It all started with a JetBlue flight, #1324 from Mexico City to Orlando. Among the passengers: Moshe Berlin, an American-Israeli dual citizen who lives in Brooklyn, whose first language was Yiddish, and who speaks English with an accent.
Twenty minutes after takeoff, he says he started to feel dehydrated and sick, so he asked a flight attendant for "ICES," as he puts it in the complaint, and was given a cup of ice.
Still feeling ill, he "proceeded out of his seat ... and made a second request for 'ICES,'" according to the complaint.
Maybe you can see where this is going. With Berlin's thick accent, a male flight attendant (named in the complaint) "alerted other[s]" on the plane that the Berlin was yelling "ISIS," as in, the terrorist group--not "ice" or "ices."
The flight attendant then led a group of crew and passengers who allegedly "attacked" Berlin, punching him and "breaking [his] teeth," and tying him up for the remainder of the flight.
On the ground in Orlando, Berlin was charged with interfering with a flight crew. He spent 11 months in pretrial detention before a judge dismissed the case. Now he's suing JetBlue in the federal court in Brooklyn.
"This Jewish man with a yarmulke"
Ices vs. ISIS: It just sounded so crazy to me when I first heard about this case--and yet, maybe it's one of those "so crazy it actually could have happened" situations.
I asked JetBlue for comment, but a spokesperson, Morgan Johnston, told me "we do not comment on pending litigation."
So, I talked with Berlin's attorney, and with a couple of experts on aviation law and even Yiddish. And I pulled the records from Berlin's criminal case.
Sure enough, Berlin spent almost a year in federal prisons and other institutions before the case was resolved--with a judge finding him not guilty, but by reason of insanity. (Berlin's civil complaint acknowledges that he has "bipolar disease.")
But his attorney, Chauncey Henry, told me that even if Berlin had acting oddly or erratically, he believes the real issue in the case is more about whether JetBlue had reasonable policies in place for dealing with a disturbed or threatening passenger.
"Even assuming this Jewish man who had a yarmulke on at the time was ... screaming, 'ISIS'" Henry said, "what's the level of threat would have justified six of his teeth getting kicked in, and his head bashed against steel? ... Bang! Pow! The flight attendant and other passengers attacked him."
ICES or ISIS?
The ramifications for Berlin were big: Besides simply missing his freedom for 11 months while the case was resolved, he said in the complaint that he missed his daughter's wedding as a result, and that his marriage fell apart.
Again, I'm hung up on what happened on board. This all took place on March 22, 2016--so obviously people had cell phones, cameras, and social media, but so far I can't find anything like that online.
Is it even possible that Berlin could have said "ices" in a way that sounded like "ISIS?"
I asked some academics who study Yiddish. Gina Glasman, a lecturer in Judiac studies at SUNY Binghamton, speculated that he could have been speaking a "pidgin form of Yiddish" that combines it with English, and said she can imagine it sounding similar.
"Instead of saying, 'Is there ice?' he asks, 'Ice is?'" she said in an email. "Said quickly ... it can very much sound like the name of a rather extremist group that we all know too much about."
A big check?
Of course, news of this case comes about as we're going through a national debate on how public accommodations--including airlines--should respond to customer disruptions.
It goes back at least as far as the United Airlines incident where a passenger was bloodied and beaten as he was pulled off an airplane, and has stops at places like Starbucks, Waffle House, and Burger King (I wrote about that case yesterday).
This alleged incident on an airplane has another wrinkle, too, as aviation lawyer Christopher B. Kende of the New York firm Cozen O'Connor told me. Because it was an international flight, international law limits might well limit the potential damages JetBlue might have to pay if Berlin won.
But while acknowledging that, Berlin's attorney, Henry, said he's confident his client will prevail with a large payout.
"We're gonna go all the way with this, take it to trial and not stop unless they cut a [settlement] check that looks like a phone number," meaning a really big check, Henry said, adding that it doesn't even make sense that a terrorist would yell "ISIS"--because the acronym is for an English language characterization of the group's name.
"I don't even think those guys call themselves 'ISIS,'" he pointed out. "That's just how we translated it."