Delta Air Lines and the Jews

A report about Delta airlines refusing to fly Jews to Saudi Arabia lit up the internet yesterday. But within hours, some of the stories were altered or pulled and I’m still trying to sort out not just what happened but what it all means. I’m going to try to reconstruct things as best I can and then ask some questions at the end. You may not need all this reconstruction, so feel free to skip to the end.

I believe the reports originated with Religion News Service in a piece headlined “U.S. Jews not able to fly on Delta flights to Saudi Arabia.” This piece ran with slight editing, I’m told, at USA Today. But now if you go to the link, it says “An early version of this story contained incomplete information and has been removed. For more details on this story go to USA TODAY’s Faith & Reason blog.”

I first heard about that story because I follow Cathy Lynn Grossman on Twitter and she’s always tweeting links to great religion news and debates. She tweeted a link to the story as it ran in USA Today:

U.S. Jews not able to fly on Delta flights to Saudi Arabia

And I retweeted that at the time.

Grossman also crafted a blog post for discussing the controversy. It has been updated. By the time I started actually saving the open pages, it had been updated already. It’s since been updated again. So I have two different pages with the same url open in my browser. The first one (already having been updated, again) has the headline and lede:

No Jews, no Bibles on flights to Saudi Arabia

Delta Airlines, in its new alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines, might wind up making a bargain shocking Jews and Christians — no Jews, no Bibles on board to the desert kingdom.

The second one, same url, is:

Airline to Jewish rumor: ‘Delta does not discriminate.’

Earlier today some Jewish and Christian readers in the blogosphere were fired up about stories that Delta Airlines, in its new alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines, might wind up enforcing a Saudi policy of not admitting Iraelis and non-Islamic religious items like Bibles on their flights.

Now where would they have gotten fired up about that? Just kidding. But depending on what time you hit this page, you would get pretty different reports.

OK. So let’s get back to the original report from RNS. I did have some trouble with it on account of how insufficiently the headline and lede were substantiated. Remember, this is about how “U.S. Jews” will not be able to fly on Delta to Saudi Arabia. The lede is:

Jews and Israelis, or passengers carrying any non-Islamic article of faith, will not be able to fly code-share flights from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia under Delta Air Line’s new partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines that is set to begin in 2012. …

Saudi Arabia bans anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport from entering the country, even in transit. Many Jews believe the kingdom has also withheld visas from travelers with Jewish-sounding names.

Religious items such as Bibles that are not related to Islam may be confiscated at the airport.

I have no doubt that “many Jews believe” that those with Jewish-sounding names won’t get visas into the kingdom. But that’s not enough substantiation for the headline or lede. Particularly since, as Grossman’s later updates show, Jews have been known to fly into Saudi Arabia.

And if Bibles get confiscated at the airport — and they do, since the Kingdom is one of the most brutally repressive in the world when it comes to religious freedom — that doesn’t mean that Delta will be confiscating them in Atlanta, does it?

The thing is that we actually have a super interesting story on our hands that’s been harmed a bit by the execution. It is true that Saudi Arabia bans all Israelis from the country. When I went to Israel recently on an Act for Israel media fellowship, some of my party had to carry two passports. One was for their Israel travel and one was for all other travel. Israel, knowing the restrictions people face, will stamp the passport of your choice. The journalists in my party did this simply so they could travel into all of the Muslim countries that forbid entry to anyone who has even been to Israel. Yes, even just for a visit. Saudi Arabia is hardly unique in this fashion.

And Saudi Arabia has said things about how “no Jews” are allowed in the country, too. Some of these countries have some serious issues.

But what concerned me about this story was the failure to put it into perspective. There are other airlines that have codeshare arrangements with airlines going into Saudi Arabia. Is this Delta situation worthy of being singled out? Why not mention the other airlines that have done business with this regime?

And maybe we should mention other companies that do business with this Kingdom. Or how about how the U.S. government considers this country an ally worthy of sharing military initiatives, terror intelligence and resources?

The article also failed to include enough information about why Saudi Arabia has these policies and this culture. Part of it is political and a bunch of it relates to religion in some fashion. And, again, Saudi Arabia is not alone among Muslim countries in holding this policy. All we’re told, though, is that it “is governed by strict Islamic law.” Well, what does that have to do with what we’re talking about?

