Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

El Al is a Jewish airline

Wait a second, Jeff.

Don’t you mean to say that El Al is an Israeli airline — in fact, the State of Israel’s flag carrier air line?

Yes, that is true.

But El Al is also a Jewish airline.

OK, you will ask. So, how does an airline become a Jewish airline?


When it acts in a Jewish way.

Here is what happened.

The Israeli government had been planning to indefinitely imprison or deport tens of thousands of 38,000 African refugees.

Fearing that the destinations could be Rwanda, or a similarly dangerous African country, a group of El Al pilots stated they would not participate in the deportations.

The campaign was initiated by the NGO Zazim Community Action.

But, you need to read the words of some of the El Al pilots.

Ido Elad wrote on Facebook: “I have joined many of my best friends by declaring that I will not fly refugees to their deaths. I will not be a partner to this barbarism.”

Yoel Piterbarg wrote on Facebook:

The State of Israel is populated mainly by Jews who were in their distant and recent past refugees in countries [around] the world. Most of them went through the Holocaust, many were forcibly expelled from their countries, and many emigrated voluntarily to better their situation to better countries that agreed to accept and care for them.

It is precisely us, the Jews, who must be attentive, empathic, moral and public opinion leaders in the world to deal with the immigration of refugees who suffered and suffer in their countries of origin.

The refugees should remain and be treated as human beings – just as the Jews used to be refugees and wanted to be treated like human beings and not thrown out. Martin Luther King said that the terrible things in history happened not because of the bad people who committed them, but because of the ‘good people’ who were silent when it happened.

A third El Al pilot, Shaul Betzer, also declared on Facebook that he would not assist the government in the pending deportations.

“There is no way that I, as part of a flight crew, will participate in taking refugees/asylum seekers to a destination where their chances of surviving are minuscule,” he wrote.

Raluca Gena, the CEO of Zazim Community Action, said that since the campaign began 10 days ago, over 7,500 concerned Israeli citizens have sent personal appeals to the Israel Aircraft Association, the Israeli Pilots Association and the companies that provide the ground services at Ben-Gurion Airport for international flights.

So, what makes all of this Jewish?

Reach back, now, to the first chapter of the biblical book of Exodus.

Pharaoh decreed that death for Israelite children, and he gave the genocidal order to a pair of midwives named Shifrah and Puah.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live. (Exodus 1: 15-16).

But these are midwives, and their profession is to enable birth, not to promote death.  “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1: 17).

Several medieval commentators, such as RASHI and Ibn Ezra, teach that they did more than simply refusing to kill the children; they made them live by providing them with food and water. They were active, even aggressive redeemers.

Shifra and Puah were among the greatest inventors in human history. And what was their invention?

A little thing called civil disobedience. Shifrah and Puah are the “grandmothers” of Thoreau and Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Notice how one of the El Al pilots, Yoel Piterbarg, relied on Dr. King as his moral role model.

That is how El Al transcended being simply an Israeli airline.

This is how El Al became a Jewish airline. By living Jewish values — in a daring, public way.

Not only Jewish values — El Al lived out the prophetic imperative.

You know how Jews chant the haftarah, the prophetic readings, in synagogue on Shabbat morning?

The melody is beautiful and haunting.

So, here’s an idea for this Shabbat morning.

Take those testimonies of the El Al pilots — and chant them according to the ancient prophetic melodies.

You can do it.

Amos and Isaiah would be proud.

There is only one way to describe what those El Al pilots decided to do.

It was the moral upgrade — to first class. 

It is at times like these that I am proud to be a Jew. And it is at times like these that I am proud to be a Zionist.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • Keeping in mind that the pilots’ actions are based on the mythical Exodus, Abraham and Moses.

    And the refugees current status: Nov, 2017:

    “Israel is expected to pay Rwanda $5,000 per person in return for every migrant the African country accepts from them.

    Israel is home to about 39,000 Africans — mostly from Eritrea and Sudan — who entered the country illegally between 2006 and 2012, according to government statistics. While most claim to be refugees, the government regards them as economic migrants and has refused to grant residency permits. The stream of refugees entering Israel from Africa has been blocked by a 5m-high steel border fence built between Israel and Egypt in 2013.

    While a small number are held in detention centres, most live in cramped conditions in working-class southern Tel Aviv neighbourhoods, where they are illegally employed in restaurants and on building sites. Locals have been…”

  • They know that. These pilots are not Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Most of them are secular Jews. In Israel, most Jews are secular or Orthodox. There isn’t much in the middle like in America. Yet, these “myths” still move them to action anyway.

  • I would say that the airline is orthodox leaning. That is why I had to fly another in order to take my dog home when I left Israel.

  • The crews are mostly secular but, like so much in Israel, they bend over backward to the ultra-Orthodox. This has led to various controversies, like the cabin crew asking female passengers to move out of seats next to UO men. After a lawsuit, El Al agreed to forbid the crew from asking passengers to do this.

  • “Keeping in mind that the pilots’ actions are based on the mythical Exodus, Abraham and Moses.”

    Whilst they may so be that is not a conclusion that can be drawn rationally from the article is it?

    The writer extrapolates the comments quoted – presumably without any knowledge as to whether the assertion is true – but that doesn’t mean that he is either right or wrong is his suppositions.

    Even were your comment accurate – so what? Religious people can use their fables to justify doing good as well as evil. Neither validates the actuality of the writings.

  • Basing one’s actions on fables is wrought with problems especially when one realizes their actions were based on myths.

  • Agreed – but the connection between religion and goodness is seen as cause and effect despite the evidence that it is co-incidental and/or fear based.

  • Agreed, on the other hand, the mathematics tells a another story as there are 54 countries on the African contentment, and the populations of Africa are expected to double by 2050. Israel is a very tiny geographical location.

    So, for example, when Israel undertook a program to repatriate several hundred South Sudanese refugees, it was absolutely legal. Repatriation is exactly the course taken in the case of Liberian refugees being repatriated from Gambia, Angolan refugees being repatriated from Namibia, Angolan refugees being repatriated from Zambia, Congolese refugees being repatriated from Burundi, Ivorian refugees being repatriated from Liberia , and the refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo being repatriated from the Republic of Congo. In all of the above cases U.N. member countries, through the UNHCR, funded in large part by the United States, pick up the tab. But in Israel’s case, the people of Israel are paying.

    The bottom line is that the tiny Israel cannot be the safety valve for the millions who are pouring out of the Middle East and North African Countries. Western (high unemployment) Europe is starting to react as they feel they can no longer be the safety valve as well. The cost of security for Western Europe and patrolling the Mediterranean Sea has become an enormous burden.

  • While I am no fan of the ultra religious, I also see the Catholic priests getting on first class in Alitalia Airlines in Rome. I thought they took a vow of poverty? Saudia Airlines has issued a strict dress code for passengers and stated that it will refuse to fly people who deviate from it. The airline is the national carrier of Saudi Arabia, a country which follows a conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism.

  • OK – thanks – makes more sense (to me) knowing that the majority of the post was not intended as a response to mine.