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Delta Airlines Forces Passenger to Remove T-Shirt in Anti-Palestine Move

Louie Siegel describes how Delta Airlines threatened to kick him off a plane over his “Jews Say Ceasefire Now” T-shirt.

A young traveler stops to look at a Delta Airlines plane parked at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on June 28, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Part of the Series

Since the onset of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza in October 2023, there has been a dramatic rise in harassment, policing and discrimination against Palestinians and allies who publicly speak out in favor of a ceasefire. Louie Siegel, an anti-Zionist Jewish-American, experienced the suppression of anti-Zionist speech firsthand when, during a recent Delta Airlines flight from São Paulo to Chicago, he was told by the flight staff that he would be removed from the plane if he did not take off his pro-ceasefire T-shirt.

This was only the latest such incident in recent months. In December 2023, it was reported that American Airlines was investigating an alleged incident in which “a flight attendant instructed a man to remove a pro-Palestinian sweatshirt before takeoff or else face law enforcement,” HuffPost reports. In March, two passengers wearing T-shirts with Palestinian flags were removed from a plane in Amman. On May 9, JetBlue announced it was banning its in-flight crew members from wearing political pins after complaints regarding a flight attendant wearing a Palestinian flag pin.

It is also critical to note that this phenomenon is not only a product of the current moment: Back in 2006, human rights activist Raed Jarrar was prevented from boarding a plane at Kennedy International Airport in New York City while wearing a T-shirt that read, “We will not be silent,” in English and Arabic.

I have personally known Louie Siegel — a recent graduate of Macalester College who grew up in Skokie, Illinois — for years, as his family were longtime members of a congregation I previously served as rabbi. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, I invited Siegel to share details about his experience on Delta Airlines and how it clarified his own positionality within the Palestine solidarity movement. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity.

Brant Rosen: Louie, can you first tell me about the T-shirt you wore on the flight? What did it say and why did you wear it?

Louie Siegel: My T-shirt displayed the text “Not in Our Name” on the front side and “Jews Say Ceasefire Now” on the back. I received the shirt from the organizers of a Jewish anti-Zionist rally in Minneapolis, protesting a private fundraiser in the city for President Biden in November during the beginning of the genocide.

On the left, the front of the shirt, reading “NOT IN OUR NAME” in white text on black fabric; on the right, the back of the shirt, reading "JEWS SAY CEASEFIRE NOW."
On the left, the front of the shirt, reading “NOT IN OUR NAME” in white text on black fabric; on the right, the back of the shirt, reading “JEWS SAY CEASEFIRE NOW.”

Simply put, I wore the shirt to honor my Jewish ancestors. They escaped antisemitic hatred in Eastern Europe and became involved in leftist anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism in the United States. My maternal grandparents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-poverty movement of the mid-twentieth century. In addition, my father was a documentary filmmaker who told the story of the Weather Underground and Muhammad Ali’s exile years. My mom is a licensed clinical therapist who tremendously improves the mental health of her patients every single day.

They warned me that if I displayed my “Jews Say Ceasefire Now” shirt again, they would hand me over to the police once the plane landed.

This solidarity work, more broadly, is the Jewish-American historical legacy — aligning Jewish values with the fight to liberate all oppressed groups, supporting mutual emancipation from systems of social, political and economic domination that elevate a few individuals at the expense of the collective — that is who we are.

I believe this Jewish-American historical legacy is entirely consistent with anti-Zionism. I can say with absolute certainty that my immigrant ancestors would have deplored the idea of murdering (as of July 9, 2024) at least 38,764 Palestinian people (and possibly more than 186,000, according to the Lancet medical journal) for the purpose of supposedly protecting Jewish safety.

Can you tell me more about this incident? How exactly did it unfold?

