In what’s quickly becoming an unwelcome mini-trend, the New York Times reports that a growing number of U.S.-Israel flights are being delayed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who refuse to sit next to women. They always seem to demand that the women switch seats, while they stay put. Wonder why that might be.

Stories of haredi men refusing to sit next to women on planes aren’t a new phenomenon, of course, with the ostensible reason being that Jewish law forbids them to touch a woman who’s not a family member. Nor is bizarre behavior on flights to Israel, like the guy who encased himself in a giant plastic bag, possibly to avoid contamination when flying over cemeteries. But as the Times story points out, the anecdotal evidence suggests that “the number of episodes seem to be increasing as ultra-Orthodox communities grow in number and confidence,” but also as female travelers push back against these requests. A couple women told the Times they had refused to switch seats; one male traveler said an Orthodox man “stood in the aisle, refusing to move” when he was placed next to a woman. Finally, another traveler agreed to switch seat so the plane could leave.

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A couple of haredi religious leaders insisted to the paper that these incidents are being exaggerated, but someone bullying and harassing his fellow passengers is, at minimum, annoying and offensive. It shouldn’t happen even once. More to the point, even commenters on some Orthodox blogs, like Vos iz Neias, agree that refusing to sit near a woman is a ridiculous over-interpretation of religious law. (Generally, it’s all right as long as you’re not deriving sexual pleasure from it.) Several commenters on Voz condemned the seat-refusers as “chillul hashem,” meaning that they’re desecrating the name of God by acting in ways that bring shame upon the Jewish community. “Maybe ask a rabbi before you make headlines all over the world, if this is what hashem wants from you,” one suggested, using a name for God.

The Israel Religious Action Center, a public advocacy center for reform Judaism in the country, has started a petition calling on El Al, Israel’s airline, to put a stop to these incidents. “One person’s religious rights do not trump another person’s civil rights,” they point out. And since there will always be a number of haredi men too stubborn to sit down, they even have some potential solutions:

If El Al Airlines wants to truly accommodate all of its passengers, it will reserve a few rows of separate sex seating on every flight, where for a fee, those passengers who need such seating can pre-book their seats and not annoy or coerce other passengers before take-off to change seats with them - thereby avoiding arguments, bullying, and delayed take-off.

If, under government regulations forbidding airline carriers to offer segregated seating based upon sex, El Al is unable to carry out such religious accommodations directly, perhaps indirectly El Al can refer such requests to independent private travel agencies who buy block seating for such purposes. Religious passengers could then purchase tickets through those private agencies that will guarantee same sex seating.

Probably a better and faster way to put a stop to this behavior would be for ultra Orthodox rabbis to tell their congregants to knock it off. Failing that, maybe verbally abusive people throwing adult tantrums in the aisles should be removed from the plane?

An El Al aircraft parked at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. Image via AP


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.

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