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How a JetBlue flight from Palm Beach turned into a three-week fight over Israel-Palestine

The battleground
The battleground

There is something about the Israel-Palestine conflict that often turns small moments into metaphors for something much larger. There was, for example, the Palestinian rocket attack that broke up an Israeli peace conference, or the many times that celebrities have made mildly pro-Palestinian statements, only to quickly retreat.

The latest metaphor-in-miniature began as an argument on a JetBlue flight from Palm Beach, Florida, to New York. That argument, which has dragged on now for three weeks and seems to be getting more petty all the time, was and remains a symbol for how even just the abstract idea of the Israel-Palestine conflict manages to turn adults into squabbling children. That phenomenon is well observed, and matters more than you might think.

The incident is complicated and involves conflicting narratives about what happened (I told you it was a good metaphor). Fortunately, unlike the real Israel-Palestine conflict, this incident is entertaining, and inconsequential enough that it's okay to laugh at. Here is a reconstruction of the events as they appear to have happened, based on accounts from the two outlets that have followed it most closely, which are, naturally, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the New York Post.

How it all went down

The drama began on July 7 when Lisa Rosenberg, a Queens gynecologist, boarded a flight in Palm Beach bound for New York. As the plane waited at the gate, Rosenberg was on her cell phone discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict, which was already entering some of its worst violence in years. It's not clear what she said, but everyone agrees she was speaking positively of Israel and doing it loudly enough that another woman two rows behind could hear it.

That other woman confronted Rosenberg mid-phone call, identifying herself as Palestinian. The Palestinian woman later explained that Rosenberg was speaking about Palestinians in such a manner that "I couldn't take it any more."

At this point, there are three versions of events. Rosenberg's version is that the Palestinian woman went on an anti-Semitic rant, calling her a "Zionist pig." The Palestinian woman's version is that Rosenberg "turned on me like a pit bull," saying, "You're a child murderer and a danger to this plane."

The third version comes from JetBlue itself, whose incident report describes Rosenberg as the sole instigator, indicating that she called the Palestinian woman a "Palestinian murderer." Rosenberg allegedly said, "Her people are all murderers and they murder children." The report says that flight attendants stopped Rosenberg, who was trying to "physically move through the cabin" to get nearer to the Palestinian woman.

Everyone agrees on what happened next: a JetBlue complaint resolution official (read: the person who kicks you off the plane) boarded the flight, which was still parked at the gate. Rosenberg's version is that she was asked to leave the plane, which she's implied was based in part on her religion. She recounted later, "When I asked to speak to the pilot, I was told, 'Jews don't make the rules on this plane.'"

JetBlue's version is that Rosenberg refused to stop yelling at the Palestinian woman, at one point implying that the Palestinian woman had explosives in her bag and planned to blow up the plane mid-flight. JetBlue says that Rosenberg, as she was escorted from the plane, pledged to make sure the flight attendant would be fired over the incident. She was re-ticketed on another flight.

The twist ending

You'd like to think the story ended there. But there is a second and far more absurd chapter to the drama, which by this point was already known as "the 7E/9C argument" for the seat numbers of its participants.

Late last week, the Palestinian woman, apparently seeing their argument as unfinished, called Rosenberg at her gynecology office in Queens. She called to chastise Rosenberg further and to reveal that she herself was not actually Palestinian at all — you cannot make this stuff up — but Jewish. Rosenberg recorded the phone call.

In other words, Rosenberg had been shouting at a fellow Jew all along, not a Palestinian. Both women later confirmed the phone call and its contents to the New York Post, which also confirmed the not-actually-Palestinian woman's identity.

"I told you at the time I was Palestinian because I wanted you to stop your rant. If I said I was Jewish, you wouldn't have stopped," the woman said during the call. "I shouldn't have said it, but I did."

It gets better/worse. The not-actually-Palestinian woman told Rosenberg, "I'm more Zionist than you'll ever be. My third cousin was [former Israeli Prime Minister] –Menachem Begin."

For all the terrible, racist things that Rosenberg allegedly told the woman whom she believed to be Palestinian, going by the JetBlue report, this may actually be worse. The woman who had earlier claimed to be Palestinian in order to make a self-righteous point, who used the Palestinian nationality to paint herself a victim, is now claiming to be Jewish and related to a famous Israeli leader in order to make a second self-righteous point. There is something worse than dishonesty at play when you position yourself as a Palestinian and a victim of Israel to win one argument, then claim "I'm more Zionist than you'll ever be" in order to win a second argument.

At least Rosenberg picked a side; the second woman seems to be happy adopting whatever position will make her look most righteous. But that, in a sense, is the pure, uncut core of many Israel-Palestine arguments: look at how much more righteous I am.

Yes, this does have a larger significance

Obviously the great 7E/9C conflict of 2014 could not possibly be any less consequential. And it is not revelatory that talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict makes grown adults behave like children. But the depths to which both sides sank in their fight (again, metaphor) are accurately representative of our larger inability to maintain a civil Israel-Palestine discourse, which matters more than you might think.

There is a body of social science research that helps explain why the Israel-Palestine conversation is so polarizing and pushes people to such extremes. On a human, behavioral level, the argument becomes driven more by a need to seize and hold the high moral ground than by a desire to actually further the interests of Israelis or Palestinians (or, god forbid, both).

The truth is that both Israelis and Palestinians have done and continue to do bad things, but partisans on either end are often unable or unwilling to fully acknowledge those bad things, because this would compromise their moral high ground. So you end up with two narratives of history that simply do not overlap.

Reconciling your narrative with the truth is not easy and can require some mental contortions, which is part of why when people talk about Israel-Palestine, they can be even more prone to lunacy than usual. That's part of what drives a "pro-Israel" JetBlue customer to accuse a Palestinian woman two rows back of being a "child-murderer," and drives her "pro-Palestinian" adversary to claim both Palestinian and Zionist Israeli status.

Given that the outside world plays such an important role in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict, the fact that public discourse around it is so broken has real-world implications for the conflict, way beyond just this one silly-but-sad incident.