Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tefillin Terrorists

TeffilinIt amazes me how ignorant some people are regarding the practices of religions other than their own. It probably shouldn't, since many people never study religions other than the one they were brought up in, but as I've been interested in the variety of religions and spiritual practices around the world for most of my life it strikes me as a particularly alien worldview. The lack of perspective that results from studying one's own religious tradition exclusively can lead to embarrassing misunderstandings in many different situations, almost to the same degree as not understanding your own tradition.

This lack of understanding likely contributed to a group of Orthodox Jews onboard an Air Alaska flight being misindentified as terrorists when they engaged in traditional Jewish prayers during the flight.

An orthodox Jewish prayer observance by three passengers aboard an Alaska Airlines flight alarmed flight attendants unfamiliar with the ritual, prompting them to lock down the cockpit and issue a security alert, officials said.

Alaska Flight 241 from Mexico City to Los Angeles International Airport landed safely on Sunday and was met by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel and police dispatched as a precaution.

I'll be the first one to admit that based on a number of incidents over the past several years and the current touchiness of the Transportation Safety Authority praying on an airplane is a pretty bad idea. Some percentage of the other passengers and crew are practically guaranteed to freak out over it. Still, last I checked we have freedom of religion in this country and many of the same people who insist on a hard-line response to terrorism are also strong advocates of prayer in public spaces.

The three passengers had startled members of the cabin crew with what was interpreted as suspicious behavior shortly after takeoff, airline spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.

"The three passengers were praying aloud in Hebrew and were wearing what appeared to be leather straps on their foreheads and arms," she said. "This appeared to be a security threat, and the pilots locked down the flight deck and followed standard security procedures."

It turned out the passengers were engaged in the wearing of tefillin -- small, black prayer boxes containing scripture that devout Jews bind to their foreheads and arms with black leather straps in a daily ritual accompanied by special prayers.

Tefillin do look a little odd if you've never seen one before, but they also are far too small to contain bombs or weapons and immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the Jewish faith. It's too bad nobody on that flight had a background in comparative religion. They could have saved law enforcement a whole lot of trouble.

UPDATE: Air Alaska apologized today for the incident. Hopefully this means that in the future they will train crews to recognize the difference between tefillin and terrorists.

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