Lufthansa denied boarding to more than one hundred Jewish passengers in Frankfurt, Germany on May 4. The men were not allowed to board Flight #LH1334 from Frankfurt to Budapest, Hungary, a continuation of a flight from NY JFK.
A “couple” of Orthodox Jews did not comply with Lufthansa’s mask requirements on the flight from JFK. But in Frankfurt, scores were denied boarding, enforced by submachinegun-toting German police in an incident decried as collective punishment.
They were part of a group of 150 Orthodox Jews who had flown on Lufthansa from New York on flight LH401 (a Boeing 747-8) to airline hub Frankfurt, where they would transfer to a flight to Budapest.
The men, many traveling separately, were on a religious pilgrimage to a Hungarian town formerly known as Kerestir. There they would observe the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner, a Hasidic leader of thousands regarded as a miracle worker.
While “some” of the passengers had violated the German mask mandate, “over a hundred” men were refused boarding passes, most of whom, according to The Independent, “wore Jewish Orthodox clothing or had Jewish sounding names.” According to the popular points and miles blog DansDeals, which originally reported the incident, “Two dozen armed police officers ensured that no Jews boarded the flight or caused issues at the gate.”
One passenger thought it was a clear case of anti-Semitism by Lufthansa employees. Nachman Kahana stated, “They explicitly said that nobody who is dressed alike on that plane is going to board the Lufthansa plane to Budapest. They banned us because we are Jews. That’s the only reason.”
Lufthansa disputed the claims, saying that the men were not allowed to board because of their non-compliance with German mask rules. But a phone video emerged, with a Lufthansa supervisor saying to a Jewish passenger that those who were banned are “Jewish from JFK.” The supervisor was recorded saying “It’s Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems, everyone has to pay for a couple.”
A week after the incident, Lufthansa finally officially apologized, on Twitter.
“Lufthansa regrets the circumstances surrounding the decision to exclude the affected passengers from the flight, for which Lufthansa apologizes. While Lufthansa is still reviewing the facts and circumstances of that day, we regret that the large group was denied boarding rather than limiting it to the non-compliant guests.”
“What transpired is not consistent with Lufthansa’s policies or values. We have zero tolerance for racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination of any type.”
The boilerplate apology satisfied few. DansDeals pointed out nine problems with the apology, including no recognition of “anti-Semitic hate speech” and “the racial profiling of over 130 passengers” not to mention the refusal of the pilot to fly any Jewish passengers to Budapest.
The Anti-Defamation League tweeted, “This non-apology fails to admit fault or identify the banned passengers as Jews. It also refers to them as a group, even though many were strangers. They had one commonality — being visibly Jewish.”
“In addition to investigating, ensuring accountability, and taking steps to repair the harm, including compensating the victims to the extent possible, Lufthansa, as a German company, has a special responsibility to educate its staff.”
ADL Director Emeritus Abraham Foxman was a hidden child during the Holocaust. He tweeted, “Lufthansa needs to take a deep breath and take a serious look inside its culture which tolerates such recent outrageous antisemitic behavior from its staff. The apology also needs a serious revision. Germany needs to do better – it can do better- a lot of people are waiting.”
Finally, the CEO of Lufthansa, Carsten Spohr, got real in a private video call with Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, Rabbi of Berlin’s Jewish community. DansDeals quoted Spohr as saying” this incident should never have happened and that employees involved have been suspended, pending the airline’s investigation into what happened.”
Spohr also reportedly noted “that the airline’s refusal to transport the Jews on the flight was not acceptable and the words used by the Lufthansa employee about punishing all Jews on the flight for the sins of the few were not company policy or acceptable behavior.”
How the private phone call will translate to further action by Lufthansa is unclear.
COVID-19 has already resulted in ugly racial prejudice, such as insults and violence against Asians in the United States. Battles over masks have resulted in injuries to flight attendants and passengers, arrests, and fines.
Airlines do not create COVID-19 mask mandates. Government health departments, like the CDC in the United States, do. But airline personnel enforce the mandates, a process that led to thousands of unruly passenger incidents in the United States until a Federal judge struck down the CDC mask mandate as overly broad on April 18. The Biden Administration has made noises about suing to reinstate the domestic mask mandate, but so far this has not happened.
For people to comply with a mask mandate, they must feel that it will apply evenly and fairly to all. On a recent flight, I saw zero conflict between passengers wearing masks and those who were not.
But instead of punishing a couple of individuals who refused to comply with the mask mandate, Lufthansa denied boarding to more than one hundred passengers because they were ‘visibly Jewish.’
Injustices have taken place throughout the airline industry since long before COVID-19. But when they occur, especially if they imply discrimination based on religion, race, gender, sexuality, national origin, or other characteristics, they cannot be excused or ignored. They must be addressed, investigated, and apologized for.