull a Talis bag from an overhead bin and tell a passenger to stow it under the seat.  Even if she technically had the right to do so she should have been sensitive to a passenger that tried to explain he could not do that for religious reasons. And then to be removed form the flight for that?! The captain was OK with this?!

This  event has antisemitism written all over it.

I don’t know what it is. My own experiences with flight attendants has been nothing but pleasant. They could not do enough to accommodate me or my wife. I never encountered anyone like the flight attendant in this story. (I did encounter some very rude and demanding behavior by a Chasidic family aboard a flight one time. If this happens a lot, it might explain the prejudice on the part of that flight attendant. It does not excuse it, however.)

I know there has been a lot of violence aboard flights by people who refused to comply with mask requirements. Flight attendants have ben physically attacked by some passengers. COVID  has clearly brought out the worst in some of us. But sometimes it’s not the passenger that is at his or her worst. Sometimes it’s the flight attendant. And in this case she was apparently aided and abetted by the pilot who ordered the Birmans off the flight.

The Birmans are suing. As they should. If - as I said - this story is accurate the airline deserves it. That flight attendant should be fired for what she did. 

I suppose one could say there is a bright side to this story. It exposed an antisemite who most likely hid her antisemitism until now. But the Birmans are paying a high price for that exposure. They were unnecessarily embarrassed and inconvenienced.

It should not have happened. But once it did, it (hopefully) reduced the number of antisemitic flight attendants by at least one. And hopefully the lawsuit – if successful will help prevent anything like this from happening again.