Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Religious beads"

-Everybody's preferred neighbor on a flight is no passenger at all. Failing that, a silent, perfume-free, recently-showered one with slim hips and thighs, who eats nothing with a crunch, crumb or odor during the flight, and graciously moves aside when you wish to get through. Anything that strays from this model elicits eyerolls, so I don't necessarily fault anyone for finding it irritating when someone gets up to pray. Unlike the delay when someone in a wheelchair gets on a bus, or when someone sitting in the window seat on the flight made the mistake of finishing the chicken and has to get up accordingly, whatever disturbance this causes is voluntary, so while all disturbances are disturbances, one caused by prayer - and we're talking about in an enclosed space from which there's no escape - is not the most 'just suck it up' as they go. But! it still falls under the 'just suck it up.' While the question of the day began as a discussion of some flight where everyone thought tefillin=bomb, some commenting on the incident are not so much frightened as irritated by prayer on planes.* Irritated is not frightened. There's a little mumbling in a Semitic language on your flight? Suck it up.

-There are no doubt secular Jews among the irritated, once prayers begin. Visibly Orthodox Jews seem to make some from just about every group uncomfortable (liberal Jews who fear being judged as of a piece with the most pious, non-Jews confused by the whole thing), with the exception of anti-Semites of the old school, who find Jews most threatening when assimilated, that is, when they go around looking like and socializing with non-Jews. It's the Jews without the religious beads they have a problem with.

-On -isms. Is it anti-Semitic not to recognize Jewish prayer garments you've never heard of before? No. Would I want to be dropped into a town where every resident thought tefillin meant prayer beads meant bombs? No.

-The obvious: just as for some, Abercrombie and "The Hills" are normal, and those who've heard of neither come from Mars, for this kid, Orthodox is normal, because someone growing up in a Jewish family or community experiences Judaism not as a minuscule part of the overall population, but as the default. (I'm taking a leap here and assuming the kid is not the child of Episcopalians who converted alone, of his own accord.) So even if on some level he realized that not all would know what he was doing (and he might not have - not all Jews, remember, are geniuses), it's highly unlikely it would have occurred to him that his prayer ritual would appear to anyone as an attempt to blow up a plane. It's not that he thought Jews were just so special that everyone should know everything about the faith, but that he does not see mysterious straps and boxes. Again, just a guess.

-A good amount of the response is in the form of evoking a theoretical Muslim 17-year-old at prayer, who, on his theoretical flight, has caused a great deal of theoretical dismay. As with any accusation of theoretical bigotry (see also Caitlin Flanagan's imaginary Mexican), there are some flaws. For one, there was no Muslim 17-year-old. The time to get indignant is when something has actually happened, which does often enough in the world of anti-Muslim prejudice that we don't need to make theoretical accusations. Something actually did happen here, and this victim was a Jew. Oh well.

Then, there's the issue of race. We're to believe that there's sympathy for the kid because he's white, whereas if he'd been a Muslim... Without rehashing the whole are-Jews-white discussion, remember that even if this kid happens to be the least stereotypically-Jewish-looking Jew around (couldn't really tell from a video), if he's sporting a religious-looking hat, say, or praying in a way that's non-Protestant, he looks Muslim or fern to the ignorant. But, geez, plenty of Jews 'look Muslim (or, more accurately, Arab, as the two are conflated in popular imagination)' without this, just as plenty of Muslims 'look Jewish.' Not (just) because these are religions rather than races, but because these are two populations with a whole lot of dark hair and non-Nordic features. The sort of white people with a grievance with Islam not based on perceived radicalism but on brownness aren't too hot on Jews either. (Except while pandering.)

-Craziness is everywhere, but if it's not on a plane, whatever, right? I was recently on the subway when a guy in the car, with a bandanna covering his entire face, kept applying the flame from a lighter to the window. I decided this was a form of etching graffiti and not a prelude to his blowing up the car, because you sort of have to think like this when it's happening right next to you and there's no discreet way to move aside. So in one case, shoes are removed, and everyone has to pay $5 for a post-security bottle of water because you never know. In the other, by all means, let's test that subway's flammability! I get that no one's crashing a subway car into a building, but is there no way the security levels could be slightly evened out?

* Charming: "If I’d been on that plane, I would have been annoyed by his insistence on practicing his silly rites in a public space. If you want everyone around you to understand your vodoo, then you should move to Israel."

