81yo woman sues Israeli airline after being asked to move for ultra-Orthodox Jew

© Alessandro Bianchi
An 81-year-old retired lawyer is suing an Israeli airline for discrimination after she was asked to move because an ultra-Orthodox Jew refused to sit next to a woman.

The incident occurred on December 2, 2015, when Renee Rabinowitz was traveling from New York to Tel Aviv on El Al Airlines.

Shortly before the plane doors closed, the passenger who had been allocated the window seat in Rabinowitz's row boarded the aircraft. Upon seeing Rabinowitz, the man – who was wearing ultra-Orthodox garb – contacted a flight attendant and spoke to him in Hebrew.

Following the conversation, Rabinowitz was reportedly offered a “better seat." However, the 81-year-old said it wasn't a better seat at all.

“So I went back to my seat and I spoke to the man who was sitting there and I asked him if he had requested that I be moved, and he said 'yes.' So I asked him why,” Rabinowitz, who is also Jewish, told RT.

The man told her that “the Torah tells us.”

“And I said, 'I know something about the Torah, I don't think it says anything about sitting next to a woman or not sitting next to a woman.'”

Although she initially declined to move, she said she felt pressured to do so, to avoid any hassle or flight delays to other passengers.

“It made me feel insulted. I felt that this man wasn't thinking about who I am, what I am, my age, my background – just my gender. And that was insulting. I spoke to the captain at the end of the flight, and I told him I was insulted, and felt bad,” said Rabinowitz, who was born in Belgium and forced to flee the Nazis in 1941.

However, the captain said it wasn't the staff that made such decisions, but that it was company policy.

According to the airline, the flight attendant acted appropriately towards Rabinowitz and made it clear she was not obliged to move. She was offered a US$200 voucher towards her next flight.

However, the 81-year-old said she is fighting for the principle – not money – so that women can no longer be discriminated against in such a way. She went on to say that she respects the man's beliefs, but that it is his duty to work out a suitable solution with the airline.

“I think his request was motivated by an extreme religious belief about sitting next to a woman. I have no problem with that, let him make arrangements ahead of time with El Al to be seated next to a man, or let him buy two seats and then he can be sure that no offending female will be seated next to him,” Rabinowitz said.

The 81-year-old is being supported by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which campaigns against ultra-Orthodox efforts to enforce the segregation of men and women and to have photos of women removed from public areas.

IRAC's executive director, Anat Hoffman, described El Al's actions as “one more way that ultra-Orthodox extremists get away with demands that have nothing to do with Judaism. Humiliating women can in no way qualify as a religious act. It is simply not acceptable,” the Guardian reported.

Rabinowitz and IRAC are seeking 50,000 shekels (US$13,200) in damages, and is pushing for El Al to publish clear staff guidelines “concerning their obligation to act in an egalitarian manner, including emphasizing to the company’s aircrews that they must defend women’s rights to sit in their allocated seat, and clarifying to flight attendants that they may not acquiesce to requests by passengers wishing to change places purely for reasons of gender.”

IRAC is awaiting El Al's formal statement of defense, which must be submitted within 30 days of the lawsuit being filed. However, in a letter to Rabinowitz's lawyer, the company maintained there was no discrimination on El Al flights.

“Officially they may not discriminate, but I've been contacted by a lot of women who had a similar experience,” the former attorney, who retired 16 years ago, stressed.