El Al 'Gender Discrimination' May Violate U.S. Law, Claims N.Y. Activist Rabbi

In wake of petition urging El Al to act on Haredi passengers who refuse to sit next to women, Conservative rabbi and attorney calls on unhappy clients to use U.S. Federal law to pressure airlines.

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In the wake of a petition urging El Al airlines to protect female passengers from what it says is harassment by ultra-Orthodox male passengers, a New York Conservative rabbi and attorney is calling on unhappy customers to put pressure on airlines by using a U.S. federal law that prohibits discrimination on flights to and from the United States.

On Tuesday, Rabbi Iris Richman, who founded the group Jewish Voices Together a year and a half ago to address issues of religious pluralism in Israel and the U.S., posted a callout on Facebook quoting “49 U.S. Code § 40127 – Prohibitions on discrimination a) Persons in Air Transportation.” According to this directive, she wrote, “An air carrier or foreign air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry.”

El Al says it doesn't discriminates against passengers, and that it deals with customer complaints on an individual basis.

Customers on an El Al flight from New York to Israel last week complained it was delayed and disrupted by ultra-Orthodox Jewish passengers who refused to sit next to women. Meanwhile, the petition signed by some 1,200 people as of Tuesday, having been launched Sunday on Change.org, charges that the Israeli airline permits “female passengers to be bullied, harassed and intimidated into switching seats which they rightfully paid for and were assigned to.”

According to Richman, who says she phoned the U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, the department “is willing to investigate any situation where any employee of a carrier – i.e. a steward/ess – participated in asking someone to change a seat because of their gender,” she wrote. She called on Facebook users to contact her if they would like to pursue a complaint.

“I did the research to figure out who in the U.S. is responsible to redress this wrong,” she told Haaretz. “There are no private damages, but if the Aviation Consumer Protection Division finds that airline personnel were involved in any act of gender (or other impermissible) discrimination against a passenger – they will take action and levy a sanction against a carrier. This applies to any carrier flying to or from the U.S.”

Her post also specified that, “In addition, a separate complaint may be made to the FAA, which regulates safety, since it is a clear violation of the law to move away from the gate while any passengers are standing – for any reason.”

The Department of Transportation confirmed that Richman’s Facebook post correctly refers to its statutory authority and policy to investigate complaints of discrimination against airlines that they receive.

Richman hasn’t personally been asked to move on a flight, but she has experienced Haredi men “standing and interfering with people on the plane” amid seat-switching negotiations. However the story of Elana Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who refused a request to switch seats on a recent flight, struck her as “the last straw.”

With many Haredi customers on U.S.-Israel routes, particularly on El Al, seat-switching requests on grounds of gender, whether through flight attendants or directly with passengers, is a common occurrence, although it doesn’t always lead to disruption or delay.

A spokeswoman for the company, which is represented by the Israeli public relations firm Ran Rahav Communications, told Haaretz, “Our policy in general is to try to accommodate any customer request.”

She added that El Al deals with complaints on a case-by-case basis. As for Richman’s Facebook call, the spokeswoman said El Al operates within the law.

There is no equivalent law in Israel, a Transportation Ministry spokesman told Haaretz, although Israel does have an anti-discrimination law.

Steven Beck, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel’s international relations director, said that “what El Al and other airlines are doing is trying to avoid a bad situation, and they are dancing incredibly close to having a discriminatory policy.”

Still, he noted that people want to switch seats on a flight for all sorts of reasons, and that it would be difficult to prove flight attendants accommodate with an intent to discriminate.

Beck is also formerly of the Israel Religious Action Center, which dealt heavily with gender segregation on Israeli buses in the past. IRAC appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court on the issue, and the court ruled in January 2011 that forced segregation on Israel’s public buses was banned.

In 2012, IRAC took on the airline after a U.S. passenger, Debra Ryder, said the flight crew made her switch seats because a man would not sit next to her, according to Orly Erez-Litkhovski, a lawyer for IRAC. The group asked El Al to pay her damages of NIS 50,000, a maximum amount for damages under Israel’s anti-discrimination law. El AL rejected the demand, and IRAC did not proceed to court. But IRAC representatives met with El Al in 2013, and the company at that meeting said it would set guidelines.

“As far as we were concerned there was improvement since that meeting, but there is still more to be done in order to make sure that the rights of female passengers would not be harmed by the rights of male passengers,” said Erez-Litkhovski.

Not everyone is critical of the practice. One former El Al flight attendant, who preferred to remain nameless so she could speak freely, said she doesn’t see the issue as a problem, but rather as a “question of tolerance.”

“If it’s possible and doesn’t interfere with safety or service, then why not?” she said, adding that Haredim are an important part of El Al’s clientele. As a secular Jew, she said, “I respect that this is their belief and I don’t judge them. I always tried to help them be happy and enjoy good service, as with any other customer request.”

She noted that it is not always women who are asked to move, but that men are sometimes also asked to switch seats to accommodate Haredim.

Joan Roth