El Al Hit by Gender-discrimination Suit Over ultra-Orthodox Seating on Planes

Renee Rabinowitz, 81, is suing the airline after being asked by a flight attendant to move to another seat when an ultra-Orthodox man refused to sit next to her.

Renee Rabinowitz.
Uriel Sinai / NYT

An 81-year-old lawyer and refugee from the Nazis is suing El Al Airlines for discrimination after she was moved from her seat to make way for an ultra-Orthodox man on a flight from the U.S. to Israel, The New York Times reports.

The suit, mounted on behalf of Renee Rabinowitz by the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, is due to be heard by a Tel Aviv court next week.

Rabinowitz's case is likely to "become a test case in the battle over religion and gender in Israel’s public spaces — and the skies above," the newspaper reported.

Rabinowitz told The New York Times that she was already seated in a business-class aisle seat of an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv in December when, “this rather distinguished-looking man in Hasidic or Haredi garb, I’d guess around 50 or so, shows up.”

The man was assigned the window seat in her row, but did not want to sit next to a woman. A flight attendant offered Rabinowitz what he said was a “better” seat in a row closer to first class.

She asked the flight attendant if he was suggesting the switch because the man next to her wanted her to move, she said, “and he said ‘yes’ without any hesitation.”

"I asked the other passenger what the problem was and he said it was in the Torah. I said that I know a bit about the Torah and there's nothing in it about sitting next to a woman. Then he said that we shouldn't put ourselves in difficult positions. I needed to decide whether to give in or sit down. But it's a long flight and I didn't want to sit 11 hours next to someone who was feeling uncomfortable. So I moved."

At the end of the flight, she said, she spoke with the pilot who acknowledged that it was El Al policy to meet the demands of Haredi passengers.

An El Al plane on the tarmac at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Daniel Bar-On

“Despite all my accomplishments — and my age is also an accomplishment — I felt minimized,” she told the Times in an interview. “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?”

Rabinowitz, who also holds a PhD in educational education, moved to the other seat but decided to test the legality of El Al's actions in court.

 “We needed a case of a flight attendant being actively involved,” explained Israel Religious Action Center director Anat Hoffman, “to show that El Al has internalized the commandment, ‘I cannot sit next to a woman.’”

According to Hoffman, El Al is not the only airline that gives in to the demands of Haredi passengers that they not be seated next to women.

"We have been collecting such stories for almost two years," she said. "It is always accompanied by peer pressure, with other passengers shouting 'Nu, move. What do you care?' In this specific case, we see that it is company policy. It's always justy before takeoff and there's a lot of pressure to get everyone seated."

An El Al spokeswoman said in a statement that “any discrimination between passengers is strictly prohibited.”

“El Al flight attendants are on the front line of providing service for the company’s varied array of passengers,” the statement said. “In the cabin, the attendants receive different and varied requests and they try to assist as much as possible, the goal being to have the plane take off on time and for all the passengers to arrive at their destination as scheduled.”

Before turning to the court, a lawyer from Israel Religious Action Center wrote a letter to El Al, saying that Rabinowitz had felt pressured by the attendant and accusing El Al of illegal discrimination. A request not to be seated next to a woman differed from other requests to move, say, to sit near a relative or a friend, the lawyer wrote, because it was by nature degrading. The letter demanded 50,000 shekels ($13,000) in compensation for Rabinowitz.

El Al countered with an offer of a $200 discount on Rabinowitz’s next El Al flight, arguing that the flight attendant had made it clear to Rabinowitz that she was in no way obligated to move, and that she had changed seats without argument.

"Ms. Renee Rabinowitz was politely and sensitively asked if she wished to move to a different seat that was considered better," said the company. "She was informed that she was not at all bound to move to an alternative seat if she wanted to stay in her seat, as is her right.

"El Al maintains equal treatment for all travelers and passengers. Our crews, in the air and on the ground, in Israel and across the world, are instructed and do their best to listen to and grant the special requests of our customers on a variety of issues, including requests regarding seating changes on the plane."

A 2011 ruling by Israel's High Court of Justice made it illegal to require women to sit in the back of a bus. All gender-specific seating must be voluntary, it ruled. Two years later, Israel’s attorney general issued guidelines calling on government ministries and public agencies to end all manifestations of gender segregation in the public sphere.

In a related incident last week, an ultra-Orthodox man broke TV screens on an El Al flight from Warsaw to Tel Aviv to protest the screening of “Truth,” starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford — a movie he deemed immodest.