Lufthansa Facing Renewed Criticism After Jewish Groups Deem Its Apology Insufficient

By Reuvain Borchardt

Last updated May 12, 2022 at 02:26

A Lufthansa jet at Frankfurt Airport. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images/File)

NEW YORK — Lufthansa Airlines, under accusations of antisemitism for banning a large number of Orthodox Jews from a flight because some of them had failed to wear masks, is facing continued criticism from some Jewish leaders over what they deem an inadequate apology that fails to take responsibility for the company’s actions.

On Wednesday, May 4, more than 100 Jews — which included two separate travel groups and a number of individuals — were banned from a connecting flight from Frankfurt to Budapest, ostensibly because they had failed to wear masks on the first leg of the journey, from New York to Frankfurt, as German law requires.

But Jewish passengers interviewed by Hamodia say the vast majority had followed Lufthansa’s mask rules, with perhaps just one or two having been noncompliant, and that banning all Orthodox Jews from the flight constituted antisemitism.

Lufthansa initially issued a statement to Hamodia rejecting allegations of antisemitism, and stating, “We confirm that a larger group of passengers could not be carried today on Lufthansa flight LH1334 from Frankfurt to Budapest, because the travelers refused to wear the legally mandated mask (medical mask) on board,” but did not admit that not all the banned passengers had complied with mask guidelines.

The incident gained increasing media coverage and public condemnation over the weekend – culminating in the release of a video, taken by a passenger and posted Sunday, May 8, by the website Dan’s Deals, in which a Lufthansa agent said, “Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems” and that “everybody has to pay for a couple.”

On Tuesday, May 10, Lufthansa issued a statement apologizing for the incident and essentially admitting that some banned passengers had indeed been compliant:

On May 4, a large number of booked passengers were denied boarding on their onward flight with LH 1334 from Frankfurt to Budapest.

“Lufthansa regrets the circumstances surrounding the decision to exclude the affected passengers from the flight, for which Lufthansa sincerely apologizes. 

“The reasoning for the decision was based upon various instances of non-compliance by numerous guests with mask requirements and crew-safety instructions on the previous flight LH401 from New York to Frankfurt. Regulatory requirements in Germany and other markets obligate airlines to enforce the wearing of medical or FFP2 masks on board flights for all passengers and crewmembers.”

While the statement did not detail which “crew-safety instructions” it was alleging had not been complied with, a Lufthansa spokesperson told Hamodia that it was referring to “passengers standing in the aisles, gathering in large groups by the lavatories, and not sitting down when requested to do so by the crew.”

Previously, Lufthansa’s statements alleging passenger violations on the flight had only mentioned non-compliance with mask mandates. The May 10 statement was the first time Lufthansa made these additional allegations about passengers improperly standing in the aisles   

Three Orthodox passengers who spoke with Hamodia also denied these new allegations.

“It’s true that people were congregating in the aisles and near the bathroom, to pray. But they actually had permission from the flight attendants who were serving that area,” said passenger Nachman Kahana. “And when they were asked to sit down, they did so. If Lufthansa says they didn’t, it’s a lie.”

Passenger Robert Skolnick said, “Some people did get up for prayers, but they did ask the steward before, and the steward let. And right after the prayer service, they sat down.”

According to Kahana, there was one particular flight attendant “who was really looking for people not wearing masks, so he could tell them again and again and again, like he was just looking for trouble. I think he’s the one who created the whole fiasco.” Kahana says that flight attendant kept returning to the same “one or two” passengers to continually insist that they wear masks, even during meals between bites.

Lufthansa’s May 10 statement continued:

“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.

“We apologize to all the passengers unable to travel on this flight, not only for the inconvenience, but also for the offense caused and personal impact.  

“Lufthansa and its employees stand behind the goal of connecting people and cultures worldwide.

“Diversity and equal opportunity are core values for our company and our corporate culture.  What transpired is not consistent with Lufthansa’s policies or values. We have zero tolerance for racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination of any type. 

“We will be engaging with the affected passengers to better understand their concerns and openly discuss how we may improve our customer service. 

However, Jewish groups and activists criticized the statement for not identifying the banned passengers as Jews and for still referring to them as a “group.”

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.”

New York Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein tweeted, “It wasn’t a ‘large group’, it was individual Chasidic Jews that had nothing in common other than their religion that you blatantly discriminated against. The firsthand accounts I’ve heard are deeply disturbing. This ‘apology’ by Lufthansa is not even worth the piece of paper.”