Now, I do think this is a great idea for a story and I can see why RNS ran it as its top story for the day. I’m confident that people don’t realize how much discrimination Israelis and Jews face in certain parts of the world. And I think that this story really provokes some hard questions about whether a company should be doing business with such a repressive regime. The airline Delta plans to work with is government-owned.

But what do you think about the story and how it spread through the internet?

Do you support RNS for sticking with the story? Are you with USA Today for pulling it? And what do you think about the coverage of this thorny topic thus far?

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  • Elijah

    RNS all the way. I also liked this take:

    I think it’s entirely fair that Delta got singled out since they issued a press release about the arrangement. Should the policies of other airlines be mentioned? Sure, but Delta is still sriving the story – for now.

  • Richard Bartholomew

    The story was whipped up by WorldNetDaily, apparently with a bit of help from former U.S. Rep. Fred Grandy:

    It’s part of the “creeping shariah” hysteria that hucksters like Joseph Farah are dining out on.

  • lynden

    Saudi Arabia needs to be kept out of the USA!~ We dont need that kind of crap here!~ Boycott Delta

  • Mike Hickerson

    I’d like to know more about Saudi Arabia’s actual policies and practices here. I assume that there are different standards for different types of visitors. Are US diplomats and military personnel who are Jewish or have been to Israel banned from the country? I doubt it. As dependent as we are on Saudi oil, the Saudi royal family is just as dependent or even more so on US military support. OK, then, what about business travelers? Tourists? The 1 million+ Muslims who live in Israel? Jewish oil executives or engineering personnel? How do other American companies deal with Saudi religious laws? There’s a lot of basic reporting that needs to be done here.

  • gfe

    I’m not sure I see where there’s a news story here.

    Whenever I’ve flown outside the United States, I have been required to show the airline before departure that I have the legal right to enter the destination country; if an airline didn’t do that, the airline could be forced to fly me back into the U.S. at its own expense or even be penalized by the destination country.

    It sounds like that’s all Delta is doing here: It’s flying people who are authorized to travel to Saudi Arabia, and it’s the Saudis who are doing the discriminating, not Delta. If the airline is doing anything wrong, it is in deciding to fly to Saudi Arabia at all.

    If you want to have an article on why airlines would agree to fly to a particular country, there’d be nothing wrong with that; a moral argument could be made that it’s wrong to fly passengers to such a discriminatory country. But if there’s any reason to be writing an article that singles out Delta, I don’t see it.

  • Mike O.

    If the airline is doing anything wrong, it is in deciding to fly to Saudi Arabia at all.

    I think that’s the point. This is very similar to the stories from last year with Google working with China (for a while) in censoring their search results within the country.

    In both stories the governments are correctly assumed at fault, but the main thrust is how western companies are willing to cooperate with government bodies in practices most in the west find wrong.

  • Peter Leelov

    If this is a code share issue does it mean that the Saudi airlines will restrict all Cristians & Jews on their flights even if a passenger gets off prior to getting to Saudi Arabia or beyond?

    There is no good reason that Delta has to allow this airline into its alliance and dictate terms.

    The time has come to redeem you Delta skymiles and get rid of the AMEX Skymiles card. There are too many other airlines!

  • carly

    How much more will people take from Delta. First they try to charge returning soldiers for their bags, then one of their employees urinates on a passenger’s luggage and now this. If airlines continue to run their business as they did in the last couple of weeks they will be lucky to be around next year. The airline industry needs to learn how to run a service based business. Drive the passengers away and you have no business. I just read that the airline industry ranked worst of all industries. Beyond the endless fees, in the last week we heard that airlines did not do proper drug testing, kicked people off for cloth they wore and for being disabled, did not check that employees are legal aliens and tortured us with system crashes. I found a great site to your travel adventures at

  • Elijah

    Here’s some updated info including a statement from Delta…

  • Mollie


    The media coverage I saw was based on the RNS report. Is this story a bad example of “creeping sharia”? Why?

    Just because Delta is being somewhat unfairly singled out doesn’t mean the underlying situation isn’t worth debating.

    Good stories should discuss how involved the US and her companies should be in supporting religiously-based anti-Semitism and how they should respond to religious discrimination such as this.

  • Jerry

    Good stories should discuss how involved the US and her companies should be in supporting religiously-based anti-Semitism and how they should respond to religious discrimination such as this.