Get thee to Comparative Religions 101: "why does anyone need a box on your head or arm, or for that matter, a string of rosary beads, or have to point in a certain direction in order to pray? seems to me god doesn’t care when or how someone prays, or whether you’re accessorized or not."

Let's bring that class roster up to two: "Part of my religion says that I can carry around long red tubes with strings hangin out of them which, unfortunately, resemble TNT. Am I OK to board now? Can I bring on my sacrificial animals, as well? It’s time to keep the kooks off the aircraft."

Guess they're not removing any comments: "White Jews, and ergo most of the NYT staff, DO believe that they’re superior to the rest of us and superior especially to Muslims."


Matt said...

For the favorite co-passenger, don't forget to add narrow shoulders. I'm not someone who would think, when you saw him, "wow, that's some broad-shouldered dude", but if I sit next to anyone who has average male shoulders or more, we can't both sit back at the same time w/o uncomfortable rubbing together.

I'd be curious to know what was said by/to the kid by the flight crew and people around him. Not because I think it's likely to make much of a difference, but just out of curiosity. His saying to a seat-mate something like, "I'm going to say my prayers now. I hope it won't bother you" would be courteous though not, I think, required by general good behavior, but I suppose it's possible that he did say something like that but then everyone else around freaked out.

As for Muslims, a few years ago there was a case where several Muslim men on a flight all waited in line to go into the bathroom, apparently to prey in there out of sight of people. Of course, this freaked people out and they were all arrested when they landed, so that sort of thing isn't just hypothetical. (I believe the plane in that case was close to landing anyway.)

As for the comments, they don't reflect well on people as a whole, but I think there's something about such forums that brings out the most unpleasant aspects of people. I try to ignore them, as there's nothing to be gained but irritation. If it's any comfort, my wife tells me that the comments on news pages in Russia are vile pools of nationalism, racism, and stupidity, so we, at least, are not alone.

Phoebe said...


Asking if he could pray would have been courteous, yes, but whether or not he did, remember that he's 17. Kids that age are often far more obnoxious on planes than one who'd go so far as to pray without first asking.

And I'm afraid I still think the Muslim in this case was theoretical - from what you describe, it doesn't sound like the Jewish kid got better treatment than a Muslim one would have, or caused less hysteria. (Unless, that is, the Muslim men in question were sent to Guantanamo, and that's the end of their story.)

What amazed me most in the comments wasn't that many (and I didn't so much cite those) took the opportunity to explain just why they dislike the state of Israel, but that so many people in this supposedly pro-religion country expressed views one might expect of Western Europeans re: religion in public. Typically Americans are shocked by, say, the French headscarf law. So either these are a particularly unrepresentative sample of Americans, or there's something about weird Jewish practice in particular that got this set worked up.

PG said...

The seemingly Western European style view of religion in public was based mostly on this behavior occurring on a plane, which, as you note, we've all become used to treating as a space where our normal activities can be severely restricted. I can't lean back in my seat; I can't use my cellphone; if I'm flying to or from DC, I can't go to the bathroom for the first and last 30 minutes; etc. We have become so severely freaked out by the possibility of another 9/11 that we're willing to drop all our normal assumptions about how people ought to behave. (E.g., that someone in a service industry dealing with a customer ought to be polite and accommodating: when the service industry is an airline, as represented by a flight attendant, and the customer is a passenger on the plane, "polite and accommodating" is no longer the default.)

As for the incident Matt describes (one I don't remember; Matt, are you sure you're not thinking of Annie Jacobsen's wetting herself?), in my opinion it's worse to get arrested than merely to be the unwitting cause of having a flight diverted. And that incident also rebuts the commenter who says "take it to the bathroom" -- evidently if you're sufficiently foreign looking, that doesn't work either.

Phoebe said...


We clearly agree that planes today are highly restricted and tense environments. That doesn't fully explain all the 'keep your religion in a church/keep your Judaism in Israel' comments. Some object to weird objects on planes (unsurprising), while others object to religious objects in public (surprising).

