Friday, August 10, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Eikev 5772–Is El Al Really Doing the Right Thing?

“You have to have a consistent ethical principle, whether you will benefit or lose by asking”

Randy Cohen, former writer of The Ethicist column for the NY Times, as quoted in an article by on the Moment Magazine In The Moment blog by Sarah Bregger.

It was a feeding frenzy. It was also wrong. No matter how you slice it, we should not profit from the mistakes of others – even if that other is a large corporation.

If you’ve not heard about it, this past week one of El Al’s contractors mad e a small mistake and for a short time, ridiculously low round-trip fares to Israel (some as low as $330 it was claimed) from the US could be purchased online through 3rd-party vendors. Word spread like wildfire and within a short time (3 hours say reports) over 5,000 tickets had been sold at these unbelievable prices.

That’s precisely the point. The prices were unbelievable. Yet thousands allowed their greed and selfishness to overcome their common sense. Thousands ignored the teachings of our own traditions about ethics in business and the concept of not unfairly benefitting from the mistake of another. They had to know it was a mistake, a glitch of some sort. Not that I have the ability to look into the hearts of others, but I am fairly confident in stating that anyone who claims otherwise (that they thought this was a bona-fide offer and price) is either lying to themselves or to others.

Yes, that’s harsh. Yes, I have been guilty of similar types of selfishness and greed in my own life – though I am quite certain I would not have purchased a ticket at these prices, had I learned about them in time before the mistake was corrected) without some serious and thorough investigation, and grave misgivings. That’s why I would follow the advice solicited by a Moment Magazine reporter from Randy Cohen, formerly “The Ethicist” writer for the NY Times.

Randy Cohen’s analysis is on the mark. His advice is that El Al should honor the tickets (which they have announced they will do) but that everyone who bought one should then decline to accept El Al’s gesture (and, I suppose, return the tickets for a full refund.) To bolster his case, he uses the example of incorrectly priced meat in a supermarket.

For example, if you are in a supermarket and a steak was marked at 12 cents a pound, you know it is a mistake and you have a duty to at least inquire from the merchant if that is the correct price. You have to show tolerance for others people’s errors or else we would be walking around always looking over our shoulders, scared that if we make a mistake the hyenas would swarm.

[I interjected to say my mother would most likely hold the merchant to his advertised steak price- SB] Most places would honor the mismark as a kind of customer relations, but if she saw the steak marked $85, wouldn’t she inquire about it? If you do it one way you have to do it the other way.

There are other concerns as well. The feeding frenzy did little to counter the sadly still pervasive negative stereotype that some folks have about Jews and money. The feeding frenzy just confirms the worst anti-Semitic jokes about Jews and money. Really-5,000 tickets sold just through word-of-mouth/Facebook/Twitter in a matter of three hours? Gives conspiracy theorists a lot of fodder.

El Al’s agreement to honor the low prices is a honorable thing, and a smart business/PR move. El Al also went a little further – many of the tickets involved code-share partners with people changing planes/carriers in Europe. El Al has agreed to convert any of these tickets into El Al only direct flights for an additional $75. Nevertheless,  I do have to question the long-term implications of rewarding people for their avarice and for disregarding basic principles of Jewish ethics.

On the other hand, there are probably some deserving people who will get the opportunity to go to Israel, something they might never have been able to afford to do without this lucky mistake. I’m less thrilled for the many who grabbed these cheap tickets who can well and easily afford to pay regular fares and have little financial hardships preventing them from doing so. Or for those who, as some have joked, purchased tickets for as yet unborn children or grandchildren!

As we read in the haftarah for Eikev, from Isaiah:

      גֵּוִי֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְמַכִּ֔ים וּלְחָיַ֖י לְמֹֽרְטִ֑ים פָּנַי֙ לֹ֣א הִסְתַּ֔רְתִּי מִכְּלִמּ֖וֹת וָרֹֽק׃

I offered my back to the floggers,
And my cheeks to those who tore out my hair.
I did not hide my face
From insult and spittle. (50:6, JPS)

I’m not comparing myself to Isaiah, yet I recognize that my position on this matter may be unpopular, but that has never stopped me. (I also note a number of pos’kim have posted opinions similar to mine – though, as is typical in the Jewish world, just as many pos’kim have taken the opposite stance.

I was saddened to see the discussion degenerate, on some sites, into a dialog about whether Jews have the same obligations in such a situation to goyim as they do to other Jews. El Al is, I suppose, essentially a Jewish entity. If this had been a “goyish” airline, are we permitted to behave differently? This further devolved into a discussion about returning a lost wallet and whether one has the same obligation to a Jew and a non-Jew. From my perspective, at least, a nonsensical question. You find a lost wallet, you are obligated to try and return it to its owner. With all its contents. Jew or non-Jew matters not. Yet the vitriol I saw being spewn by Jews of all stripes (and, sadly, between differing expressions of traditional/orthodox/hassidic Judaism) was unbelievable. Just as unbelievable as a $330 round-trip fare to Israel, by the way.

I stand by Randy, the former “The Ethicist” columnist’s advice: if you are a lucky ticket holder, thank El Al for their commitment to honoring them despite the obvious mistake, and then refuse their largesse and either pay the fare required, or return your ticket for a full refund with no fees (as El Al has promised.) There are some very Willy Wonka overtones here. This helps me make my tenuous connection to the parasha, Eikev. In it we read:

לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ לָדַ֜עַת אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֧ר בִּֽלְבָבְךָ֛

In order to test you by hardships to know what is in your hearts (D’varim 8:2, JPS)

This incident could be thought of as a test (just like Willy Wonka’s contest) though perhaps not a hardship. A test by G”d to know what is in our hearts. Will we follow what our tradition teaches us regarding ethics and taking advantage of the mistake of a business person, or will we continue to feed the anti-Semites with ammunition?

Yes, indeed, some blessings will come from this test, this mistake, this glitch, this whatever-it-was. We should rejoice over those blessings – though perhaps the blessing we should rejoice most of all is that, as a result of all this, we will think, we will study, we will learn, and we will gain the wisdom and discernment to know what is morally and ethically correct.

As I said, I can’t know what is in the heart of anyone else. I’m not even sure G”d knows. It does appear that G”d wants to try and find out. So if you got one of those tickets, and can honestly say to yourself you bought it in good faith and the absolute certainty that it wasn’t a glitch/error/mistake but an honest-to-G”d legitimate offer from El Al and its contractors, zei gezunt, have a nice trip. However, before you do, I’d recommend spending this Shabbat (and perhaps some time beyond) searching Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, and the many discourses by our sages. Maybe some books on Jewish ethics/business ethics. If this is G”d testing you/us with temptations and/or hardships, wouldn’t you/we want to do our best to actually try and pass the test?

      וְהָיָ֣ה׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. (D’varim 7:12)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Eikev 5771-Lining Up Alphabetically By Height
Ekev 5770 - For the Good Planet
Ekev 5769-Not Like Egypt
Ekev 5766 - Kod'khei Eish-Kindlers of Fire
Eikev 5765-Are We Forgotten?
Ekev 5764-KaYom HaZeh
Ekev 5760 (from 5759)-Not Holier Than Thou

No comments: