On the radar: more Charedi flight chaos

At the height of the Covid pandemic when more prudent Jews observed lockdown, Charedim kept totting up their air-miles

September 10, 2020 10:51

As a yeshiva bochur in Jerusalem long ago, I met old men who, born in the Holy City, never left it in their lives. Never saw the sea at Tel Aviv or the desert at Beersheva, never bought a ticket for an intercity Egged bus. Staying put was considered a mark of piety, an acceptance of a man’s place in God’s world, the more so if that place was God’s own.

Such men were not uncommon. Travel played no part in the religious way of life. It might be undertaken for family and work events, but leaving home was seen as an unnecessary distraction from the study of Torah, carrying with it a risk of exposure to worldly temptation. So, no go.

Flash forward half a century and the airports are crowded with ultra-frum Jews even – especially – at the height of the Covid pandemic when more prudent Jews observed lockdown and Charedim kept totting up air-miles, gathering in illegal numbers at weddings and shouting antisemitism when the cops came to disperse them.

Most of all, they flew back and forth between yeshiva terms (“bayn hazmanim”), a migration so central to the calendar that the Israeli government bent quarantine and immigration rules to admit thousands of foreign students for the month of Ellul.

Let’s not mince kosher burgers: the Chareidi world has not behaved well during Covid, its chaotic conduct outdone only by the writhings of a desperate prime minister to keep beards in his Cabinet and his own butt out of jail.

Matters came to a disreputable nadir over this year’s pilgrimage to Uman in Ukraine. It has become customary of late for pious men to pray at the grave of Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) around the Jewish New Year.

Nachman, a reclusive mystic of blessed memory, never used to be a big deal and his followers blew the black shofar of excommunication at any who pried into their affairs.

But since the turn of the century the Nachman boys have taken to the streets of Israel in Hari Krishna gangs – white skullcaps and gowns, music blaring – exhorting passerby to join their cult. So many have done so that immense crowds now converge on Uman for the holy days, raising Ukraine’s doddery GDP by several percentage points.

Until Covid, that is. This year Israel’s health chief asked the Government to ban the Uman exodus in order to stem a resurgent virus. Netanyahu first agreed, then retracted under Charedi threats to bring him down. Instead, he asked the Ukrainian authorities to block incoming pilgrims, a move that went down just about as well on all sides as the BBC’s flip-flops on Rule, Britannia! Watch this space. Maybe we’ll see a Nachman singalong on the Royal Albert Hall doorstep on Last Night of the Proms.

And we haven’t yet hit rock bottom. In the thick of these capitulations, an Anglo-Israeli by name of Melanie Wolfson started legal action against EasyJet after its crews twice made her give up her seat when Charedi passengers refused to sit next to a woman. Ms Wolfson told the media: “It’s not just an issue of ultra-Orthodox men.”

She’s wrong: it is. This kind of bad air day does not happen with Buddhist fliers, Zoroastrians, Shia Muslims, Masorti Jews or Scientologists. It’s a Charedi thing, and it’s about time people stood up to them, rather than excusing bad behaviour that pretends to be Godly.

I’ve seen it myself. Flying from Tel Aviv to give a lecture in Budapest, I caught the red-eye at seven in the morning and was hunkering down for a catch-up nap when a bunch of Chasidim came on board and reorganised the seating like Foreign Office wallahs at the Queen’s jubilee, only less decorously. My wife told them she was suffering from a virus and could not be moved. A woman in front of us invited them to perform an improbable act of self-pleasuring. Neither objection made the slightest impression on the rampant latecomers until the captain came out with an announcement that if all passengers were not seated by the time he counted three he’d cancel the flight without compensation.

That worked. There was a final flurry of Charedim stuffing every inch of cabin space with shtreimel and sheitl boxes, presumably to prevent them commingling out of sight in the baggage hold below.

Just about the worst person you can encounter on a flight anywhere — other than a 9/11 hijacker, a proselytizing Scientologist or a sneezing Covid neighbour — is a Charedi male deciding where women can sit. Chat to them one by one (I often do) and they are the nicest guys alive.

But meet them as a mob and your seat is no longer safe, as Benjamin Netanyahu may soon discover to his cost.

September 10, 2020 10:51

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