El Al facing discrimination law suit after haredi man refuses to sit next to woman

“You can’t humiliate another human being in this way. She can’t change her genitals before she gets on board the flight can she," activist says.

An El Al airliner. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An El Al airliner.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel will be suing El Al for discrimination against women following a recent incident in which a female passenger was asked to change seats because a haredi man refused to sit next to a woman.
Renee Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor who is now retired following a successful career as a lawyer, reluctantly agreed to switch her aisle seat in the business-class section of El Al Flight 028 from New York to Tel Aviv this past December after a man wearing “hassidic or haredi garb” took his place in the same row near the window, according to an article in The New York Times on Saturday.
El Al flight attendants, wanting to defuse the controversy, asked Rabinowitz if she would like a seat closer to first class.
There have been several reported incidents in recent years of haredi men refusing to sit next to women on airplane flights, while parts of the haredi community have also demanded separate seating on buses in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Earlier this week, a haredi man rioted on an El Al flight home from Poland after complaining that the in-flight movie was “immodest.”
The passenger, 36, from Beit Shemesh, damaged two viewing screens and attacked the cabin crew during his rampage on Wednesday, the Hebrew-language news website Walla reported.
Anat Hoffman, director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said her organization had been tracking the phenomenon for several years and that the involvement of the flight attendant was critical for the center’s case, since it pointed to a company policy of accommodating the demands of haredi men not to sit next to women.
“The values of the state extend to what happens within a company, and this is an unreasonable and illegal request that cannot be allowed to stand,” Hoffman told The Jerusalem Post.
She described the phenomenon of haredi men refusing to sit next to women as “an extremist fad,” saying that even prominent haredi rabbis such as the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who was the leader of the Ashkenazi haredi community, said that a public company cannot be forced to implement separate seating.
“Holding a plane to ransom and saying that you won’t sit down until the plane staff agree to your demands can’t be tolerated,” she continued, although observing that making arrangements before the flight to not be seated next to a woman was acceptable.
“You can’t humiliate another human being in this way. She can’t change her genitals before she gets on board the flight, can she? People are willing to put up with it because it’s against women. If it was against Blacks or Arabs, for example, there would have been an outcry.”
El Al responded to the controversy in a statement, saying that its staff “accommodate those with special requests on a variety of topics, including requests to switch seats.”
Rabinowitz was asked “politely and sensitively” to switch her seat, agreed and was given a “better seat” in exchange, according to the airline.
“She was told that she was not required to move, and if she would have wished to remain in her original seat, it would have been her full right to do so.”
Speaking to the Post on Sunday, Mark Feldman, CEO of travel agency Ziontours, said that although the lawsuit likely won’t hold up in court, it might convince El Al to change its policies. He applauded Rabinowitz for bringing this issue to the forefront. “The policy needs to be stopped,” he said, adding that he receives complaints about seat switches on a weekly basis.
A passenger who refuses to sit next to a woman, and thus refuses to take his seat, should simply be kicked off the flight, Feldman said. The decision should not be imposed upon the stewards or the passengers, he said.
Feldman said that this suit and the policy’s continuation in general likely won’t affect sales because the airline’s main draw is that it is one of the most secure airlines in the world. “There are those that won’t fly El Al because of the policy and those who fly El Al in spite of it,” he quipped.
“What has always raised my ire is that this doesn’t happen on United Airlines or Lufthansa, because they don’t tolerate this behavior,” he said. On other airlines, a passenger who refuses to take his seat is simply removed from the flight, Feldman said.