The incident took place this May. Before the flight had even taken off, I was approached while I was seated on the plane by a flight attendant who requested that I either change or cover up my shirt because some passengers found the message offensive. The flight attendant did not provide any detail as to why the message was deemed offensive. I responded by stating that I was Jewish and that my shirt contained a vital, nonviolent message that wasn’t harming anyone on the plane. I requested that the people who had complained about the nature of my shirt come talk to me directly, as I was happy to chat with them about this very important issue. The flight attendant finally left my seat after much discussion.

About 5 to 10 minutes later, a purser (also known as a chief flight attendant or cabin manager) came to my seat and explained that I had to cover up the shirt, because Delta had a policy against showcasing political messages of any kind. I once again refused to cover up the shirt. The purser then threatened to kick me off the flight unless I obliged her wishes. Because I wanted to get to my destination, I covered up the “Jews Say Ceasefire Now” shirt for the time being with a nondescript white shirt. The flight took off.

What happened then?

About one hour after the plane departed, I decided to re-display my “Jews Say Ceasefire Now” shirt. (At this point, the lights were dimmed and it was much more difficult for anyone to even see the shirt’s text). After about 20 minutes, the purser and another flight attendant returned and again demanded that I cover up. I told them to stop policing how I publicly expressed my Jewish identity. They then threatened to land the plane on a tarmac and kick me off the flight unless I permanently covered up the shirt. I reluctantly obliged their demands.

About 10 to 15 minutes later, the purser returned, handed me a sheet of paper with the headline “Notice of U.S. Federal Regulation Violation” and told me, “The captain wanted you to read this.” They warned me that if I displayed my “Jews Say Ceasefire Now” shirt again, they would hand me over to the police once the plane landed. They repeated this message over and over again. I stated that I heard them nearly five times before they finally left my seat. The purser’s last remark before she left was, “Our intention was for you to have a good flight.”

I, as a proud Jewish American, have chosen to stand in solidarity with Palestinians because Zionism does not have a monopoly over Judaism.

Did you believe they were serious? Do you think they really would have landed the plane and removed you from it if you did not comply?

Absolutely. I believed they were dead serious. The orders that the pursers and flight attendants were following came straight from the captain.

Did you have any interactions with flight staff after this?

Yes. About four hours later, I requested that the purser come talk to me as I had additional questions about the nature of the “U.S federal regulation violation.” She came back to my seat, joined by another purser on the flight. I asked to record the interaction, but they did not consent for me to do so. Immediately after the exchange between the two pursers and myself, I transcribed the interaction to the best of my memory.

I first asked the two pursers why my shirt was deemed offensive to other passengers. Purser #1 replied that it was the wording on the back of the shirt (“Jews Say Ceasefire Now”) that made passengers uncomfortable. After I stated that I was Jewish, the purser simply did not care, saying that because other passengers were offended with the attire, the captain deemed the shirt inappropriate and ordered it to be covered up. After repeatedly asking the purser what specifically about the wording of the shirt was offensive, he could not give me a straight answer. Purser #2 then added a strong suggestion that on my connection flight, I keep the ceasefire shirt covered up with the nondescript shirt. I continued trying to decipher an ounce of detail as to why this shirt was such an issue for Delta, but to no avail.

Did anyone meet you at the airport after you landed?

The second I got off the flight, a man from Delta’s security team approached me and asked, “Can I have a word with you?” I replied exhaustingly, “What is this about? Am I under arrest?” He said I was not and he simply wanted to get my side of the story of what happened on the flight. I told him my side of the story. The security team member said he would take these concerns to his boss, who would decide whether I’d be put on Delta’s “no fly list” in the future.

Did you have any problems on your connecting flight back home to Chicago?

I had zero problems on my connection flight to Chicago, where I wore the exact same shirt once again.

Did you seek any recourse following this incident?

You better believe it. I began by typing up a letter to Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Palestine Legal and other anti-Zionist groups, explaining what happened and asking for media assistance to inform the public about this disturbing incident. That is how this interview came together.

What are your feelings now that over a month has passed since it all happened?

