Renee Rabinowitz, 81, a retired lawyer who fled Nazis as a child, is suing the Israeli national airline El Al for alleged discrimination after being asked to change seats when an ultra-Orthodox Jew objected to sitting next to her.
The Guardian reports that Rabinowitz is being supported by the Israel Religious Action Center, which has campaigned against ultra-Orthodox efforts to enforce the segregation of men and women and to have images of women removed from public hoardings.
Almost 7,500 emails have been sent by members of the public to El Al objecting to requests made to women passengers to change seats.
Rabinowitz, a Jew who attends synagogue and keeps a kosher home, told the Guardian:
The man had no other reason to complain than my gender – and that’s unlawful discrimination. It’s no different than if a person of another religion had said: ‘I don’t want to sit next to a Jew’. And I don’t believe El Al would move a person in those circumstance.
On December 2 last year, Rabinowitz settled into her business class seat on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv following a visit to the US to see family. Her seat was one of a pair separated by a screen.
Shortly before the plane doors closed, a passenger who had been allocated the window seat next to her boarded. The middle-aged man, who was wearing ultra-Orthodox garb, called a flight attendant and spoke to him in Hebrew.
Rabinowitz said the flight attendant then offered her what he described as a better seat, one of the central row of three nearer the first class cabin.
I didn’t understand. It wasn’t a better seat.
She said she initially declined to move, but the flight attendant pressed her further and as the plane was close to taking off, she felt she had no alternative. Using her walking stick, Rabinowitz followed him to the front of the business class section.
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.
I had to do some quick thinking. He was wrong, but we had an 11-hour flight ahead of us. It’s not so pleasant to be sitting with a person who would rather you weren’t there. So I decided to move.
After the plane landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, as Rabinowitz waited on board for wheelchair assistance, the captain emerged from the cockpit. She told him what had happened, and said she felt insulted for being asked to move simply because of her gender.
He said it was not up to the staff, but was company policy.
Back home in Jerusalem, Rabinowitz attended a public meeting at which Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s Executive Director, spoke about the organisation’s successful campaign to end gender segregation on Israel’s public buses at the demand of the ultra-Orthodox. Since IRAC won a court case on the issue, buses carry prominent notices informing passengers they may sit where they wish.
Anat said they wanted to launch a similar action in the air. Afterwards I told her what had happened to me.
We kept hearing from women, both Israelis and tourists, that they had been asked to move seats on planes. We were looking for a good case to take up, and then Renee walked in. She’s 81, and a Holocaust survivor – and she was humiliated by Israel’s national airline.
Rabinowitz and IRAC are seeking 50,000 shekels (£9,200) in damages and wants EL Al to publish clear staff guidelines:
Concerning their obligation to act in an egalitarian manner, including emphasising to the company’s aircrews that they must defend women’s rights to sit in their allocated seat, and clarifying to flight attendants that they may not acquiesce to requests by passengers wishing to change places purely for reasons of gender.?
IRAC is awaiting El Al’s formal statement of defence, which must be submitted within 30 days of the lawsuit being filed. But in a letter to Rabinowitz’s lawyer, the company insisted there was no gender discrimination on El Al flights.
It said it had investigated the incident, and found that the flight attendant had dealt with Rabinowitz politely and sensitively, making it clear that Rabinowitz was not obliged to move.
As a gesture of goodwill, El Al offered Rabinowitz a $200 (£140) voucher towards her next flight, and, in a statement, the company said it maintained:
The highest levels of equal treatment and respect for all passengers. Our employees in the air, on the ground, in Israel and around the globe do all possible to listen to and provide solutions to the concerns or requests from our customers whatever they might be, including seating requests on the airplane.
The money is not the important issue here, it’s the principle. I’m not generally a crusader. This just happened and it was very disturbing and very demeaning.
Hoffman described El Al’s acquiescence to demands to move women passengers 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.