Orthodox activist Chaskel Bennett tweeted, “Let me fix [the statement]. Lufthansa is deeply ashamed for excluding Jews from flight LH 1334 on May 4. We apologize & will conduct a full investigation into this unacceptable prejudice & terminate anyone found to have violated our policy. We understand the pain caused & ask for forgiveness.”

On Wednesday, May 11, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr held a video meeting with Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal of Berlin, in which Spohr apologized for the incident, stating, “Antisemitism has no place at Lufthansa. The actions last Wednesday should not have happened like this and must now be fully clarified.”

“If an employee in Lufthansa uniform acts wrongly, concerns and accusations of anti-Semitism are quite legitimate. More sensitivity may be expected from a German corporation” said Rabbi Teichtal in a press release following the meeting. “I am pleased that the CEO of Lufthansa reacted so quickly, took a clear position and apologized.” 

Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, had sent a letter to Spohr on Monday, May 9, in which Rabbi Zwiebel said the accounts of the flight were “very disturbing” and that “for innocent passengers to be penalized for the alleged actions of others who share their ethnicity or religion is simply unacceptable, indeed abhorrent,” but that “Judaism teaches that there are two sides to every story, and both must be heard before any conclusion is rendered.”

“And so,” Rabbi Zwiebel concluded, “we ask you to please research the incident yourself and be in touch with me as soon as possible to schedule a meeting to clarify what happened and why.”

However, on Wednesday, May 11, a day after Lufthansa issued the statement containing its first public mea culpa, Rabbi Zwiebel wrote another letter, this one sharply criticizing Lufthansa’s statement and apology as insufficient.

“I would like to acknowledge Lufthansa’s statement regarding the unfortunate events of May 4 in the Frankfurt airport, when a large number of Jewish travelers were prevented from boarding planes simply because they were visibly Jewish,” wrote Rabbi Zwiebel.  “I also acknowledge the broadly publicized conversation you had with Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal of Berlin – a helpful step, but not one that puts the issue to rest.

“It is appreciated that the statement included an apology.  But it is puzzling and disturbing that the apology was directed at the ‘circumstances surrounding’ the ethnic or religious profiling that took place, rather than the actual discrimination.  Is Lufthansa denying that its employees treated Jewish passengers differently than others?  The video evidence and testimonies clearly show otherwise.

“And then there is the reference to a ‘large group,’ which, if it means to imply that all the Jewish passengers were traveling as a group, is simply untrue – as was noted clearly to Lufthansa personnel at the time.

“More disturbing still is the lack of direct reference to the fact that, as a widely disseminated video recording shows, a Lufthansa employee, apparently a supervisor, seems to have justified the decision to collectively punish large numbers of rule-abiding Jews because of ‘a couple’ of ‘Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems.’

“It is duly appreciated that Lufthansa ‘will be engaging with the affected passengers.’  But the purpose of such engagement ought not be ‘to better understand their concerns,’ when their concerns are blatantly obvious: they were targeted for mistreatment because, and only because, they are Jews.

“Nor should your engagement with affected passengers focus on ‘how [Lufthansa] may improve its customer services.’  It should focus on the egregious nature of what transpired on May 4; on the steps Lufthansa will take to hold accountable those employees who were responsible for this incident and to make sure that such incidents never again occur; and on how the victims will be made whole for the disruption of their travel plans and the distress they suffered.

Rabbi Zwiebel wrote that individuals in any company may make errors, “even egregiously unacceptable ones,” and that “unlike those who engaged in religious and ethnic profiling at the airport in Frankfurt, we choose not to judge and punish a company for the actions of a few.”

“But what a company’s leaders do after the failings of individual employees defines what the company stands for.”

Rabbi Zwiebel reiterated his request to meet with Spohr.

“What happened on May 4 may have directly affected 100 or so Orthodox Jewish travelers, but it also struck a painfully deep chord of hurt among all Orthodox Jews – indeed among all who are committed to the battle against the scourge of antisemitism.

“Please give us a chance to have that dialogue with Lufthansa.  In the aftermath of an incident like this, the community deserves a place at the table.”

A Lufthansa spokesperson would not issue comment to Hamodia on Rabbi Zwiebel’s letter, only acknowledging that the company had received it and that it “will respond directly to Rabbi Zwiebel.”

The spokesperson also declined to comment on the criticisms of the company’s May 10 statement.

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