    From the uproar I’ve seen, this is being linked with the gigantic excess baggage charge American servicemen were subject to and, beyond that, to dislike of the airlines in general for treating passengers as cattle to be wedged into planes configured as “cattle cars” along with being charged a separate fee for everything but breathing.

    So when a company you don’t like does something which might be questionable, the resulting uproar was no surprise.

    How American companies sacrifice principles for the “almighty dollar” in both religious (Saudi) and secular (Chinese tech firewall) situations should indeed be the subject of news reports.

  • carl

    I would agree that Delta should be severely punished for this agreement – if I worked for American Airlines or United Airlines. I wonder what purpose is served by beating up Delta Airlines like this? Will it change the behavior in Saudi Arabia? No. Will it restrict airline travel to and from Saudi Arabia? No. Will it cause any harm at all (grievous or otherwise) to Saudi Arabia in any way, shape, or form? No. What then? Will it merely make a ‘public statement?’ What is this statement supposed to accomplish? Hopefully it will say something beyond “We deplore anti-semitism, so we think that company over there should forgo opportunity.” It’s always easy to make a statement with other people’s money.

    In the meantime, I notice no one is deploring air travel to Red China.


  • Elijah

    I didn’t know anyone was deploring air travel to Saudi Arabia per se. But we have definite concerns about an American company that appears to (at least) tacitly sign-on to another nation’s codified religious and racial discrimination.

    We could probably have quite a lively discussion about how religious freedom in Saudi Arabia (none, offocial or otherwise) compares to the ChiComs (officially: almost none, unofficially: lots of house churches!).

  • carl

    13. Elijah says:

    I didn’t know anyone was deploring air travel to Saudi Arabia per se.

    Indirectly, they are. Any airline that flies into a country is responsible to enforce that country’s entry requirements. So the only way for an American airline to avoid enforcing Saudi restrictions is to not fly to Saudi Arabia.

    I would also find in morally curious to think that enforced abortion is a lesser offense than refusing entry to someone who has traveled to Israel. Which country has committed the greater offense? Why do we overlook the former and focus on the later?


  • Mollie

    The Saudi’s PR team sent along the following note:


    WASHINGTON [June 24, 2011] — The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today issued
    the following statement regarding the false story being circulated on
    the Internet regarding implications of Saudi Arabian Airlines
    membership in the Delta Airlines SkyTeam Alliance:

    “Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight
    restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false. The
    Government of Saudi Arabia does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based
    on their religion.”

  • Elijah

    Carl, you have not shown how anyone “deplores” air travel into Saudi Arabia. Don’t take an American-based airline: problem solved.

    What on earth does abortion have to do with this? Trying to draw moral equivalences is always a dangerous thing, and usually completely unproductive. Speaking for myself, I have no intention of visiting either country, the governments of both being, in my opinion, evil.

  • carl

    16. Elijah

    [Y]ou have not shown how anyone “deplores” air travel into Saudi Arabia.

    If Delta Airlines had decided to fly direct routes into Saudi Arabia, the entire controversy would stand intact. The anti-semitic travel restrictions apply to the airline that lands in Saudi Arabia. The anti-semitic travel restrictions are the proximate cause of this whole event. So, yes, people are deploring air travel into Saudi Arabia. The only way for an airline to avoid enforcing them is to not fly to Saudi Arabia. Consistency demands that the moral opprobrium currently being heaped on Delta Airlines should also be heaped on every carrier that serves that Kingdom.

    Don’t take an American-based airline: problem solved.

    How does this ‘solve’ the problem? The travel restrictions are still in place. If they are wrong for one airline then they are wrong for all airlines. How then can you support a foreign airline that imposes such restrictions but not an American airline? That’s morally incoherent.

    Delta already partners with foreign airlines that fly to Saudi Arabia. What is the moral difference between:

    1) Flying to Paris on Delta, and then flying from Paris to Saudi Arabia on Air France.

    2) Flying to Paris on Delta, and then flying from Paris to Saudi Arabia on Saudi Airlines.

    What on earth does abortion have to do with this?

    Only that we seem very exercised over relatively minor offenses to ourselves even as we ignore major persecutions to others. I do not understand why Delta should be punished for this partnership, but gets a pass for partnering with (say) Air Vietnam.


