A new court ruling explicitly forbids flight attendants for Israeli airlines from asking women to switch seats to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men who won’t sit next to them – and has awarded damages to Renee Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor and grandmother who was asked to move to a different seat on a 2015 El Al flight.
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“This is one more victory in a long string of legal victories challenging the exclusion of women in the public sphere in Israel," said Orly Erez-Likhovski, who represented Rabinowitz along with Ricki Shapira of the Israel Religious Action Center. "Trying to condition public service on the basis of gender is illegal and we are working to facilitate change in all of these contexts.” IRAC, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, has been in the front lines of gender exclusion cases involving gender segregation on buses, modesty signs and prayer at the Western Wall.
Rabinowitz, a Jerusalem resident who is now 83, was settling into her business-class seat on El Al flight 028 from Newark to Tel Aviv when a flight attendant asked her to move to another seat, also in business class, to accommodate an ultra-Orthodox man who did not want to sit next to a woman.
Rabinowitz agreed, but later, feeling that she had been insulted by the request, decided to go to court to challenge the policy.
She told The New York Times, that first reported the story, she was “exhilarated” when she learned of the ruling during a Bible study class at her assisted-living facility. “I’m thrilled because the judge understood the issue,” she said, praising Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Dana Cohen-Lekach, who handed down the decision.
“She realized it is not a question of money; they awarded a very small sum. She realized it’s a matter of El Al changing its policy, which they have been ordered to do.”
El Al argued in court that its policies and the actions of its employees should not be considered discrimination and that accommodating gender-based seating preferences applied to both men and women. The airline said that flight attendants should be able to assist with such preferences as they do in cases where family members who want to sit together or passengers are disturbed by small children.
When Rabinowitz filed the suit, a company spokeswoman, Dana Hermann, said in a statement that “EL AL Israel Airlines maintains the highest levels of equal treatment and respect for all passengers.” She added, “Our employees in the air, on the ground, in Israel and around the globe do all possible to listen to and provide solutions to the concerns or requests from our customers whatever they might be, including seating requests on the airplane.”
There have been numerous instances of flights not being able to take off on time in recent years due to ultra-Orthodox men's refusal to sit next to women, particularly on El Al. Public pressure on the company proved unsuccessful: A 2014 grassroots campaign, including an online petition signed by several thousand people, was unable to spark change. At the time, El Al told Haaretz that it dealt with each case individually, had no official policy for dealing with the issue and no intention of putting one into place.
Erez-Likhovski said the ruling still allowed men (or women) who didn't want to sit next to members of the opposite sex for religious reasons to switch to vacant seats or ask other passengers to switch with them – if they made such requests themselves. But she said that the decision made clear that it was illegal for any airline employee to ask a passenger to switch seats in order to accommodate others' gender preferences.
The language of the court document did not specify whether flight attendants can ask other passengers whether they would be willing to switch seats with the person who does not want to sit next to a woman.
It reads: “In no situation may a crew member ask a passenger to move out of their assigned seat when the adjacent passenger won’t sit beside them because of their gender.”
However, Erez-Likhovski said she believes the language expressly forbids flight attendants from taking the lead in asking any passenger to switch seats to accommodate gender preferences, including requesting that secular people switch seats with the ultra-Orthodox passenger who does not want to sit next to a woman.
“They can’t ask any passengers to move seats for that reason,” she said.
The court decision gave legal weight to the terms of the settlement agreed on by the two parties after negotiation. Rabinowitz had initially asked for 50,000 NIS (around $14,000) in damages and was ultimately awarded only 6,500. The court also required El Al to communicate its policy in writing and train its staff on how to properly abide by it within the next six months.
“It was very important was that El Al pay damages to our plaintiff, to make it very clear that what they did to her was illegal, and we are very happy that this was done,” Erez-Likhovski said. “It is a very important decision, and I think it will change what El Al and other airlines do in the future. Of course, we are going to monitor it very closely and make sure it really happens.”
She said if anyone is asked to move seats for reasons of gender, “they have to tell the flight attendant it is illegal,” and if pressure persists, “they should contact us.”
In a response, El Al said that "The two sides came to an agreement in which [El Al] policies will be clarified to its employees. The court gave legal standing to that agreement and the company will abide by the ruling."