Discrimination Keeps a Plane (and Progress in the Middle East) Grounded
This past Monday night (January 4), an unruly group of Jewish Israeli passengers had two Arab Israeli passengers removed from an Aegean Airlines flight, effectively demonstrating to the world that, at least in some ways, Israel and its citizens are far from the enlightened, multi-cultural society they often claim to be. As a supporter of the state of Israel, and the aspirations and dreams on which it was based, I am tremendously disappointed.
To set the stage, let’s review some key statements from The Declaration of Establishment of State of Israel:
“The state of Israel will…foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace…”
“…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”
“We appeal…to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the up building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
According to a report published in Haaretz (the story appears to have received little international media coverage), an initially small group of Jewish passengers on a flight from Greece to Israel claimed that two of their Arab fellow citizens constituted a security risk. They demanded that two men be “checked for security issues.” The crew informed airport police, who apparently verified the identities of the two men and found nothing amiss.
But by then, a larger group of passengers (as many as 70 according to reports) had begun protesting the presence of the two Israeli Arabs, ultimately preventing the flight from taking off by standing in the aisles. After 90 minutes of delay, the two men agreed to disembark (perhaps fearing for their own safety). Even after that, the group of Israeli Jews insisted that the crew conduct an additional security check of the plane, causing the captain to warn them that they would be forcibly removed from the plane without compensation. At that point, the passengers took their seats and the plane took off for Tel Aviv. The two men removed from the plane were given a hotel room and compensation. They flew out on El Al the next day.
Aegean Airlines, undeniably complicit in this whole, sad affair, cited safety concerns and apologized publically for the incident, calling it “extremely unfortunate.” Oddly, the company’s CEO, Dimitris Gerogiannis later wrote a letter to Palestinian Authority (PA) Secretary General Saeb Erekat expressing regret. Not surprisingly, despite the fact that neither man was a West Bank resident, the PA representative referred to both men as Palestinians and raised the popular specter of South African apartheid.
While there has been, unfortunately, no public response from the Israeli government, MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) called for an urgent meeting of the Economic Affairs Committee to discuss the incident.
“The State of Israel has a responsibility to its citizens,” Rozin argued. “It can’t be that a commercial company, which has signed aviation agreements with Israel, allows itself to disembark passengers based on their physical appearance at the demands of (other) passengers.”
Rozin laid blame for the incident on government leaders, saying that it “sow[s] fear and hate through slander and incitement, and this is the result. The government must understand that marking Israeli-Arab citizens as potential terrorists leads to the loss of morals and values that endangers our future as a society.”
Yonatan Gher, the head of Amnesty International in Israel, agreed.
“People should not be surprised by such shameful acts when the prime minister stands at the forefront of incitement and the racist narrative against an entire sector of society…”
There is plenty of room for finger-pointing, of course, and a long history of bloody conflict between Jews and Arabs. What makes this event so frustrating in particular is the fact that the two men removed from the plane were fellow Israelis (one a citizen, one an official resident). The fact that they were identified as such, and still forcibly removed from the plane (rather than the Jewish passengers causing the disturbance to begin with), is further evidence of the common complaint that Israeli Arabs are often treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
Israel needs to do better. It needs to speak out publically and vocally against this sort of blatant discrimination and hold companies like Aegean Airlines responsible for standing up for the human rights they claim to cherish. Israeli citizens need to take an honest look at themselves and decide whether they want a free and peaceful society, or one of anarchy and hatred. The principles on which the state was based need to be upheld at the highest levels of government as an example to its people and to surrounding nations.
Israel often complains, perhaps justifiably so, of being held to a double standard, when many of its neighbors flagrantly disregard the most basic of human rights. But this is precisely why the state cannot fail to do everything possible to espouse and demonstrate the values of a truly egalitarian society as a shining example to those still trapped in darkness. A small step for Israel may be a giant leap for progress in the Middle East.