You're right that it's worse to get arrested, but from some news video I saw of the event, it did sound as though the boy was taken away in handcuffs or by the police or something, not that it ended immediately upon someone picking up on the fact that the kid was a Jew and not a Muslim, a bomber, or both. Not sure if a formal arrest procedure was part of it. Anyway, the 'lucky for him he had all that white-Jewish privilege' angle's somewhat ridiculous. There's little reason to believe that the hitting of shit to fan - the hysteria followed by the oops - would have been any more dramatic in this particular situation had the passenger been a Muslim-non-terrorist, as opposed to a different-minority-religion-not-100%-white-non-terrorist.

PG said...

Well, according to Gallup one of the best predictors of whether someone will be anti-Muslim is whether he is anti-Jewish, so it may be nearly impossible to disaggregate those sentiments in some folks. (via David)

Phoebe said...


Not surprising. The only positive things that come out of this is the possibility of Jewish-Muslim solidarity (not holding my breath) and the fact that on this rare occasion, my blog-expressed intuition (that white people who hate Muslims also hate Jews) turns out not to be so far off after all.

Britta said...

Although I am not Jewish, I have heard of and seen pictures of a tefillin, and I am surprised that people in/from New York city regardless of religion would be so clueless, though I guess if the flight attendant were from Kentucky, that might explain it. Still, it would take monumental stupidity to think leather straps=wires, and not to spend to 5 seconds it takes to verify what the thing is before notifying the captain and diverting the plane, but having flown quite a bit recently, I must honestly say my opinion of flight attendants is extremely low right now.

I was curious, not knowing a huge amount about ultra-orthodox religious practice, is praying something that has to be done on a schedule?Does prayer always need to require a tefillin? Personally, I think people should practice their religion wherever and whenever they want, as long as it isn't excessively in violation of the rights of others (which this obviously wasn't). I also don't believe that people should have to modify their beliefs or daily practices for the comfort level of others. Part of living in a multicultural country is being around people who are different from you in ways which might make you uncomfortable. To people who complain about it, my only answer is: "suck it up." But for practical reasons (including the trouble of wrapping a leather strap around your arm a bunch of times while sitting on an airplane seat), if he could have waited it might have made sense to, just from a hassle perspective (and I mean hassle on his part, not on the part of everyone else.)

Britta said...

Ha Phoebe, I just noticed my "suck it up" response is exactly the same as yours.
It seems like so many majority-privileged people coopt the language of victimhood to basically say that it's unfair that they should ever feel uncomfortable. I think the only response to that is, grow a thicker skin, assholes.

Petey said...

white people who hate Muslims also hate Jews

Phoebe's love/hate relationship with Orientalism rears it's head once again...


I think all fundamental Jews and Muslims should adopt a more Amish view towards technology. If a technology wasn't around when your holy books were written, you must not use that particular technology.

This would get all the Abrahamic crazies off the planes, and we could all get back to copulating in airplane bathrooms without fear.

Remember, no airplane bathroom sex means the terrorists win...

Phoebe said...


I think the prayer times and tefillin apply for the observant generally, not just the ultra-orthodox - from the video I saw, the kid did not look superreligious (certainly not Hasidic - and his sister was wearing pants, which makes me think Modern Orthodox or Conservative), but I'm not as knowledgeable about these matters as I should be, and so am not sure what level of observance this applies to. Obviously secular Jews (ahem) are able to fly without offending the delicate sensibilities and sensitive weird-religion radars of the typical US passenger. Anyway. While it may be foolish or ignorant not to realize that tefillin=/=bomb, my issue really is with the people who can't suck it up when there's a minor annoyance to them on a flight (i.e. what they recognize is prayer), not with those who genuinely think they're about to be blown up by tefillin.


That's not about Orientalism. I'm sure the very same white people hate gays, blacks, Mexicans, the French...

Why anyone would want to spend more than the necessary time in an airplane bathroom...

PG said...

It seems like so many majority-privileged people coopt the language of victimhood to basically say that it's unfair that they should ever feel uncomfortable.

Or that it's unfair that they shouldn't be able to co-opt the state to reinforce their religion. It only seems to be folks who already feel pretty sure of their religion's status as either majority or substantial minority who demand stuff like Nativity scenes in front of the courthouse; I've never heard of a group of Hindus saying we need to put up some lights around city hall to celebrate Diwali. (This is in the United States, of course; where Hindus are the majority, they too are asshats.) Paradoxically, the smaller minority groups think they can hold their beliefs just fine without government involvement, but the larger and more culturally-mainstreamed groups (even without government involvement, I'd know what the basics of Christianity are) think the state should reflect their religion.