Flying while Jewish

The Rabbi. 1892. The

On Thursday, a flight from La Guardia was diverted after a bomb scare. One of the passengers, a Jewish teenager, was doing his morning prayers and it alarmed the flight attendant. Not because of the prayers, per se, but because of the tefillin he was using. Based on passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy, Orthodox Jews use two small square boxes with straps attached to them and place on on the head and tie the other to the arm. Inside the boxes are parchment with Scripture. Like Cathy Grossman at USA Today, I think this is a good example of the need for religious literacy than this unfortunate incident.

I found the New York Times piece about this story fascinating. The article is incredibly sympathetic to the flight attendants and pilot who decided to ground the plane. First, the reporter contextualizes the story in favor of the flight attendant:

And in a time when in-flight thinking is colored by the brutal knowledge that passengers have hidden bombs in underwear or shoes, she told the officers in the cockpit.

It's the reporter's choice to frame things that way, but what's even more interesting to me is that every single quote is also sympathetic to the flight attendant. For instance:

The boy's grandmother, Frances Winchell, said it was just one of those things. "It's true that we in America are very, very skittish," she said at the airport in Louisville, where she had been waiting to meet the boy and his 13-year-old sister, who was also on Flight 3079. Mrs. Winchell said she hoped people would learn about the rituals and not be fearful.

Then we hear from the boy's rabbi, Shmuel Greenberg of Young Israel of White Plains:

"He didn't think of the ramifications, I guess," Rabbi Greenberg said. "You can't expect the whole world to know what this ritual is all about."

The rabbi later says that congregants should not use the tefillin during flight. Even the boy was cooperative -- with both the flight crew and investigating authorities.

Later we learn that the boy and his sister were handcuffed and had guns pointed at them. The grandmother dismisses it as having only been for "a short period of time."

At this point, I'm sure that the reporter was desperately trying to get anyone who would express outrage, claiming bigotry against Jews or violation of religious freedom. They interview other observant Jews who say they're not surprised at what happened:

"When they see a passenger strapping yourself," said Isaac Abraham, a Satmar who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and campaigned for the Democratic nomination for a City Council seat last year, "you might as well strap yourself with hand grenades. They have no idea."

"He probably just figured, 'I have nothing else to do on the plane, I might as well use this time to pray,'" he added. "Other people read. They watch a movie. He figured, 'Let me grab the time.' But the obvious reality of it is that when we see people carrying explosive material in their shoes and their pants and I am the passenger next to him and see someone strapping, I would panic too."

Now, if there are Jews or civil libertarians who are outraged at what happened yesterday, this story did a horrible job of including that information. But if the boy's own family, friends and rabbi are saying it's no big deal, I tend to think the reporter was just accurately portraying the response in the community.

About one year ago today, there was the story about how eight or nine Muslims were removed from a flight after fellow passengers reported what they claimed were suspicious conversations. Turned out that they'd simply been discussing where was the safest place to sit on a plane. It was a big story and people were very upset. The FBI actually handled things well and the detained passengers were appreciative of that but the airline came in for a lot of criticism. But the media covered that story very differently. I wonder how much of that has to do with the different specifics of the case and how much of that has to do with the fact that advocacy groups got involved right away.

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