Delta Air Lines and the Jews

A report about Delta airlines refusing to fly Jews to Saudi Arabia lit up the internet yesterday. But within hours, some of the stories were altered or pulled and I'm still trying to sort out not just what happened but what it all means. I'm going to try to reconstruct things as best I can and then ask some questions at the end. You may not need all this reconstruction, so feel free to skip to the end. I believe the reports originated with Religion News Service in a piece headlined "U.S. Jews not able to fly on Delta flights to Saudi Arabia." This piece ran with slight editing, I'm told, at USA Today. But now if you go to the link, it says "An early version of this story contained incomplete information and has been removed. For more details on this story go to USA TODAY's Faith & Reason blog."

I first heard about that story because I follow Cathy Lynn Grossman on Twitter and she's always tweeting links to great religion news and debates. She tweeted a link to the story as it ran in USA Today:

U.S. Jews not able to fly on Delta flights to Saudi Arabia

And I retweeted that at the time.

Grossman also crafted a blog post for discussing the controversy. It has been updated. By the time I started actually saving the open pages, it had been updated already. It's since been updated again. So I have two different pages with the same url open in my browser. The first one (already having been updated, again) has the headline and lede:

No Jews, no Bibles on flights to Saudi Arabia

Delta Airlines, in its new alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines, might wind up making a bargain shocking Jews and Christians -- no Jews, no Bibles on board to the desert kingdom.

The second one, same url, is:

Airline to Jewish rumor: 'Delta does not discriminate.'

Earlier today some Jewish and Christian readers in the blogosphere were fired up about stories that Delta Airlines, in its new alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines, might wind up enforcing a Saudi policy of not admitting Iraelis and non-Islamic religious items like Bibles on their flights.

Now where would they have gotten fired up about that? Just kidding. But depending on what time you hit this page, you would get pretty different reports.

OK. So let's get back to the original report from RNS. I did have some trouble with it on account of how insufficiently the headline and lede were substantiated. Remember, this is about how "U.S. Jews" will not be able to fly on Delta to Saudi Arabia. The lede is:

Jews and Israelis, or passengers carrying any non-Islamic article of faith, will not be able to fly code-share flights from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia under Delta Air Line’s new partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines that is set to begin in 2012. ...

Saudi Arabia bans anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport from entering the country, even in transit. Many Jews believe the kingdom has also withheld visas from travelers with Jewish-sounding names.

Religious items such as Bibles that are not related to Islam may be confiscated at the airport.

I have no doubt that "many Jews believe" that those with Jewish-sounding names won't get visas into the kingdom. But that's not enough substantiation for the headline or lede. Particularly since, as Grossman's later updates show, Jews have been known to fly into Saudi Arabia.

And if Bibles get confiscated at the airport -- and they do, since the Kingdom is one of the most brutally repressive in the world when it comes to religious freedom -- that doesn't mean that Delta will be confiscating them in Atlanta, does it?

The thing is that we actually have a super interesting story on our hands that's been harmed a bit by the execution. It is true that Saudi Arabia bans all Israelis from the country. When I went to Israel recently on an Act for Israel media fellowship, some of my party had to carry two passports. One was for their Israel travel and one was for all other travel. Israel, knowing the restrictions people face, will stamp the passport of your choice. The journalists in my party did this simply so they could travel into all of the Muslim countries that forbid entry to anyone who has even been to Israel. Yes, even just for a visit. Saudi Arabia is hardly unique in this fashion.

And Saudi Arabia has said things about how "no Jews" are allowed in the country, too. Some of these countries have some serious issues.

But what concerned me about this story was the failure to put it into perspective. There are other airlines that have codeshare arrangements with airlines going into Saudi Arabia. Is this Delta situation worthy of being singled out? Why not mention the other airlines that have done business with this regime?

And maybe we should mention other companies that do business with this Kingdom. Or how about how the U.S. government considers this country an ally worthy of sharing military initiatives, terror intelligence and resources?

The article also failed to include enough information about why Saudi Arabia has these policies and this culture. Part of it is political and a bunch of it relates to religion in some fashion. And, again, Saudi Arabia is not alone among Muslim countries in holding this policy. All we're told, though, is that it "is governed by strict Islamic law." Well, what does that have to do with what we're talking about?

Now, I do think this is a great idea for a story and I can see why RNS ran it as its top story for the day. I'm confident that people don't realize how much discrimination Israelis and Jews face in certain parts of the world. And I think that this story really provokes some hard questions about whether a company should be doing business with such a repressive regime. The airline Delta plans to work with is government-owned.

But what do you think about the story and how it spread through the internet?

Do you support RNS for sticking with the story? Are you with USA Today for pulling it? And what do you think about the coverage of this thorny topic thus far?

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