Elal Airlines

Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin has called on El Al chief executive Gonen Ussishkin to publicly apologise after Orthodox passengers were accused of being violent on a recent New York to Tel Aviv flight diverted to Athens to avoid breaking Shabbat.

Rosh Yeshiva of the Atseres Shlomo network of 40 religious education institutions, Rabbi Sorotzkin, who was on the flight, has also threatened to organise a boycott of El Al by the Charedi community if no “clear apology” is forthcoming by Sunday evening.

Following a “friendly” meeting with Ussishkin, Rabbi Sorotzkin thanked the El Al chief by letter, which has since been published.

In it he noted, that a full week had passed in which “observant Jews were accused of complete fabrications” and El Al had attempted to obscure the matter.

Reluctantly, he added that without a public apology, “we would need to announce to our constituency that we should prefer different airline companies,”.

Rabbi Sorotzkin explained that his community would “give preference” to companies that do not differentiate between passengers, denigrate Hashem and appreciate their orthodox values.

El Al has set up a committee to investigate the flight which landed in Athens to allow Shabbat observant passengers off the plane and follow up allegations of passenger violence toward flight attendants.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported El Al spent an estimated 1 million shekels (£210,000) to stop in Athens.

Flight 002 was delayed over five hours due to bad weather with Shabbat approaching earlier this month.

Dozens of passengers demanded the plane return to its gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport to disembark, but the plane took off.

Around 150 passengers disembarked and stayed in a hotel next to the airport in Athens, meals were provided by Chabad.

Remaining passengers boarded a flight by Israir to Tel Aviv three hours later.

El Al does not fly on a Shabbat or major Jewish holidays.

A second flight departing from New York diverted to Rome but continued to Tel Aviv due to a medical emergency.

Some 180 orthodox were also reported to be suing El Al for $2.5 million ($13,500 each), a refund of the cost of the flight and a public apology after being were blamed for its delay.

Media reports told outrageous tales in the aftermath following the Shabbat incident.

KAN 11 News reported that Chareidim were shouting, cursing and pushing El Al cabin crew in a chaotic situation.

Orthodox passengers were furious as they could not relate their experiences as it was Shabbat.

Israeli news correspondent Yehuda Schlesinger was on the flight and described reports as ‘fake news’.

“There was no uprising, I saw when chareidim insisted on knowing what was going on, and this too was not violent,” he reportedly said.

“The only ‘uprising’ was when the chareidim gathered together and sang songs.

“The one time there was a concern was two hours before the flight taking off and we were told we would arrive two hours before Shabbat.”

Lawyers allege El Al booked 53 hotel rooms in Athens for the stranded passengers, resulting in some people sleeping on the floor.

El Al released a statement admitting passengers were not “physically violent” on the flight hours after legal documents were filed.

At the time, El Al confirmed extreme weather in New York caused cancellations and delays to hundreds of flights, including El Al flights that left Israel.

“El Al will take care of alternative flights to Israel for all passengers,” the statement noted.

“In addition, passengers who prefer to stay in Athens or Rome on Shabbat will be treated by representatives of the company and do not worry about returning them to Israel at the end of Shabbat. We apologise for the inconvenience caused to our customers.”

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin, in a memo to staff members, said the decision-making process on the flight “took place in a dynamic and developing reality that was not entirely controlled by the company”.

Usishkin added that EL Al prided itself on being the “melting pot of Israeli society” and regretted the incident had led to “polarising discourse and exchanging of accusations.”

In a difficult few days for El Al, Police arrested a long-term employee of the organisation suspected of being involved in a drug trafficking operation on Monday.

Rami Yogev, 53, is the Development and Resources Department manager and has worked for El Al for 25 years.

Yogev, who liaises with Shin Bet on security arrangements for EL AL flights, has top security clearance and authorised to enter restricted areas.

Yogev is alleged to have used his clearance to smuggle large amounts of cocaine between Johannesburg, South Africa and Israel.

Three other men suspected of involvement have also been arrested, including former Shin Bet official Beno Shalom.

The Rishon LeZion Magistrate’s Court remand of Yogev, Shalom and Roy Chen, until Tuesday next week.

“We believe that the suspect (Yogev) played a larger role in the operation than the other suspects so far,” a police representative said in court.

Yogev’s lawyer said that his client denied allegations but could not comment further due to the nature of his job but was confident police would soon release him.

Other suspects have also denied involvement.

El Al in a statement noted that it viewed the allegations gravely and awaited results of the police investigation.