Ultra-Orthodox Airlines: Why Did SHE Have to Move?

April 5, 2016

Last week, in Israel, Renee Rabinowitz, with the support of the Israeli Religious Action Center, launched a lawsuit against the Israeli national airline, El Al. Ms. Rabinowitz had boarded her flight from JFK to Tel Aviv, and taken her seat in Business Class, when the ultra-Orthodox man seated next to her started to complain. His complaint was that his religious beliefs would be infringed by spending 11 hours sitting next to someone of a different gender. So the airline, in order to accommodate his preferences, asked Ms. Rabinowitz to change seats. Despite her preference not to move, in order to allow the plane to take off, she conceded. But the experience was upsetting enough for her to now sue the airline.

Speaking as a lawyer, Ms. Rabinowitz is what we call the perfect plaintiff, one that no defendant would want to see in front of a jury. She’s 81 years old, and looks like a kindly grandmother. She walks with a cane. She’s a retired lawyer, and a religious woman herself, attending synagogue and keeping kosher. And she’s a reminder of the horrific costs of anti-Semitism, having fled been compelled by the threat of the Nazis to flee her Belgian home in 1941.

This isn’t an isolated event. This scene is being played out repeatedly at multiple airports, and on multiple airlines. Men complain based on religious beliefs, and women are forced to move. When men are denied this “accommodation” they have protested, stood in the aisles, and refused to allow the plane to take off. So the airlines have kowtowed to their demands, and the men have gotten their way. The offending and offensive woman has been taken elsewhere in the plane, where, presumably, she should be grateful that she can sit without having curtains drawn around her.

Beyond even the ridiculous notion that sitting next to a woman on a flight, be she 18 or 81, should somehow tempt you into sin, there’s what is to me a stunning problem in this story. HE had the problem with his seat assignment, yet the airline’s policy was to ask HER to move to a different seat. If it’s his problem, if he is seeking the special treatment, why shouldn’t he be the one to move? Yet the default solution is that where a man is unhappy with the actions (or existence) of a woman, it should be up to the woman to change. The problem is no longer his irrational fear of sitting next to her, it is her very existence in a seat next to him.

The airline has multiple choices in this situation. It could, at the very least, require the adjustment to be made by the complaining male passenger. It could (and should) require any seat requests to be made in advance of boarding, when the ticket is purchased. That way a woman is not publicly accused of being unclean, and unfit to share a row of seats with a pious man. An airline could require that if a person wishes to ensure they are not sat next to a woman, that they purchase two seats. It could announce that they will not honor demands from passengers to control who is in the seat next to them, and if a passenger wishes to fly without the distracting accompaniment of women, they should book a private jet. But El Al, and other airlines do none of these. They bow to the pressure, and they require women to bear the burden, and to make the change

The airlines concerned aren’t the only villains of this story. The United States government regulates air travel and airports in this country. It strikes me as inconceivable that an airline would be permitted to operate in the United States if it treated people of color in this fashion – if a white passenger was allowed to complain that he didn’t feel like sitting next to a black person, and that the airline should move the black person to a different part of the plane. For that reason, on behalf of CFI, I wrote today to Michael Huerta of the Federal Aviation Administration, asking what the policy of the government is on this issue, and how women’s rights to respect and equal treatment can be protected in U.S. airports. You can find the text of the letter here. I’ll let you know what response I get.