Eyewitnesses say El Al to blame for diverted flight before Shabbat, not ‘violent’ religious passengers

News outlets accused religious passengers of violent behavior on a delayed El Al flight from New York to Israel last weekend, but Israel Hayom‘s Yehuda Shlezinger was on board and presents eyewitness details that paint a different picture.

An El Al passenger jet at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Aug. 17, 2016. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
An El Al passenger jet at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Aug. 17, 2016. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

Violent disruptions broke out on an El Al flight that was delayed leaving New York for Israel last Thursday, after ultra-Orthodox passengers claimed the delayed flight would land after the beginning of Shabbat on Friday evening.

The passengers’ behavior resulted in the flight landing in Athens instead of at Ben-Gurion Airport, in order to prevent a group of 70 ultra-Orthodox passengers from desecrating the Sabbath. A second delayed flight from New York had to do the same and landed in Rome.

Flights LY008 and LY002 were hours late taking off from New York’s JFK Airport, reportedly due to stormy weather.

Secular passengers were furious that the planes had been diverted, and took to social media to protest what they called the haredi passengers’ “outrageous behavior,” which they said included accosting the flight attendants.

El Al arranged for alternative flights for the passengers who found themselves stranded in Europe.

Israel Hayom’s own religious affairs reporter, Yehuda Shlezinger, was on one of the flights, and said reports of haredi passengers’ violent behavior were false.

The following is his eye-witness account of events:

“Let’s start from the end, dear friends—violence is terrible. If someone uses violence, he needs to be arrested and tried in a court of law.

“And here, if you don’t mind, I’ll stop being politically correct. I have but one question: Did you believe the haredim who said they were hit by flight attendants, without any documentation of this violence? I suppose the answer is no. If not, why believe the opposite?

“I, like hundreds of other Israelis, was on the flight that departed from New York on Thursday night. I must confess, when I opened the news sites Saturday night and saw the crazy headlines about ‘bad’ haredim who ‘pushed flight attendants and threatened to break into the cockpit,’ I was livid. Thousands of likes, hundreds of shares, tons of venom on social media, and the news was completely fake. I double-checked the boarding pass in my pocket, to make sure we were talking about the same flight.

“Indeed, to the chagrin of El Al and several media outlets, there was a journalist on the flight, and hey, that’s me. And when there’s drama a journalist turns on the camera and starts filming, which is exactly what I did in capturing almost the entire incident. I saw passengers being lied to and misled, and keeping silent. I saw passengers imprisoned (yes, you read that correctly) on the plane, bursting into song. I saw and I filmed flight attendants who decided to punish the passengers and refuse them service. And the list goes on. I saw haredim willing to sleep at Ben-Gurion Airport so the secular passengers wouldn’t desecrate the Shabbat. I experienced and documented a violent flight attendant grabbing the camera from my hands.

“And here are the facts: The flight was supposed to take off from New York on Thursday evening. A delay of an hour-and-a-half wasn’t too bad. Snow, it happens. But then the people on the plane learned the real reason for the delay: The flight attendants were late for the flight. I don’t understand: Every passenger knew there was snow and they should arrive early, and the flight attendants didn’t?

“And then, after we were already seated on the plane, the lies started: ‘The flight attendants are already here,’ ‘We’re first in line on the runway,’ ‘The ice needs to thaw and we’re off.’ Three hours of these made-up excuses. Passengers who asked to disembark were denied, and the captain, who tried calming the situation, confidently declared over the loudspeaker: ‘We’ll arrive in Israel an hour or half an hour before Shabbat.’ People relaxed.

“Two hours before the landing, the captain announced a different plan: The religious passengers would disembark in Athens, and the secular ones would catch a connecting flight to Tel Aviv. This is when the uproar came from both sides, haredim and secular passengers together. How could the El Al crew lie to us like that? But the biggest lie of all came when Shabbat ended, and I saw the distorted angle my colleagues were reporting. How popular it is to bash the haredim; how far from what actually transpired on that flight.”

El Al issued a statement saying, “Extreme weather in New York caused numerous cancellations and delays for hundreds of flights, including El Al flights that departed for Israel Thursday evening. Despite the cancellation of many flights, we succeeded in releasing Flight 002 from New York for our passengers, including an intermediate stop in Athens. El Al arranged onward flights to Israel that day for all passengers. Passengers who preferred to remain in Athens for Shabbat were cared for by company representatives, and El Al will return them to Israel after Shabbat is over.

“We apologize for any discomfort caused to our customers, but as said we preferred to have the flight leave New York the same day. It should be emphasized the company does not tolerate violence toward the [flight] crew and we will determinedly and without compromise act in accordance with the law against any passenger whom a complaint is filed against, as we have done so far.”

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