Thursday, September 07, 2006

Jews on a Plane

A year ago, I posted an amusing story about a colleague of mine who, because of post-9/11 anxieties, was suspicious of an Orthodox Jewish man praying on a train (see Sometimes a Box Is Just a Box). The conductor knew what the man was doing and explained to my colleague that he was just praying. Trauma over.

Unfortunately, the attendants on Air Canada planes aren't so well informed, nor so skilled at handling the situation. On September 1, 2006, Air Canada's representatives removed an Orthodox Jewish man from a plane because his behavior when he was praying allegedly disturbed other passengers. As is common practice in Orthodox Jewish prayer, the passenger was shuckling -- swaying back and forth, possibly at a rapid speed. This behavior allegedly made "more than one" passenger nervous, though a passenger sitting near the man said that "The action didn't seem to bother anyone." The flight attendant tried to reassure passengers by telling them that "he wasn't a Muslim." When the flight crew were unable to communicate with the passenger in French or English, they removed him from the plane.

I don't know where to begin with what's wrong with this. How could a man be thrown off a plane for an action as simple as shaking back and forth? How a flight attendant could conclude that a person was safe simply because he didn't look like a Muslim? Or assume that he would not be safe if he was a Muslim? And how could she announce such a thing to the passengers? If they had simply explained to the complaining passengers that the man was praying, as the train conductor in my colleague's situation did, the plane could have been on its way with no disruption to anyone. Instead, the flight was delayed for all, and the praying Jew had to explain himself to authorities and catch a later flight -- a serious inconvenience for an Orthodox Jew on a Friday!

We truly live in a frightening world when we have to remove people from a plane for engaging in harmless, albeit strange and unfamiliar, behavior. The Jewish community of Montreal has offered to provide sensitivity training to Air Canada's staff so they will know what is going on in the future and will know how to handle it.

But I would like to correct a misconception I've seen in some of the blog entries about this: the passenger's prayer was probably not related to fear of flying, and probably was not a prayer related to the flight (though a generic prayer for safe travel was likely included). Orthodox Jews pray three times a day, every day, and this may simply have been the most convenient time to do it. Many Orthodox Jews pray on planes or trains or in other public places.

News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):


KennyS50 said...


I am also a conservative Jew; raised in Boston and living in southern NH with my wife and two children for the past 20 years. "Jews On A Plane" raises several disturbing issues for me.

I am sad to say that the behavior of the Canadian flight crew does not surpise me. We live in a world of growing intolerance toward all people who aren't "just like ourselves." Couple that with the legitimate fears that airline employees must live with every day, and their reaction to a Hasid's davening while unacceptable, is understandable.

What concerns me more is the flight attendant's "reassurance" to the passengers that this man "wasn't a Muslim." The sad corollary to this attitude is that, had he been a Muslim, then they would have had every reason in the world to be worried!

It is one thing to respond inappropriately when encountering unusual and, perhaps, unfamiliar behavior. It is quite another to respond inappropriately - to discriminate against an entire race - because they are different than we are.

Conditions in the Middle East and Iraq are so troubling. I will never condone terrorism, the killing of innocent people, in the name of any belief system. But I am even more concerned that my children, and their children, may grow up in a world where any people who are not "just like us" may be targeted and persecuted (and worse) due solely to the brutal conduct of a radical few members of their community or culture.

The flight crews' behavior and attitudes are a more serious insult to all Muslims - to all people anywhere who are "different" - than it could ever be to this simple, religious Jew. I suspect he will pray three or four times today, and tomorrow, regardless of the behavior of those around him.

L'Shonoh Tovoh ...

Kirk Hagan said...

I just wanted to say thank you for your work on JewFAQ. I have been enjoying your site for a couple of years and thought it was time I said thank you. I hope you will continue to add information to help communicate the traditions and history of the Jewish faith.

JewFAQ said...


As I said, one of the things that troubled me about the story was the flight attendant's conclusion that the man was safe because he was not Muslim, and that he would not have been safe if he was a Muslim.

We have fallen into a logical fallacy here in America: most of our enemies are Muslims, so we assume that most Muslims are our enemies. The danger of that kind of thinking is clear when you look at the DC sniper case. I've heard that the sniper slipped through checkpoints more than once because police were looking for an Arab. Whether that story is true or not is irrelevant; it is certainly plausible, and it illustrates the danger of this thinking.

For what it's worth, another airline removed some Muslims from a plane recently for praying. Conservative pundits seemed to think that was OK. We live in dangerous times indeed, but the danger comes less from the terrorists and more from our own willingness to sacrifice liberty for security.