Part Two: Don't Blame Delta... Because It's Good to Compromise Our Values

For the past several days, there's been a lot of chatter on the interwebs about a suggestion (which seems to have really taken off with this HuffPost article by Rabbi Jason Miller) that people boycott put pressure on Delta because "Delta will add Saudi Arabian Airlines to its SkyTeam Alliance of partnering companies and would require Delta to ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights to Saudi Arabia." My colleagues on, Matthew and Hunter, have offered thoughtful and thorough responses, as have podcast contributors Ben and Gary. Normally, I'd stay out of this to avoid the redundancy. But since I'm in the unique position of being an occasional UPGRD contributor and also someone who works professionally in the Jewish community, I felt like I should jump in. Below is the second of two posts on the topic, both of which are cross-posted on my blog and on my personal blog.

(Before continuing, you may want to read part one: don’t blame delta… because the airline business is complicated. Also, if you're reading this on the site, I should warn you that this second essay, which is below, is a lot more philosophical/ideological than the usual frequent flyer fare. If you're here to learn about the latest hotel promotion, your chances of an upgrade once the CO/UA merger is complete, or the quality of the steak on AA, you may want to skip this post. Also, the steak is never good. Order the pasta.)

In all the calls for Delta to reconsider their alliance with Saudi Airlines -- the original WND article, Rabbi Jason Miller's HuffPost piece, the ADL's letter from Abe Foxman to Delta's CEO -- there's a common argument being made. Delta, as a US-based airline that says it doesn't discriminate based on religion, should avoid business partnerships that put them in a position to abide by the very discriminatory laws of a foreign country.

On one hand, that makes pretty good sense to me. A company should be careful about who it (to quote Rabbi Miller) "gets into bed with" for two important reasons, one symbolic and one practical.

First, an organization is defined not just by its own words and actions, but also by the company (no pun intended) it keeps. The member airlines of the SkyTeam alliance made a conscious choice to include Saudi Airlines as one of their partners, and in doing so they invited us to ask the question: If these airlines were happy to admit an airline owned by (and subject to the laws of) an oppressive, definitely anti-Semitic, possibly anti-Christian, and definitely anti-women regime, then what does that tell us about the values held by the leadership of those airlines?

Second, a company should be careful about its business partnerships because partnerships almost always involve each party giving up something in order to reap the benefits of cooperation. In the case of an airline alliance, each airline gives up certain competitive rights, access to mileage rewards, proprietary business information, landing/takeoff slots at airports, yada yada yada... and in return they gain access to markets, information, slots, inventory, as well as the ability to offer additional benefits to their (current and potential) customers. In this case, the argument from WND, Miller, and the ADL seems to be that in order to reap the benefits of an alliance with Saudi Air, Delta is giving up something very important: their ability to treat all customers fairly without regard to religion. (This point, as many of us have pointed out, is probably moot because Delta says it won't actually codeshare with, sell tickets on, or offer SkyMiles for flights on Saudi Airlines. Miller and Foxman say that being in the alliance at all is bad enough.)

In contrast to my take on the "airline business" side of this issue (again, see part one), I think that the Delta critics have a valid argument that's justifiable on both philosophical and practical grounds. It won't come as a surprise, however, that I disagree with them.

To start, we shouldn't ignore the dark, viscous, and highly combustible (especially once refined) elephant in the room. Saudi Arabia is a lucrative place to do business because there's a lot of wealth there. And there's a lot of wealth there because there's a lot of oil there. The West covers their collective ears and closes their collective eyes to much of the Saudi government's bad behavior because we're addicted to oil. And whether it's the oil pumped from beneath the Saudi peninsula or it's the collective oil controlled by governments with which the Saudis have influence, the consensus (if only judged by our actions) seems to be that we can't afford to not do business with the Saudis. And whether Delta partners with them or not, Saudi Airlines will continue to fly passengers to Saudi Arabia.

That may sound like thin justification for a morally indefensible position. It might be. But if you insist on holding an American company accountable for compromising their own values in order to engage in business dealings with an oppressive dictatorship, then we're all guilty.

To use a personal example (not because I mean any disrespect, but because it's too good an image to resist): Rabbi Jason Miller lives in Detroit. If he really wanted to have an impact on the Saudi government's policies, he should walk or pedal his way over to the good people at Ford and GM and insist that they stop making automobiles with internal combustion engines that run on gasoline.

