It took several days, but eventually, the world’s media grasped why the scandal at Frankfurt Airport last week, when more than 100 Orthodox Jews were prevented by the German airline Lufthansa from boarding a connecting flight to Budapest, was so shocking.
It was Dan’s Deals, a travel website popular with the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, that originally broke the story of the ordeal of 127 Orthodox Jews who traveled in separate groups and different classes on a journey that began at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on May 4. The website diligently pieced together the voices of several passengers who alleged that Germany’s national airline had collectively punished those on the plane who were visibly Jewish.
Reportedly, a dispute over masking requirements broke out as Flight #LH401 winged its way across the Atlantic. While many airlines have abandoned the mask mandate, Lufthansa is still obliged by German law to enforce one. According to the witnesses who spoke to Dan’s Deals, a handful of Jewish and non-Jewish passengers objected to the instruction or didn’t wear their masks in the required fashion. At one point, the captain of the aircraft made a cockpit announcement warning those individuals who didn’t cooperate that they might be denied boarding onto connecting flights in Frankfurt.
Once the plane landed in Frankfurt, a large number of its passengers made their way to the departure gate for a Lufthansa flight Flight #LH1334 to Budapest, Hungary, where many were headed for a pilgrimage to the grave in Hungary of the Chassidic sage Yeshaya Steiner. At the gate, they learned to their disbelief that Lufthansa agents were refusing to board any passengers who looked visibly Jewish.
The rationale for this blatant discrimination was explained in no uncertain terms to a Jewish passenger by a Lufthansa agent. When the passenger pointed out that non-Jewish travelers had been permitted to board the connection to Budapest, asking pointedly why it was “only the Jewish people paying for other people’s crimes,” the agent responded, “because it’s Jews coming from JFK.” When the passenger expressed his shock, the agent responded, in broken English: “If you want to do it like this, Jewish people were the mess, who made the problems.”
The incredulous passenger then asked: “So Jewish people on the plane made a problem, so all Jews are banned from Lufthansa for the day?” The agent answered: “Just from this flight.”
To add insult to injury, some of the Jewish passengers were confronted by a layer of armed police who stood between them and the departure gate. In a scene that conceivably would have won critical praise had it been staged in a dark historical comedy, one of the distressed passengers asked plaintively, “Why do you hate us?” as the officers grimly surveyed them. Then someone else said the word “Nazi,” leading to a gasp of disapproval from the small crowd.
In Germany, it’s a crime to call a police officer a “Nazi,” just as it’s a crime to deny the Holocaust or brandish a swastika. But sometimes, you have to exercise your judgment. Either blissfully unaware of the optics or indifferent to them, one of the offended police officers began barking in a thick German accent, “Who said the ‘N’ word? Who was it??” at the assembled Jews. To their credit, they responded to his angry request with appropriate indifference. “We don’t know,” said one of them.
By collectively punishing all the Orthodox Jews who flew instead of identifying and taking action against the specific passengers who allegedly violated the masking policy, Lufthansa engaged in blatant anti-Semitic discrimination. The reasoning of the ground staff has yet to be officially explained, but it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to conclude that in their eyes, all of these Chassidim look the same and behave the same—a prejudiced logic that, sadly, many other minorities are also familiar with.
Perhaps the worst aspect of this scandal is Lufthansa’s refusal to recognize that its staff treated Jewish passengers with contempt that was rooted in anti-Semitic imagery. An apology posted only once the world’s media feasted on images of anxious-looking Jews being persecuted in a German airport was directed at “all the passengers unable to travel on this flight, not only for the inconvenience, but also for the offense caused and personal impact.” But the statement did not deal with the core of the problem; the anti-Semitic thinking that resulted in discriminatory action against an entire group based on their ethnicity.
A large part of the shock value around this story lies in the fact that it occurred in Germany, of all places, and with Lufthansa. Founded in 1926, the airline profited handsomely from the use of slave labor during the Nazi era before it was reconstituted in 1953 under the chairmanship of Kurt Weigelt, a Nazi businessman who served a two-year prison sentence for war crimes. One would like to think that Weigelt’s spirit has been banished from Lufthansa’s boardrooms and airport hubs; the spectacle in Frankfurt would suggest otherwise.
Lufthansa can yet emerge from this appalling episode with its credibility intact. For that to happen, it needs to recognize that its ground staff implemented an anti-Semitic policy and apologize for that offense specifically. And it needs to publicly announce the payment of substantial compensation to all those who missed their connecting flight—not just for the inconvenience but for the trauma that accompanies a victim’s experience of discrimination.
Until that happens, no Jewish customer can regard Lufthansa as simply one of the world’s more decent airlines. Some chatter on social media has suggested that a boycott of the airline would be the correct path to take. My answer to that is that travelers should exercise their consumer choice, as Lufthansa is hardly the only airline that flies to Europe. But a formal boycott may, at this stage, be a step too far. Let us see first whether Lufthansa can grasp the enormity of its original offense; whether, indeed, the Holocaust contrition that the Germans are famous for goes more than just skin deep.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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