Laurie Toby Edison

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Praying on Airplane “Creates Panic”

Laurie and Debbie say:

In the United States, the trappings of Orthodox Judaism are only familiar in a few large cities and a few particular neighborhoods of smaller cities. If you live in New York City, or St. Louis Park, Minnesota, or parts of Palo Alto, California (to name a few), you’ve probably seen Orthodox Jewish men praying with their “phylacteries” or “tefillin.” Otherwise, you might not recognize this ritual.

Jewish man praying with tefillin

Debbie has clear memories of her grandfather putting them on every morning.

The level of terror pervading our airplanes makes us less than surprised that a young man who put these on last Thursday on an airplane caused a stir and some fear.

To … the flight attendant it looked ominous, as if the young man were wrapping himself in cables or wires.

And in a time when in-flight thinking is colored by the brutal knowledge that passengers have hidden bombs in underwear or shoes, she told the officers in the cockpit.

The pilot decided to divert the Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia. In less than 30 minutes it was on the ground, police officers were swarming through the passenger cabin, and the Transportation Security Administration was using terms like “disruptive passenger” and “suspicious passenger” to describe the boy.

This plane left from New York’s LaGuardia airport, which means that even if the flight attendant had never seen tefillin, many passengers certainly had. Diverting the plane to Philadelphia instead of Louisville is an over-reaction; aiming guns at all the passengers (including the polite young man who put on the phylacteries, and his sister) and handcuffing them both to take them off the plane is a gross over-reaction.

Why does this matter? First of all, because it is inconceivable that this would have happened to a passenger with a rosary, even a big rosary as potentially dangerous as the phylacteries. This is partly because the U.S. is a predominantly Christian country, but more because rosaries are familiar: those of us who don’t see them in our everyday lives see pictures of them on the Web, at the movies, on the news. (Inexcusably, pictures of anything Arab or Muslim-related, or even things we inaccurately think of as specifically Arab or Muslim-related, such as a turban, are common, but they are almost invariably shown in a negative light, so they reinforce fears.)

It’s absolutely not in the mass media’s interest to minimize fear: fear sells. But if they wanted to make us feel better and not more scared, they could make a point of showing pictures of unfamiliar religious materials, being used by pious people who pose no threat to anyone around them. Never going to happen.

Another reason this is important is that this young man’s community has taken the cultural fear into their own hearts. All of the responses by religious Jews are about how he showed bad judgment: “You can’t expect the whole world to know what this ritual is all about,” said his rabbi. “Nobody would have assumed it would create panic,” he said, “but in today’s environment, I guess everything creates panic.” A religious New York politician said “you might as well strap yourself with hand grenades.”

Doing anything exotic or unfamiliar on an airplane is going to push everyone’s buttons, and lead to over-reactions. On the other hand, accepting it as the way things are reinforces the silent presumption that it is also the way things should be.

We think the way things should be goes like this: In the more than eight years since 9/11, there have been many false alarms on airplanes and very few real ones, all of which were dealt with without loss of life or major danger to planes or passengers. In that same period, there have been hundreds of incidents where innocent people were harassed or worse because of perceived dangers. In this light, TSA employees and flight crew should be taught to give passengers the benefit of the doubt:

“Excuse me, sir, what is that you’re putting on?” (this is what she apparently did say)
“It’s religious. I’m an Orthodox Jew and this is how we pray in the mornings.”
“Thank you. That’s interesting to know.”

And then she could ask to see them, and this young man who is described as “as docile as you could imagine” would have handed them over. She would then see that they were leather. She could have asked other passengers if they knew what these were.

We can never be 100% safe. So let’s use good sense, and everyone’s knowledge, to decide what’s dangerous.

2 Responses to “Praying on Airplane “Creates Panic””

  1. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Courage isn’t especially an American value. Neither is thinking. As nearly as I can figure it, the primary American value is doing something. Thinking is permitted, but optional.

    This value set is turning out to be a massive problem, and I have no idea what would help.

  2. Cameron Says:

    I am dumbfounded…I am a gentile, and I am very familiar with the “phylacteries” or “tefillin.”! I will admit, that as an artist who researched Jewish culture, past and present for a commision, that does put me out of the normal mainstream, but really – they actually have had a pop cultural moment; Madonna used the imagery in her video Die Another Day (whether or not it was done appropriately is an argument for another blog post),and while I am sure it probably gave the Jewish community hives that she did, do you know how many idiots I ran into who interpreted the symbol as indicating shooting up drugs? ARGH!!!! *head-desk-thud – thud – thud…* I have days when I wonder why I remain American…

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