El Al Boeing 747-400 airplane
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

El Al Charged by Woman With Sexism and Discrimination in Seat Switching Situation

l Al Israel Airlines Limited is being charged with discrimination and sexism because a grandmother — who is 81 years of age — was asked to change to a “better seat” when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man did not want to sit next to her aboard an airplane operating as El Al Flight 028 from Newark to Tel Aviv back in December of 2015.

The “better seat” turned out to be at the end of a row of three seats in which two of the seats were occupied by other women; and Rabinowitz — who was married to two rabbis in her lifetime — felt further insulted because the member of the flight crew who asked her to move had allegedly attempted to mislead her.

Sexism and Discrimination in Seat Switching Situation?

With the assistance of the Israel Religious Action Center — which is the liberal public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel which had spent two years searching for a test case on switching seats based on religious beliefs and gender — Renee Rabinowitz will be the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the airline, according to this article written by Isabel Kershner of The New York Times.

The attorney for the advocacy group demanded 50,000 Israeli shekels — or approximately $13,000.00 — in compensation for Rabinowitz, arguing that a request not to be seated next to a woman was by nature degrading, as it differed from other requests to move — to sit near a relative or a friend as one of many examples.

The airline countered with an offer of a discount worth $200.00 on the next flight operated by El Al, insisting that there was no gender discrimination on El Al flights; that the flight attendant had made it clear to Renee Rabinowitz that she was in no way obligated to move; and that she had changed seats without argument.

Rabinowitz — who was raised as an Orthodox Jewish woman and is now a retired lawyer living in Jerusalem — is not sorry to be taking part in the advocacy battle, according to this article written by Jessica Steinberg of The Times of Israel. In fact, she sees it as a chance “to do some good.”

“I’m not a confrontational kind of person,” said Rabinowitz, who is a survivor of the Holocaust and whose family fled the occupation of the Nazis in 1941. “I think there are just times when I see something that’s problematic and if I can do something I’ll say, yup, I’m doing it.”

Should Airlines Consider Religious Beliefs in How Seats Are Assigned?

This issue of seating based on religious beliefs and gender is unfortunately not new and has indeed been problematic, as a number of flights from New York to Israel within the past two years have been delayed when ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have refused to sit next to women, according to this article written by Michael Paulson of The New York Times, who wrote that “some ultra-Orthodox travelers have tried to avoid mixed-sex seating for years. But now the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population is growing rapidly because of high birthrates. Ultra-Orthodox men and their families now make up a larger share of airline travelers to Israel and other locations, giving them more economic clout with airlines, and they are making their views more widely known in response to what they see as the sexualization of society.”

One example is when several ultra-Orthodox Jewish men reportedly refused to sit in their assigned seats because those seats were located next to seats in which women sat aboard an airplane operated by Delta Air Lines as flight 468 on Saturday, December 20, 2014 from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv — with the commotion resulting in a delay of the departure of the flight by approximately 30 minutes.

It is important to note that there are different denominations, beliefs and movements of Orthodox Judaism; and that not all ultra-Orthodox Jewish men believe similarly in what can be considered an extreme measure pertaining to seat assignments aboard airplanes. In response to this article which I first wrote on this topic back on Tuesday, December 30, 2014, Daniel Eleff of Dans Deals posted this comment that “I’ve never had an issue with my seatmate and these stories horrify me. Unless you’re obese there’s no reason you should have to touch the person sitting next to you. And if you are obese-you should be buying 2 tickets or sitting in the pointy nose section of the plane.”

As to whether or not airlines consider religious beliefs in how seats are assigned, I am wondering if airlines should not include a specific question pertaining to special seating — that is, if a comment section for custom requests is not already included — during the booking process to prevent situations similar to the aforementioned ones from occurring.


So what happens when an airplane is full of passengers who have strong religious beliefs, need emotional support animals, are allergic to peanuts and other types of food as well as animals, have a fear of flying, wrestle over who gets the armrest and who gets to open and close the window shade, argue over what gets to be stored in the overhead storage bin, and want to recline their seats in order to be slightly more comfortable?

People who plan on being passengers aboard a commercial airplane should expect to have to compromise and respect fellow passengers and not have an obnoxious attitude of DYKWIA — or Do You Know Who I Am — but unfortunately, compromise, respect and civility is not guaranteed to be reciprocal; and therein lies the problem.

Swapping seats is already a contentious issue on a number of different levels — which includes sitting in the middle seat between two travel companions who could be chatty; and a practice known as seat squatting…

…but invoking religious beliefs on fellow passengers — especially when they are not even of the same religion — is unacceptable and exacerbates the problems of being a passenger aboard an airplane, in my opinion. Religious passengers do not have the authority to attempt to require other people to conform to what they believe — no matter how strongly or devoutly are their beliefs.

I believe that it is more important to keep an open mind and be respectful and considerate to other people around you — whether it is you or someone else engaging in their religious beliefs. Tolerance is one of the important keys towards a pleasant flight.

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

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