I don't mean to get into a political discussion about reducing our dependence on foreign oil by drilling in Alaska or by further subsidizing the development and sale of more renewable (and less ideologically problematic) energy sources. I'm more interested in the meta issue, which is this:

Our current world is a complex place made more complicated by globalization, interconnectedness, over-empowerment of those that yell loudest, and a seemingly infinite number of problems that are all competing for the attention resources necessary to solve them. In many cases, when we take a stand on one issue, we end up with inadvertent consequences to some other issue. (For example, when we stop using paper plates in order to avoid wasting the natural resources from which they're made, we end up wasting another natural resource when we use water to clean re-usable plates made from plastic, which required fossil fuels to produce. Or... if American businesses stopped working with/in Saudi Arabia, then the U.S.'s ability to base troops there -- like the ones who shot down scud missiles headed for Tel Aviv during Gulf War Part One -- might be in jeopardy.)

This is frustratingly complex. I use my computer to develop curricula that teach kids about the importance of making the world a better place, about equality and justice, and about finding meaning in community. That same computer -- or at least parts of it -- was assembled in a factory in China where the conditions almost certainly do not meet my Western expectations of how workers should be treated. Of course, maybe that factory -- which looks bad when viewed out-of-context by Westerners -- is actually a pretty great place to work by Chinese standards. Or maybe it's a horrible place where workers are cut off from their families, suffer debilitating injuries, and succumb to exhaustion.

It's tempting to address all this by taking an isolationist stance; to say, "I won't compromise my values by patronizing a business that's compromised theirs in search of the almighty buck." But in America circa 2011, that's impractical if not impossible. Are you going to stop buying products made in China? Driving cars that run -- even if just in hybrid mode -- on fossil fuels that damage the environment and put money in the pockets of dictators? Using electronics that require precious metals mined in conflict-torn parts of Africa? Eating fruits and vegetables picked by underpaid workers? Eventually, we end up having to make choices that are not so different -- and just as morally repugnant, if you say it with enough righteous indignation -- as Delta's. We can reap the benefits of living in a globalized world but inevitably contribute in some way to worsening the problems plaguing our world. Or we can live as hermits, without the benefits of modern medicine, modern convenience, and modern tools that enable us to do pretty amazing things.

We live in a world that's deeply broken, and we might be in a position to try and fix it. (Indeed, a big part of my own identity is my belief that my religious tradition obligates me to try and fix it.) An oft-quoted Talmudic text has one of our ancient rabbis reflecting on the frustration of facing insurmountable tasks. "It is not your job to finish the work," Rabbi Tarfon teaches. It's not our job to eradicate all hunger, homelessness, disease, environmental disaster, and social injustice. "But," he continues, "You are not free to desist from it, either." (Avot 2:16, translation mine, based on Neusner)

Going after a company who complies with an unjust law in order to do business with Saudi Arabia is a petty and virtually meaningless gesture which (in the case of WND and the ADL) feels like a cheap shot taken to score political points with the "anti-Sharia" crowd. I'm not saying that because I think we should tolerate anti-Semitism. On the contrary, I think we need to take Hunter's advice to choose our battles very wisely. "It's not your job to finish the work," says Rabbi Tarfon. There's just not enough time. So we need to make sure the impact we do have is meaningful.

Being uncomfortable with Delta because they are part of an airline alliance that includes an airline that primarily flies in and out of a country that doesn't allow entry to people of a certain religion (few of whom seem all that eager to visit)? I suppose that makes me uncomfortable, especially when you augment it with the fact-twisting rhetorical flourish that such an alliance means Delta will tell Jews they can't board certain flights.

But lets be real. On your next Delta flight, you should lose sleep because the seat is uncomfortable and the guy in front of you reclined into your knees, not because you're flying an airline that's symbolically complicit in anti-Semitism by complying with a law that keeps out the small handful of Jews who (for unknown reasons) want to visit the anti-Israel, anti-West, anti-woman, anti-free expression, and anti-Semitic country of Saudi Arabia.

If we waste our energy and our political capital pressuring the Saudi government to let in the tens of Jews who want to hang out in Riyadh, then maybe we'll be less able to pressure that same government to stop executing women who "rebel" against their husbands, or less able to ask that government to use their influence to reduce the flow of weapons to terrorists, or to use their air bases to refuel planes on their way to help Israel defend against an Iranian attack. And at the end of the day, the more we present our Western ideals as being petty and impractical, the more we waste our chance to be a light to the Saudi people, who are ultimately the ones who can stand up against the corrupt ideology their government uses to justify oppression.

Delta airlines is not the problem. The Saudi Arabian rulers and their ilk are the problem. Delta executives should spend their time thinking about how to keep paying their thousands of employees during these rough economic times. They shouldn't have to waste their time responding to ridiculous internet hysteria.