Woman Wins Landmark Ruling in El Al Sexism Lawsuit

R enee Rabinowitz 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 is now 83 years of age, was raised as an Orthodox Jewish woman, escaped the Nazis in Europe when she was a child, was married to two rabbis in her lifetime, and is a retired lawyer who currently lives in Jerusalem — felt further insulted because the member of the flight crew who asked her to move had allegedly attempted to mislead her.

Rabinowitz then sued El Al — and she won the lawsuit almost 15 months later.

Woman Wins Landmark Ruling in El Al Sexism Lawsuit

On Wednesday, June 21, 2017, a court in Jerusalem ruled in a landmark decision that airline employees in Israel cannot ask women to change seats to spare a man from having to sit next to them.

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 — assisted Rabinowitz in the lawsuit.

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. Rabinowitz was ultimately awarded 6,500 shekels — or approximately $1,800 — but the lawsuit was significantly more about forcing El Al to change its policy that it was about financial compensation.

“El Al’s lawyers argued in court that passengers often ask flight attendants to reseat them to be closer to a relative, or farther from a crying baby, or for many other reasons. The airline’s policy, the lawyers said, was to accommodate such requests whenever possible, ‘in a way that does not inconvenience other passengers’ or cause delays”, according to this article written by Isabel Kershner of The New York Times. “El Al denied that it discriminated against women, saying its reseating policies applied equally to men. And the airline argued that the principle of taking religious sensibilities into consideration has been defended and recognized in Israeli courts. But the court found that asking people to move because of their gender violated Israel’s anti-discrimination codes.”

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.

In a more recent example which occurred on Monday, February 13, 2017, approximately ten ultra-Orthodox Jewish men “caused absolute bedlam” on an airplane which operated as easyJet flight 2084 from Tel Aviv to London when they were said to have blocked the aisles for at least 15 minutes until some of the female passengers offered to move from their seats in order for the men to agree to sit down, according to this article written by Lee Harpin of The Jewish Chronicle. The police were reportedly called aboard the airplane upon arrival.

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.”

Jewish law restricts people of the Jewish faith from most forms of physical contact with members of the opposite sex who are not closely related. This includes the bride and groom at weddings of some Orthodox sects, who typically hold a napkin or some other cloth to avoid touching each other whenever dancing with each other. A mechitzah — or a dividing wall of some type, typically temporary — is used to keep men and women separated at such events…

…so the hesitance to not sit next to a unknown person of the opposite sex aboard an airplane is understandable — a mere armrest may not suffice as a substitute for a mechitzah — but the circumstances which may result from it could be considered unrealistic in a secular world.

In a ruling unrelated to this specific case, a resolution pertaining to the seating of Orthodox Jewish people next to a member of the opposite sex aboard an airplane was adopted through a direct vote by the Rabbinical Council of America on Wednesday, January 18, 2017 in an attempt to mitigate what is otherwise an uncomfortable situation which typically leads to flight delays and potential conflict.

As to whether or not airlines consider religious beliefs in how seats are assigned, I still wonder 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.

As I wrote in this article last year, 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.

One thought on “Woman Wins Landmark Ruling in El Al Sexism Lawsuit”

  1. mike murphy says:

    I wonder if he would have had the same reaction of Gal Gadot sat in the seat?

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