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 UPGRD​.com, 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 UPGRD​.com 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 UPGRD​.com 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 régime, 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 coöper­a­tion. 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.