Opinion

Forcing Women to Switch El Al Seats Is to Treat Them Like Dirt

El Al’s practice of moving ‘offending’ female passengers, rather than the ‘offended’ men, is rooted in the notion that women are essentially wicked

An El Al passenger jet takes off. A new court ruling forbids flight attendants for Israeli airlines from asking women to switch seats to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men.
TOMAS DEL CORO

Last week, Renee Rabinowitz, 83, a retired lawyer with a doctorate in psychology who is both the widow of a rabbi and a Holocaust survivor, won a sex discrimination lawsuit against El Al, after an ultra-Orthodox man asked a flight attendant to move her to a different seat so that he wouldn’t be forced to sit next to a woman. El Al argued that only at flight time (and not at the time of booking) can crew members address requests that will contribute to the level of service and the flight experience.

Rabinowitz, who was represented by Riki Shapira-Rosenberg, sought to equate sex discrimination with ethnic discrimination. After the court ruled, El Al said it would make it clear to its staff that requests to move on the basis of sex constitutes a violation of the law against discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

Full disclosure: Renee Rabinowitz is a friend. We pray together in the Jerusalem Orthodox-feminist congregation Shira Hadasha, and she has helped me edit academic articles in English.

Naturally, I followed all the articles and interviews I could find about the ruling, and as I perused the arguments for and against, I found no one who asked the simplest of questions. Rabinowitz is an elderly woman who walks with a cane. Why did the male passenger ask to have her moved, instead of asking that his own seat be changed? Let’s leave aside the audacity of imposing a seat change on an elderly woman, and say that Rabinowitz had been a 17-year-old girl who could have easily jumped to a different spot. Why should the woman be moved and not the man?

Since El Al argued that people can ask not to sit next to a crying baby (too bad I didn’t know this before), would they move the baby, or the person making the request? And if I get on a bus and sit next to someone who forgot to brush his teeth that morning, would I ask him to move, or would I get up and find somewhere else to sit?

It seems to me that in every case in which there’s something that could disturb a journey, whether technical (a crying baby) or racist (a person whose skin color makes him an undesirable seatmate to someone) the person who feels disturbed will ask to be moved. But when it comes to women the discrimination is different. Women, it seems, are like dirt. When there’s dirt in the seat next to us, we don’t ask to change seats; we politely ask to have the dirt cleaned off. The passenger who asked to “move the woman” related to her as an object, like something disgusting. It’s the same to him no matter how old she is; she’s a woman and must be moved out of range.

FILE PHOTO: El Al can no longer ask women to change seats for ultra-Orthodox men, Israeli court rules. Pictured: Smiling flight attendant talking to female passenger.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

I believe this desire to “move this dirt” stems from the distorted notion that women must cover their bodies so as not to lead men to have improper sexual thoughts, heaven forbid. The women, not the men, are responsible for men’s thoughts. Poor guys, all they want is to be able to go out in public without being hurt, and they encounter alluring demons there. It’s not just ultra-Orthodox society; every society that deals obsessively with covering women up to protect men begins with the same premise. If it were possible to sweep all this dirt into a pile in the corner, it would be wonderful. But what can we do — this dirt also provides all sorts of services, so we’ll leave it, but we’ll make sure it’s totally covered.

In the Republic of Gilead, where Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was set, women’s bodies were covered up and wrapped in colors that marked their status. Here, they’re put in the back of the bus, or simply moved from the airplane seat next to us.

And we needed a lawsuit in order for someone to realize there is something wrong here?

Rivka Neriya Ben Shahar teaches in the communications department of Sapir Academic College.