Mechitzas on El Al’s Flight To Belgium

It looks like in flight mechitzas may not be a joke after all. Last Monday( February 20), the Israeli television station channel 2 and Israeli business newspaper Globes reported that Haredim set up “dividers” on a recent El Al flight to Belgium. Passengers reported that the dividers extended the length of the plane, to block movies, and by some accounts, to also block the view of emergency exits.

El Al issued a statement saying “This is an unusual event, and is not in accordance with company flight service procedure. We would like to emphasize that flight safety was not compromised. The incident will be reviewed by El Al.” However, passengers reported that flight attendants said this happens from time to time. They deal with the situation by moving passengers annoyed by it.

The exact nature of the dividers wasn’t specified. Was this a single partition that extended the length of the cabin or some sort of personal mechitzah used by several passengers? In 2010 the Jerusalem Post reported that Haredim were being advised to carry portable folding white mechitzas on plane rides.

Spoof advertizement

At the time many thought that the idea was so bizarre that it must be some sort of pre-Purim joke. Since Jerusalem Post did not release a picture of the mechitza, one blog, the Muquata, provided a spoofed photo. In contrast to the actual mechitza (pictured left), the spoof photograph showed a green wrap around mechitza with El Al branding.

An actual in-flight mechitza (bluish divider) - note that it rises several inches above the seat back, potentially blocking the view of passengers behind the user.

The actual mechitzas attached to the seat back before each passanger where the tray folds down. They provided blinders that blocked the view of large in-flight movie screens and also of passengers on either side of the traveller. They were white in color, not green. El Al denied any knowledge of the device.

It sometimes takes time for Haredi news to make it to the mainstream press. The folding mechitzah had been in the works well before the 2010 Jerusalem Post article. In 2008 Yated, a Haredi newspaper reported that a delegation from the Rabbinical Committee for Transportation Matters who met with HaRav Chaim Kanievsky to get approval for their personal mechitza proposal and a blessing for their efforts in finding solutions to modesty issues. They showed him a prototype of the mechitza which can be folded up to 10inches. The organization responsible for the mechitzas, the Rabbinical Committee for Transportation Matters, is also involved in promoting segregated bus lines.

At the time, Kanievsky showed little understanding of the potential impact of the dividers on other travellers:

the delegation members asked whether it appeared bizarre and would be liable to cause chilul Hashem, but he allayed their concerns, saying “it’s a kiddush Hashem!” They also asked him about non-Jewish travelers sitting behind them who complain the mechitzoh obstructs their view of the screen, but HaRav Kanievsky dismissed these concerns as well.

Although the original article no longer exists, it was cross-posted on many blogs. Numerous Orthodox bloggers commented on the concept and the lack of awareness of how those outside of the Haredi world perceive such things. Harry Marles of Emes v’Emunah wrote:

I think I know why they feel that way. They truly believe that such Mechitzos are a Kiddush HaShem. Showing a high level of modesty – they will say – is a Kiddush HaShem. These Mechitzos will clearly demonstrate that. …. To go to such lengths to avoid seeing women dressed in G rated clothing or behave in a G rated manner on a movie screen will not make a Kiddush HaShem…. . The message of modesty will be entirely lost on others – Jew and non Jew alike – who will instead see weird behavior that will at best be snickered at and ridiculed. And at worst the people using those Mechitzos will generate resentment and even anger on the part of those passengers whose view of the movie will be blocked. How this adds up to a Kiddush HaShem truly escapes me…. I just don’t see this device as having any value except to make Jews look stupid, foolish, and insensitive to others. Instead of setting an example of modesty they will be making Judaism look ridiculous and getting people angry in the process. What Kiddush HaShem is there in that?

Josh Waxman of ParshaBlog suggested part of the problem was the lack of genuine efforts to explore counter arguments. He wrote:

there was no satan here — no devil’s advocate. From the accounting, they weakly brought up points people might raise as objections. When something like this is proposed, you need someone actively and forcefully arguing the other side. Someone to say that this is not what the people running the airplane want; that the gentile (or, in fact, Jew) will not only be miffed, but will complain to the flight attendant, who will ask the chareidi to take down his mechitza.

There are those that argue that personal mechitzas are no one’sbusiness but the one who wants to use one. So what if someone wants to put blinders on? Isn’t it their choice? After all, if the problem can be sensibly solved by having people move their seat, why be concerned?

The difficulty here is that Rav Kaminsky isn’t just speaking about his own personal needs. Throughout history rabbinic poskim have always had to take in account the needs of the general community. Not only must Jews must ive in a world with non-Jews, they must also live in a world where Jews disagree with each other. They have had to recognize that not all Jews observe stringencies with the same passion.

In Pirke Avot, 5:13 it says

There are four types among men: He who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours”–this is the common type, though some say that this is the type of Sodom. He who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine”–he is an ignorant man. He who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is thine own”–he is a saintly man. And he who says, “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine”–he is a wicked man.

Most often we think of personal property when we read this, but it also applies to the way we value other people’s feelings. The person who says “I have my feelings and you have yours” is the common sort of person. This sort of thinking lets people live together, but it creates a cold society with little empathy or concern for one another. The person who says “I judge your feelings and you judge mine” is ignorant of his own worth and also the worth of others.

The third sort of person says “I allow my feelings to be in empathy with others without demanding that capacity in return” is, according to tradition, a saint. Their kindheartedness can build bridges and heal wounds between individuals and society.

Kamiensky and the Rabbinic Council of transportation haven’t chosen that route. Instead they have passed superficial judgement on the feelings of others without any serious concern about the truth of those judgements. They are in effect saying that only their feelings and sensibilities matter. It is my right to decide the value and reasoning that govern both my feelings and yours. This makes them like the fourth category: the one who says what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.

When the leaders themselves make no real efforts to understand why Haredi behavior is objectionable to non-Haredim, is it any wonder that the rank and file follows suit? Should we really be surprised to hear some of the more vocal Haredim demanding respect no matter how their personal observances impact non-Haredim? Should we really be surprised when other Haredim keep their mouths shut when they know in their hearts such an attitude is wrong? If the person they trust as a wise leader is modelling the same selfcenteredness and parochialism, who is the man or woman on the street to judge?

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