In late February, the Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement, announced that it would file suit against El Al, Israel's national airline, on behalf of passenger Renee Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old Holocaust refugee, former lawyer, and grandmother from Jerusalem.
According to media reports, as Rabinowitz was settling into her seat on El Al flight 028 from Newark to Tel Aviv, a flight attendant asked her to change her business-class seat for another seat in business class to accommodate an ultra-Orthodox man, who did not want to sit next to a woman – a not-uncommon scenario. Rabinowitz agreed, but later, feeling that she had been minimized and insulted, decided to go to court.
Although the suit has yet to be filed, the incident has already made headlines domestically and internationally and filled social media with heated talkbacks about religious coercion.
To many feminist activists, the issue at hand is El Al's purported discrimination against women, which stems, they say, from El Al's capitulation to ultra-Orthodox demands. Thus, they contend, El Al is contributing to the ultra-Orthodox community's increasing attempts to remove women from public space and impose an extreme ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law on women's liberty and dignity.
In a written statement to Haaretz, Dana Hermann, a spokesperson for El Al, denied that El Al discriminates against any of its passengers.
"EL AL Israel Airlines maintains the highest levels of equal treatment and respect for all passengers," she wrote. "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."
Trained to be creative
In conversations with Haaretz, members of El Al's ground and flight crews, however, presented more complicated and nuanced perceptions of the issue.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, because he is "not authorized to speak for the company," Eyal (not his real name), who has been a flight attendant for nearly five years, explains his duties.
"Besides passenger safety, which of course comes first, I have two additional responsibilities: First, to help ensure that the plane gets off the ground on time, and second, to ensure that everyone has a pleasant 'flight experience.'"
Requests to change seats are "very common on almost every flight," he continues. "Some ultra-Orthodox men do ask to change seats, but the most common requests to change seats come from people who are seated next to an infant and from family members who were inadvertently separated when their seats were assigned."
Precise numbers for seat-change requests are not available, Eyal says, "Because we do not see these requests as out of the ordinary in any way. We expect that they will happen, as part of the service, and we certainly wouldn't keep track of who is making the request. And we don't think that the ultra-Orthodox are entitled to any special accommodation in seating. If we can make them comfortable, we will. If we can't, we don't."
Another former flight attendant, who left El Al seven years ago, told Haaretz that the airline "had no explicit policy then, and I'd be surprised if they have one now." During their training, she said, much effort was spent on how to cope with seating problems. Mostly, they were told to be creative.
"We did have one lesson during the course, about handling ultra-Orthodox passengers and how to deal with them," she said. "That lesson was taught by a formerly religious flight attendant, but I don't remember any rigid rule about moving passengers because of them."
Rachel (also not her real name), a senior flight attendant with 12 years of flight experience, added that flight attendants are instructed to "never offer a less comfortable seat – like one that is closer to the bathrooms, for example, or a middle seat instead of an aisle or a window."
'My job is to get the flight off the ground'
In social media posts, feminist activists have argued that by acting as an intermediary and relaying an ultra-Orthodox man's request that a woman change seats, the company is encouraging his demands.
Liat (also not her real name), 33, a flight attendant for more than seven years, says she doesn't feel like an intermediary. "Answering requests – if we can – is our job. And certainly, if it's easier, we'll ask the Orthodox man to move instead of asking the woman. The last thing we'd want is people playing musical chairs on a plane that's supposed to be taking off."
Others noted that women could be spared the humiliation if the requests were computerized. But Liat says that would be "terrible. When we try to accommodate peoples' requests, we don't relate to the reason – just to the fact that they are unhappy in their seats. We certainly don't want to give official weight to discriminatory opinions." All seat assignments, she said, are randomly assigned by algorithms.
Rachel acknowledges that there is a difference between asking a passenger to change seats in order to keep a family together and because someone doesn't want to sit next to a woman, or a member of a minority, or someone who is perceived as belonging to the LGBT community, or other "blatantly discriminatory requests."
She explains, "As a feminist...I understand why a woman might feel diminished or insulted [by the request to change seats.] As a passenger, I would probably feel that way. But in my job as a flight attendant, I don't see it that way. My job is to get the flight off the ground. So if I can solve a problem that might hold us up, that's great. If I can't, then I can't."
Eyal adds, "And if a woman does move, I feel indebted to her because she helped me solve a problem. I will try even harder to make sure she is comfortable. I will try to bring her a better meal, or a free drink, or a comfort kit from first class – or anything I can."
A microcosm of Israeli society in the sky
The flights attendants revealed that they do receive some training about how to deal with special needs on a plane – such as how to ensure that individuals with limited sight or hearing are comfortable and safe, and how to help people traveling with infants. "But we do not view ultra-Orthodox as requiring any special attention," Rachel insists.
A source within El Al management emphasizes the importance of getting the flight out on time. "If a flight is delayed, hundreds, even thousands of people suffer in a chain reaction – delays lead to missed connections, major problems for ground crews, and changes in runway and landing assignments, and air traffic control."
She says it is a common misperception that El Al is tolerant of disruptive behavior by ultra-Orthodox passengers. "Of course we remove passengers if they are disruptive. But it isn't a good solution. To remove a passenger from the plane takes over two hours – all the luggage has to be removed, rechecked, and put back on the plane. So we weigh the discomfort that a woman might feel if an ultra-Orthodox man asks her to move her seat against the discomfort and cost that a delay causes."
By targeting El Al, Rabinowitz's lawsuit, if filed, will essentially charge that the outspoken demands of the ultra-religious passengers gives them unreasonable power to discriminate against others.
"In a way, it does," Rachel acknowledges, "because they know that they can hold up the flight and that even if they are kicked off – it will cost everyone a minimum of two hours. But in all my years with the company, I have never known anyone to force us to kick them off because of seating. After all, no one wants to be late."
Liat suggests that just because you are 30,000 feet in the air, doesn't mean you can escape the politics on the ground. You actually bring them into closer proximity.
"An El Al flight is a microcosm of Israeli society," she says. "All of the rifts and anger in our society get played out on the plane, and much of Israeli society is furious at the ultra-Orthodox. But we still have to get the plane out on time."
With additional reporting from Ruth Schuster.