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Jewish passengers accuse Lufthansa of discrimination for flight ban

(AP Photo/Diether Endlicher)

(AP Photo/Diether Endlicher)

Published May 11, 2022

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Several Jewish travelers say the airline Lufthansa discriminated against them when it blocked more than 100 people from boarding a connecting flight in Frankfurt, Germany, last week, prompting a member of the German parliament to call for an investigation. About 30 people were allowed to board the flight while a group of excluded passengers, including many who wore the black hats of ultra-Orthodox Jews or had Jewish-sounding names, were forced to alter their travel arrangements.

Video taken at the airport shows a Lufthansa worker telling a passenger all Jewish customers arriving on a flight from New York were banned from their flight to Budapest because individuals identified as Jewish had refused to comply with the airline's mask mandates and other rules on the first leg of the journey. Most of the Jewish passengers who booked the flights were heading to a small village for an annual memorial commemorating a rabbi who died 97 years ago.

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"If the allegations turn out to be true, there must be consequences," Marlene Schoenberger (German Green Party) told The Washington Post in an email Monday. Schoenberger is tasked with combating anti-Semitism.

"Excluding Jews from a flight because they were recognizable as Jewish is a scandal. I expect German companies in particular to be aware of anti-Semitism," she said in a tweet sharing a report from German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The banned travelers began their trip on May 4 from John F. Kennedy International Airport. David Landau, 49, of Brooklyn, was traveling with his wife in business class on the first leg, Flight 401. According to Landau, the pilot announced that the flight attendants were frustrated with passengers who were refusing to comply with a mandatory mask requirement and with people blocking the galleys to pray. The pilot warned that those not obeying the crew would have problems with their connecting flight, Landau said.

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While major U.S. carriers have dropped their mask mandates, German carrier Lufthansa requires passengers and crew to wear a medical-grade mask on flights.

Passengers who spoke with The Post said that when they arrived at their gate in Frankfurt, they noticed about two dozen police officers. The Federal Police at Frankfurt Airport said in an email that their presence was "preventative" and that no one was arrested from the original flight because the officers weren't able to identify the travelers who flouted the rules. Lufthansa spokesman Tal Muscal said he does not know who made the decision to bar passengers from their connecting flight.

A video posted online by travel blog DansDeals captures the explanation a Lufthansa gate agent provided in an announcement when the flight departed without three-quarters of its passengers: "Due to an operational reason coming from the flight from New York, all passengers here, we have to cancel you on this flight," the agent says. "You know why it was."

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Another video shared by DansDeals shows passenger Yitzy Halpern speaking with a Lufthansa employee in customer service. Halpern is wearing a dark long-sleeve polo shirt with a yarmulke, or skullcap, on his head.

"I was wearing a mask the whole time," Halpern says in the video. "Why am I lumped in with them?"

"Everybody has to pay for a couple" who didn't comply with mask rules, the unidentified Lufthansa representative says. "It was Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems."

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Halpern, a 45-year-old from Long Island whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, told the woman that picking out all Jews was "gruesome" and anti-Semitic.

"It would have been [the same] if you were African or Polander," she says.

Halpern, who was seated in economy during the New York-to-Frankfurt flight with his 16-year-old daughter, said he saw three people reprimanded by flight attendants for refusing to wear masks. One was a man in a baseball cap who Halpern knows to be Jewish through the community, and the others were a man and a woman seated together speaking German.

Passengers said dozens of Jewish men were performing morning prayers when the Lufthansa desk started calling some passengers to board by name. The scene turned hectic after the announcement stated the remaining travelers would not be included on the flight and the travelers learned they were banned from the airline for the day. "It was just chaos," said Moshe Klinger, 35, who was traveling from Toms River, N.J., with four brothers-in-law. "We had a time constraint."

One man who was called to the desk, Elchanan Rosen, 23, of New York, was still wearing his tallit, or prayer shawl, around his shoulders with the leather strap of his tefillin wrapped around his arm.

Rosen said he had traveled in first class using frequent flier points from JFK to Frankfurt, but he had a separate paid ticket for the flight from Frankfurt to Budapest. He said he was asked if he was part of the group. "I said, 'No, I'm not. I'm going to the same place they are going, but I booked my own ticket," he said. "I tried to talk to them and no one talked to me."

"I don't think with the name Rosen [the agent] knew I was an Orthodox Jew" until he saw me, Rosen said.

Lufthansa released a statement Tuesday saying the flight ban should have been limited to noncompliant passengers. "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," the statement says. The airline says it is "reviewing the facts and circumstances of that day" and "will be engaging with the affected passengers to better understand their concerns."

"What transpired is not consistent with Lufthansa's policies or values," the statement says. "We have zero tolerance for racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination of any type."

Halpern said by the time he arrived at customer service, a security guard had been posted there. "As soon as he recognized I was part of that group, he told me I could not go to the customer-service counter," he said. Instead, Halpern paid $800 per person for tickets to Vienna on LOT Polish Airlines. His party then took a taxi to the border to meet buses that were to take them to the village, arriving 10 hours late and missing the ceremony.

Rosen rebooked onto a Lufthansa flight to Vienna. He said he was told he had to pay 11 euros for a fare difference because his flight hadn't been canceled.

Gershon Neustadt, a Brooklyn resident in his 40s who was traveling with a friend, said he booked a Lufthansa ticket to Vienna online for $730 after customer service said it couldn't help him. He then drove to the memorial. However, when he tried to fly home the next day, he was told that his ticket was invalid because he hadn't completed the full outbound flight. It cost him $1,100 for a new return seat on Lufthansa.

Klinger, who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, separated from his brothers-in-law when they decided to wait for a flight to Vienna to continue on to the memorial. He said it was the first time in his life he had felt openly discriminated against. "I needed to get out of Frankfurt. There were bad vibes, bad energy," he said. "I just jumped on a flight and said let me get out of here, for my mental health."

He ended up in Israel for 36 hours, then flew home.

WASHINGTON POST

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