  • sandy price

    These articles make it sound like Delta, by partnering with SA, is intentionally making a decision to exclude Jewish people from some of their services. But even if it’s more simple/innocent than that, there’s something wrong (in my mind) with Delta or any airline being willing to profit by adding a partner that requires them to exclude Jews. We demonize non-German corporations that profited from the misery of the Jews during the Nazi era, and while I don’t like lightly made parallels to the Holocaust, the antisemitism that S.A. is displaying by its rules – and the general hatred and wish for ill for people of Jewish descent in many Arab countries – is not so far off.

  • tioedong

    telling folks who don’t have visas or whose “Israel” travel stamp will get them denied entrance to the kingdom is good business practice (why go all the way there and then get sent home).

    Similarly, telling them about Bibles will allow Delta to warn the person their beloved bible will probably be destroyed at the airport is good business practice.

    The real “story” is that this is news. It isn’t. My cousin had her rosary confiscated on arrival to work there as a nurse, and many other Filipinos have similar experiences.

    The real story is that the US press ignores that there are over a million Christians (mainly overseas workers) in Saudi who have no church to worship in…and that even the Shiite Saudi minority are discriminated against.

  • Mollie

    The real “story” is that this is news. It isn’t. My cousin had her rosary confiscated on arrival to work there as a nurse, and many other Filipinos have similar experiences.

    The real story is that the US press ignores that there are over a million Christians (mainly overseas workers) in Saudi who have no church to worship in…and that even the Shiite Saudi minority are discriminated against.

    Ding ding ding! We have a winner. Saudi Arabian violations of religious freedom are tremendously undercovered.

  • Becky

    Hands up who thinks loud supposedly all-aryan Americans should be banned from travelling abroad?

  • bob

    Really? Not even in the *back* of the plane?
    The Saudis just don’t appreciate what other people think on the other side of the world. That’s the *round* world, but don’t try to tell them that either, it only upsets them. Yes this needs publicity, the more the better. If it isn’t covered that’s a religious story of its own.

  • Rusty

    Isn’t the argument “Delta is being singled out” a bit like a drunk driver who gets pulled over saying the same thing? A Jew ban is a Jew ban — you either go along to make $$$ (like so many companies did with the Nazis) or you have a moral compass that says “no.”

  • Suzanne
  • RNB

    So after defaming Delta Air Lines, RNS, USA Today, Fred Grandy et al. do their own walk-back: ‘Oh, it wasn’t really about Delta throwing Jews off airplanes or banning crucifixes. We really just wanted to discuss discrimination in issue of visas by the Saudis and corporate responsibility for discrimination by foreign governments.’

    At least have the decency to admit that you fell for a pack of lies and trumpeted them to the world at large without adequate — if any — fact-checking.

    Nauseating. I notice one commenter (among many around the internet) threw out the word ‘Nazi.’ You want to know about Nazis? They were big-time users of the Big Lie technique. Go look in a mirror for some contemporary practitioners.

  • John Pack Lambert

    “Strict Islamic law” is a horrible way for the state of law in Saudi Arabia to be described. It is governed by Wahabist law. There are many scholars of Islam who would argue this law is a post-1700 inovation not in line with the earliest manifestations of Islam. This argument is central to the writtings of Joseph E. B. Lumbard among others.

  • Kaiser B

    Someone asked about the 1 million + Muslims living in Israel. I don’t know if that is an accurate number for Muslims per say since some Arabs are Christian but to say 1 million + Arabs would accurate. Anyway, the answer in general is that they are discriminated against. I can’t give you a technical answer of how they would be dealt with as they attempt to obtain a visa but I do know (having lived in the Middle East and having in-laws who are Palestinians living in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan) that other Arab nations don’t like the Palestinian Arabs. Palestinian Arabs who are second and third generation Jordanian complain about discrimination and they don’t even know anything about Palestine because they are Jordanian. Palestinian Palestinians don’t like Israeli Palestinians partly because they think they are sell-outs for carrying Israeli passports (which really has nothing to do with being a sell-out but more to do with where you are born, i.e. I am a US citizen because I was born in the US) and I think partly because they are deep down inside jealous of those living in Israel proper because Israeli infrastructure is so well developed and Palestine’s infrastructure is just crap and they have a crappy government that isn’t concerned about growth of their nation and only wanting to stick it to the man (in this case the Jews). Of course, no one could ever admit this because the first Arab that says it is nice to live in Israel (which really isn’t that nice for them comparatively to how it is for a non-Arab, for example) they would be hated by everyone they know as being a traitor.