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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Higher Authority

This past weekend, three Orthodox Jewish businessmen triggered security concerns by conducting a prayer ritual on board a flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles.

According to a report on the CNN Belief Blog, "Passengers on Alaska Airlines Flight 241 became alarmed when the three men began to pray out loud. "Shortly after takeoff ... three passengers were praying out loud in a language other than Spanish," according to an airline spokeswoman."

The report continues,
"When the planed landed at LAX it was greeted by members of airport police, the FBI and Customs and Border Protection.

According to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller, the men were questioned and their baggage was searched before they were cleared to go.

"The men were extremely cooperative," Eimiller said.

Airport police Sgt. Belinda Nettles told CNN there was never any threat to passenger or aircraft safety."
Alaskan Airlines reported that:
Flight attendants instructed everyone to stay seated with their seatbelts fastened as the aircraft flew through turbulence shortly after takeoff. The three passengers disregarded repeated requests, however, and stood up several times to retrieve objects from their luggage in the overhead bin that the crew had never seen, including small black boxes fastened with what appeared to be black tape. The crew learned after the plane landed that these were tefillin boxes worn during the prayer ritual.

The men prayed aloud together in a language unfamiliar to the crew while wearing what appeared to be black tape and wires strapped to their forearms and foreheads and wires on their chests. Their actions and behavior made some other travelers and the crew uneasy. The three passengers responded, but provided very little explanation, to a flight attendant’s questions about the tefillin boxes and what they were doing.

Later in the flight, two of the three passengers visited the lavatories together while the third waited in the aisle and continually looked around the cabin and toward the flight deck door. Flight attendants thought he appeared anxious, as if he were standing guard.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Was it just that these three men were praying on the plane (Imagine!) or that they "looked funny" while praying. On the plane. Loudly.

"In a language other than Spanish"? (The flight originated in Mexico City).

And, acting "strangely"?

During weekday prayers, some Orthodox Jewish men wear teflillin, or phylacteries - black leather straps wrapped around the left arm and around the forehead. The straps are connected to small boxes with tiny scrolls containing Jewish scriptures. Many Orthodox Jewish men also wear a prayer shawl called a tallit under their clothes, with knotted fringes at each of the four corners.

One would think that the "small boxes with tiny scrolls containing Jewish scripture" would (1) pass security (2) be part of the "diversity training" all corporate employees are required to take so that flight attendants, etc, are aware that these things would be part of the luggage of Orthodox Jewish men.

One might also think that, especially in these days after 9/11 that Orthodox Jewish men might understand the "strangeness" of praying together loudly. In public. On a plane. In Hebrew. In their religious garb.

Or, perhaps, the current wave of Islamophobia has anesthetized other religious minorities to the suspicions and prejudices they have raised. It's easy to be lulled into such a false sense of security when the spotlight is on someone else.

The article continues:
"According to the Anti-Defamation League, this issue comes up occasionally. Last year after a similar incident, the ADL and Chabad sent a letter and a flier to all the major airlines explaining teflillin, said Deborah Lauter, ADL’s director of civil rights.

"We understand these prayer items may not be familiar. We gave them the suggestions that they do training about it. We had hoped they would include this in their training," Lauter said.

She said she is sending a letter to Alaska Airlines again to remind them.

Lauter said there is an onus on both parties in such a situation.

“The safety of passengers is paramount, and in this age of heightened security people are on edge. I think it’s understandable why people would have this reaction. There has to be a give and take too with the passengers. If they weren’t cooperating, that’s a different problem than religious sensitivity,” she said.

"Education is a two way street. We hope airlines will include this training with their staffs," Lauter said. “It also wouldn't hurt for passengers who are going to be participating in this ritual to alert the staff ahead of time.”
"An onus on both parties".

That sounds like a reasonable and fair enough statement.

The Airlines also issued a statement of apology:
"Alaska Airlines embraces the cultural and religious diversity of our passengers and employees. We apologize for the experience these three passengers went through after landing in Los Angeles as well as for any inconvenience to our other customers onboard," Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.

Alaska Airlines said it plans to update its awareness training of Orthodox Jews and is reaching out to the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle for help.
Also fair enough.

Why am I thinking that this may not be the first time this has happened, but it won't be the last?

These are squirrely times. "Homeland Security" has done its best to keep the citizenry alert to suspicious activity which may be part of terrorism.

There's been an earthquake and a Tsunami in Japan that has caused the deaths of thousands of people, destroyed homes and exposed the people of Japan to nuclear poisoning.

All of this has happened even as Haiti and New Zealand are still recovering from recent earthquakes.

The Middle East remains in fragile political condition, with fighting continuing in Libya and gas prices soaring at the pumps - increasing the cost of travel and pinching wallets and purses.

I suppose it's not surprising that, at least from time to time, some of us are going to overreact.

It would be good to remember that we all - every last one of us - reports to a "higher authority". Call it "God". "Jehovah". "Allah". "Jesus." "The Light". "Conscience." "Jimminy Cricket". "The Force". "Higher Power".

Whatever the name you use to summon up the parts of your better self, this would be the time to do that.

Otherwise, it could get even weirder in the world than it already is.

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