In a growing trend, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have been causing disruption on flights by refusing to be seated next to women.
They believe that even unintentional contact with a member of the opposite sex could be immodest.
On Wednesday, an Israeli court has ruled that a national airline’s policy of accommodating that religious concern is illegal — thanks to an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who sued for sexism.
It’s an important ruling on a controversial issue. The idea that men can’t sit next to women who aren’t their wives has sparked outrage on social media, along with protest groups, petitions and a mock safety video from a Jewish site that suggests a “kosher” full-body vest will protect men from any seat mate with ovaries.
Renee Rabinowitz, the plaintiff, was seated on a flight bound for Tel Aviv when an Orthodox man arrived in the aisle in which she sat. Seeing her, the man complained to the flight attendant, who then asked Rabinowitz (not the man) to move.
Rabinowitz complied, but then brought the issue to court with the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), a liberal advocacy group.
“I’m thrilled because the judge understood the issue,” she said of the verdict. “[The judge] realized it is not a question of money; they awarded a very small sum. She realized it’s a matter of El Al changing its policy, which they have been ordered to do.”
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El Al, Israel’s national airline, argued that they always try to accommodate seating preferences, like when a passenger wants an aisle seat or doesn’t want to sit next to a baby.
Their defense said the airline would happily move a woman who didn’t want to sit next to a man, so the policy can’t be sexist.
The judge disagreed — ruling that asking a passenger to switch seats solely based on their gender is discriminatory.
The airline must now alert its staff of the policy change and provide training for flight attendants on how to manage these situations.
Rabinowitz was only awarded 6,500 shekels — about $1,800. Her lawyer had originally asked for the equivalent of about $15,000.
Still, Rabinowitz wasn’t in it for the money.
“This is a common story; it happens to many,” Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s director, told The New York Times. She compared Rabinowitz to the Israeli actress who recently starred in the Wonder Woman movie. “Like Gal Gadot, Renee has superpowers.”
Though limited interaction between the sexes has always been a tenet of Orthodox Judaism, confrontations regarding the practice have become more frequent as the religion’s practitioners gain confidence in asserting their beliefs.
“The ultra-Orthodox have increasingly seen gender separation as a kind of litmus test of Orthodoxy — it wasn’t always that way, but it has become that way,” Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College, told the Times. “There is an ongoing culture war between these people and the rest of the modern world, and because the modern world has increasingly sought to become gender neutral, that has added to the desire to say, ‘We’re not like that.’”
It’s a dilemma that more and more people face in an increasingly intermixed world: how do I respect your values while sticking up for my own?