A Jerusalem court has ruled in favor of 83-year-old plaintiff Renee Rabinowitz, who sued Israel’s El Al airline for asking her to move seats at the request of a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man, the New York Times reports. The court found that asking people to move due to their gender violated Israel’s anti-discrimination laws.
Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor who was 81 when she brought the suit, was asked to move seats in December 2015 by an El Al flight attendant after her ultra-Orthodox seatmate complained about being seated next to a woman. Similar demands have become an increasing source of tension and flight delays in recent years, thanks in part to a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population and the broadening interpretation, within some members of that population, of “gender separation as a kind of litmus test of Orthodoxy,” Queens College sociology professor Samuel Heilman told the Times in 2015.
In an interview with The Guardian last year, Rabinowitz, who lives in Jerusalem, recalled the frustrating exchange between herself and the man who’d requested she move seats. “I asked the flight attendant point blank if the man sitting next to me had asked me to be moved, and unabashedly he said yes. I then went back to the man and said: ‘I’m an 81-year-old woman, what’s your problem?’”
“He started to tell me it was forbidden by the Torah. I interrupted him to say the Torah says nothing about a man sitting next to a woman. He conceded I was right but said there was a general principle that a person should not put himself in a dangerous situation.”
Rabinowitz eventually agreed to move, deterred by the prospect of spending 11 hours next to a person who didn’t want her there.
The lawsuit, brought by the Israel Religious Action Center, achieved its goal of changing El Al’s policy; Rabinowitz was also paid 6,500 shekels, or about $1,800 (her lawyer had initially asked for 50,000 shekels). From the Times:
El Al denied that it discriminated against women, saying its reseating policies applied equally to men. And the airline argued that the principle of taking religious sensibilities into consideration has been defended and recognized in Israeli courts. But the court found that asking people to move because of their gender violated Israel’s anti-discrimination codes.
In discussions outside the courtroom, the two sides in the case agreed on a judgment proposed by the judge, declaring that it is forbidden for a crew member to ask a passenger to change seats at the request of another passenger based on gender. El Al agreed to tell its cabin staff in writing about the prohibition within 45 days, and to provide training in how to deal with such situations within six months.
Anat Hoffman, the executive director of IRAC, described El Al’s accommodation of such demands to The Guardian last year as “one more way that ultra-Orthodox extremists get away with demands that have nothing to do with Judaism. Humiliating women can in no way qualify as a religious act. It is simply not acceptable.”
“I look forward to my future flights with El Al,” Rabinowitz said following this week’s ruling, “and I hope I could witness a moment in which an ultra-orthodox man says ‘I won’t sit until you move this woman’ and the El Al flight attendant tells him the law prevents her from doing so.”