No gender seating

It is legitimate and even important to respect a person’s religious beliefs and practices, but that can only be the case when it does not affect the rights of other people.

June 24, 2017 21:58
3 minute read.
AN EL AL Boeing 777 aircraft is seen at Ben-Gurion Airport

AN EL AL Boeing 777 aircraft is seen at Ben-Gurion Airport. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel’s skies just became a bit friendlier to female El Al passengers, with last week’s ruling by a Jerusalem judge barring the airline’s practice of discrimination based on gender. El Al may no longer ask women passengers to change seats on a flight due to the demands of haredi men who refuse to sit next to unrelated women.

This landmark decision by Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Dana Cohen-Lekach would presumably apply to other airlines as well, but the only company that tolerates the practice is El Al. Despite numerous complaints from passengers forced to move over the years, or whose flights were delayed by some ultra-Orthodox Jewish males demanding they move, El Al has managed to blithely fly on, continuing to ignore them.

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Until now.

It took one courageous and stubborn woman, 82-yearold Holocaust survivor Renee Rabinowitz, to stand up to this discriminatory practice and defeat it on behalf of female Jewry.

As part of a growing radicalization of a more stringent Orthodoxy, more and more flights have been delayed by men insisting on not sitting next to unrelated women and refusing to take their seats before takeoff. It has even resulted in assaults on crew members and destruction of equipment when some haredi passengers objected to films being shown.

It doesn’t matter to such choosy seaters that many leading authorities in Jewish law have ruled that there is no problem in sitting next to a woman while on some form of public transportation. They believe in their own interpretation of Halacha.

The ruling that has changed this was handed down by Judge Cohen-Lekach in a case brought by the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, in December 2015 on behalf of Rabinowitz, who flew on El Al Flight No. 81 from Newark to Israel.

Rabinowitz was asked by a flight attendant to move to another seat due to the request of a haredi man sitting next to her. She politely but reluctantly did so, but had felt so humiliated that she afterward turned to the IRAC to sue the airline.

“Requesting a seat change on an airplane before or after takeoff, based on a passenger’s gender, constitutes a breach of the Prohibition of Discrimination in Products, [Services and Entry into Public Places Law],” ruled Cohen-Lekach. It is now illegal and discriminatory for El Al to ask a passenger to move from her seat due to her gender. El Al is also required to pay Rabinowitz NIS 6,500 in damages.

IRAC lawyer Riki Shapira Rosenberg, who represented Rabinowitz, predicted that all other airline companies would be subject to the same standard, although El Al is the only airline that has tolerated such behavior, in the apparent hope that it would just go away. “This is revolutionary. The court ruled that just as it would be unthinkable to move an Arab passenger at the request of a Jewish passenger, a female passenger cannot be moved at the request of a haredi passenger,” the attorney said.

A recent Delta flight from New York to Israel was delayed taking off by more than an hour while ultra-Orthodox men and women refused to take their seats next to members of the opposite sex. Instead, they decided to abandon the flight, which required their luggage to be located and removed from the plane.

El Al has been given six months to enact a nondiscriminatory procedure for dealing with the issue. Suggestions have accompanied complaints in the past, for example, that El Al could offer block seating to travel agents who specialize in the haredi community and would guarantee same sex seating to whoever requests it.

The uptick in haredi seat-switching demands comes against a background of increasing stringency among certain sects of haredi Jews. This has manifested itself in insisting on the separation of sexes in neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, on public buses and in public spaces, even at supermarket check-out counters.

It is legitimate and even important to respect a person’s religious beliefs and practices, but that can only be the case when it does not affect the rights of other people.

Now that such pressure on flights is illegal, we can only hope that this is one regulation that will be enforced.

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