I believe that what happened on the plane was an attempt to police a public expression of an anti-Zionist Jewish identity. I present this case to illustrate how far corporate America and its allies will go to suppress the burgeoning antiwar movement that seeks to stop the genocide of the Palestinian people.

The insistence, often cultish in nature, that Jewish people should inherently support Israel represents to me a criminal reduction of a beautiful way of life.

I believe this incident also presents a chance for us as anti-Zionist Jews to expand and redefine how antisemitism manifests itself in the public eye. Right now, we have a white Christian power structure that is taking its cues on what antisemitism is from establishment Jewish institutions like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and a right-wing pro-Israel institution known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

This conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is wrong — and it is dangerous. Anti-Zionist Jewish activists all over the country have been instrumental in calling out this meshugas [Yiddish for “crazy foolishness”] for what it is: meshugas. The obsession of Jewish institutions in suppressing all forms of pro-Palestinian speech is distracting us from the very real and very threatening antisemitism on the Christian nationalist far right. (See Marjorie Taylor Greene and the MAGA Republican caucus, just for starters.)

Can you say a bit more about what was clarified for you by this experience?

We hear talk about fighting for the soul of the country. Right now, the Jewish community is at war over what the soul of Jewishness will look like in this century. Instrumental to this fight is a critical question: Will we, in this moment, have the courage and moral fortitude to divest our support from a nation-state that is currently committing what a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court characterized as a genocide; what a United Nations report and Amnesty International call an apartheid state; a country that, like the United States, was built on the displacement of Indigenous people from their land? I believe we should have the courage and moral fortitude to divest our support from a failed project. That is why I wore the shirt.

Why, as a Jewish person, have you chosen to be in solidarity with Palestine? We now know how it has impacted you as an air traveler. How has it impacted your relationships with your family and friends?

I, as a proud Jewish American, have chosen to stand in solidarity with Palestinians because Zionism does not have a monopoly over Judaism. The public needs to see that there is a growing chorus of Jewish Americans who deplore what is happening in Gaza and will not stand for it any longer. There is a word for what is happening in Gaza, and it certainly is not Jewish. The ongoing genocide is an appalling betrayal of every single Jewish value we believe in. The insistence, often cultish in nature, that Jewish people should inherently support Israel represents to me a criminal reduction of a beautiful way of life; a way of being; a culture, a faith; a long, proud, almost 6,000-year history of fighting for justice, humanity and peace into the confines of a narrow-minded, misguided fealty to an ethno-nationalist state that reduces Palestinians to the status of second-class citizens.

In terms of your second question, there is a deep generational gap. I respect where every single friend and family member is coming from on this issue, and I have engaged in substantive discussions with Jewish people on all ends of the spectrum. There is more than enough pain to go around. We do not need any more pain. My generation needs to listen to what older generations of Jewish Americans have gone through. Older Jewish Americans need to hear why many young Jewish Americans are protesting on the streets and on college campuses. The importance of civil discourse in this moment could not be more paramount. The bottom line, though, is this: The killing of Palestinians needs to stop, and as Jewish Americans, we must use our voices to ensure that happens today.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently? Has this experience changed you in any way?

I would not have done a single thing differently and have zero regrets about the way I conducted myself throughout the flight or afterwards. Wherever I go, I create trouble. That will not change. In fact, the phenomenon of public troublemaking is integral to my Jewish identity, and I see my participation in civil disobedience only increasing in the future. If anything, this experience has increased my own urgency to advocate for a ceasefire, permanently disconnect Zionism from Judaism, and one day, become an anti-Zionist Jewish college professor, teaching courses in 20th century Jewish-American history.

As you wrote in your Shalom Rav blog, Brant, “If ever there was a moment for Jewish anti-Zionists to proudly stand up and be counted, this is it.” This was a moment where I felt I needed to stand up and be counted.

Truthout reached out to Delta for comment but didn’t get a response before our deadline.

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