Airline cannot ask women to move seats for haredi Orthodox men, Israeli judge rules


JERUSALEM (JTA) — El Al airlines cannot ask women to move seats to accommodate a man who does not want to sit next to a woman, a Jerusalem court found in response to a lawsuit filed by a Holocaust survivor in her 80s.

In a decision handed down Wednesday, Jerusalem Magistrate Court Judge Dana Cohen-Lekah said the airline’s policy of asking a woman to give up her seat at the request of a haredi Orthodox man is “a direct transgression of the law preventing discrimination.”

Women who are asked to move their seats are not required to do so.

Renee Rabinowitz, 83, a retired lawyer who made aliyah more than a decade ago and had been visiting family in the United States, agreed to switch her seat in business class on a December 2015 flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Israel. A flight attendant offered Rabinowitz a “better seat” closer to first class.

The flight attendant “treated me as if I was stupid,” she told The New York Times at the time the lawsuit was filed. The airline had offered Rabinowitz a $200 discount on her next El Al flight and told her she was under no obligation to make the switch.

The judge awarded Rabinowitz 6,500 shekels, or about $1,800, in compensation. Her lawyer originally asked for 50,000 shekels, or about $14,000.

Cohen-Lekah also ruled that the airline must declare 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 on how to deal with such situations within six months, according to The New York Times.

El Al had denied it discriminated against women, noting its policies on changing seats applied equally to men, The New York Times reported. Also, the airline said the principle of taking religious sensibilities into consideration has been defended and recognized in Israeli courts.

Rabinowitz was represented by the Israel Religious Action Center, or IRAC, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, which had been looking for a test case in which the flight attendant was actively involved in the request to switch seats.

Anat Hoffman, the executive director of IRAC, said in a statement that Rabinowitz set out to fight El Al “because she wanted to prevent humiliation and discrimination of other women on flights.”

“Just like Gal Gadot, Rabinowitz is a beautiful Israeli who has proven that she has superpowers,” Hoffman said.

Haredi men who say they are forbidden from sitting next to a woman have caused airlines to delay flights.

Recommended from JTA