Asking women to swap seats for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men ruled illegal for Israeli airline

Asking women to swap seats for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men ruled illegal for Israeli airline
Israeli airline El Al can no longer ask women to switch seats if ultra-Orthodox men object to sitting next to them, a court has ruled, after a case was brought by a Holocaust survivor who said she was humiliated after being asked to move.

The Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which was representing the plaintiff, announced the court’s decision on Wednesday.

“Huge victory in IRAC's long fought battle against gender segregation in the public sphere - court tells El Al airline women do not need to move seats for men,” the group, which is a public and legal advocacy branch of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, said in a statement. 

The court decision follows a lawsuit filed by 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Renee Rabinowitz. In 2015, a flight attendant on board an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv asked her to move. According to the airline, it tries to make concessions to ultra-Orthodox men who cite religious beliefs in their requests not to be seated near any women other than their own wives.

“Under absolutely no circumstances can a crew member ask a passenger to move from their designated seat because the adjacent passenger doesn’t wasn’t to sit next to them due to their gender,” Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Dana Cohen-Lekah said in her ruling, as cited by the Times of Israel. “The policy is a direct transgression of the law preventing discrimination.” 

The court ordered the airline to instruct its staff that such requests to women to change seats are illegal. El Al will also be ordered to pay Rabinowitz some 6,500 shekels ($1,800) in damages. Lawyers originally asked for 50,000 shekels ($14,000).

"I feel good about the fact that (El Al) will now be required to tell ... haredim [ultra-Orthodox men] who want women to move, that they can't do it, that El Al flight attendants can't do it," Rabinowitz said on Israel Radio, as cited by Reuters. 

Rabinowitz, who was born in Belgium and forced to flee the Nazis in 1941, lived in New York before moving to Jerusalem. She was planning to see her family in the US when she boarded the El Al flight.

“Despite all my accomplishments — and my age is also an accomplishment — I felt minimized,” Rabinowitz, a retired lawyer with a PhD in educational psychology, told the New York Times in an interview back in February 2016 when she decided to sue the airline. 

She said she was fighting for the principle – not money – so that women can no longer be discriminated against in such a way.

“For me this is not personal. It is intellectual, ideological and legal. I think to myself, here I am, an older woman, educated, I’ve been around the world, and some guy can decide that I shouldn’t sit next to him. Why?” she continued.

She recalled asking the passenger who asked her to move: “Why does it matter? I’m 81 years old. And he says, ‘It’s in the Torah.’”

“I thought, ‘He’s going to be unhappy,’” she said. “There was no other seat available for him next to a man so I thought I’d try it.”

Rabinowitz “set out to fight El Al because she wanted to prevent humiliation and discrimination of other women on flights,” Anat Hoffman, executive director of IRAC, said in a statement, as cited by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 

Rabinowitz believes that her winning the case will put an end to such type of gender discrimination.

“This type of an incident has happened before and I was not alone,” she told RT about why she decided to take the case to the court.

“Other airlines [are now] forbidden to help the Haredi men ask the women to move. It would be acceptable for a man to request a woman, but he no longer can ask the airline personnel to help him,” Rabinowitz added.