When ultra-Orthodox Men Also Bully Men Over Seats on El Al Planes

If the possibility of being seated next to a women bothers ultra-Orthodox passengers so much – make them pay for their religious preferences.

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It’s not only women who have had enough of El Al’s seating policies. The flight attendant-orchestrated musical chairs accommodating the religious needs of ultra-Orthodox men that precedes – often delays – the take-off of El Al flight affects men as well. We’ve all had enough.

Of course, this occurs within the larger context of the particularly Israeli chaos that attends El Al rituals of boarding, deplaning, and baggage claim. In the latter instance, I’m often tempted to say when I get to the baggage claim at JFK, when I feel the ‘sabra’ pushing and shoving around the carousel: “Hey, we’re in New York now!”

So with some relief one morning last week, I arrived at Gate D8 in Ben Gurion Airport to find an orderly line of passengers waiting to board the plane – the orderliness being partly accountable for being a queue to a London-bound plane, not the line-up (usually scrum) to a New York bound jet.

Earlier, at check-in, I had been surprised (also pleasantly) when told that the seat (reserved for frequent flyers) between me and another passenger would remain empty on the otherwise packed flight. During a brief delay before take-off, I eyed a couple of passengers prowling the aisles, spying out my coveted empty space, that middle seat between me and my male fellow-traveler and frequent flyer. But once the doors of the plane had closed, I felt my leg-room had been secured, and my window-seat companion and I divvied up the shared territory between us.

But when the meal was served, my inflight equanimity was undermined: A diminutive ultra-Orthodox man – neither off-puttingly large nor aggressive – with his glatt-kosher tray of food in hands, fleeing the woman seated next to him further back on the plane, motioned for me to move so he could sidle into that middle seat. I told him that I would not – the ground staff had promised it would remain empty – and he countered: “Did you buy the seat?”

This was the first of a series of conversations between him and me, between me and flight attendants, ending with the flight manager – that should never have happened.

After some hubbub – though short of my making a full-fledged scene – the flight manager, having seated the passenger elsewhere, assured me, smilingly, that I should not feel badly about not accommodating my fellow-traveler. Of course, if I hadn’t already felt badly – I am Jewish after all and guilt is the default position – her assurances made me feel even worse.

Whether or not the confusion emanated from a mistake of the ground crew trying to do a favor for a frequent flyer, El Al passengers should not be forced to have the kinds of conversations, verging on altercations, that Israelis face every day – whether in synagogue, the makholet, or on the streets.

Of course, the flip-side of the aggressiveness of Israelis – the shoving, for example, at the baggage carousel – is the unexpected warmth, even intimacy, often resulting from such encounters. But there are times, as Marlon Brando says in the Godfather, when “It’s just business.” El Al, however, continues to value, with its arcane and unstated policy, the religious commitments of ultra-Orthodox passengers over the needs of other passengers, even over its own business interests. Sooner or later, it will not be just those who sympathize with the humiliation of women flyers, but regular frequent-flyer travelers as well, joining an exodus to other carriers.

As the situation resolved – and the flight manager made me promise again that I not “feel badly” (again only in Israel, only on El Al) – she assured me that she would write a note to the ground staff – ‘below’ – to be more careful about promises to passengers. More important, I told her, is that she write to administrative staff – ‘above’ on the El Al corporate ladder – to make the policy changes that will bring to an end the unwanted conversations between passenger and flight staff, and the dance around ultra-Orthodox preferences.

Brazen passengers should not ask others about seat-purchasing, and flight attendants, however well-meaning, should not be forced, by their adherence to antiquated policies, to involve flyers in discussions of the needs of other passengers, certainly not in the ethics of being a good passenger.

However well-intended such conversations may be, El Al administration should prevent situations such as mine from arising, and make ultra-Orthodox passengers pay for their religious preferences.

That the saintly Rabbi Moshe Feinstein assured Orthodox male New York City subway riders that they could indeed sit freely on train benches, even without partitions between them and next-door female passengers, may make these in air preferences appear for what they are – more a neurosis than anything else. Admittedly, my own flying hang-ups (and long legs) make me pay occasionally, for El Al’s privileged seating, and a few more inches of leg-room. I don’t know why the ultra-Orthodox should be any different.

In the end, I chose my comfort, and my neurosis, and like many people, when I’m flying I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to stretch my legs – as much as possible – and enjoy my flight.

Professor William Kolbrener, Chair of the English Department at Bar Ilan University, is author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and most recently Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his introduction to the first Hebrew translation of Milton’s Areopagitica was recently published by Shalem Press.