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Israel: El Al Can No Longer Ask Passengers to Change Seats to Accommodate ultra-Orthodox Men, Israeli Court Rules

Tuesday 27 June 2017, by siawi3


El Al Can No Longer Ask Passengers to Change Seats to Accommodate ultra-Orthodox Men, Israeli Court Rules

El Al forced to change its policy and pay damages to Renee Rabinowitz, the 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who filed the suit

Allison Kaplan Sommer

Jun 22, 2017 1:10 PM

Photo: Renee Rabinowitz, a retired lawyer with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, at her home in Jerusalem, Feb. 25, 2016. Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

A new court ruling explicitly forbids flight attendants for Israeli airlines from asking women to switch seats to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men who won’t sit next to them – and has awarded damages to Renee Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor and grandmother who was asked to move to a different seat on a 2015 El Al flight.

“This is one more victory in a long string of legal victories challenging the exclusion of women in the public sphere in Israel,“said Orly Erez-Likhovski, who represented Rabinowitz along with Ricki Shapira of the Israel Religious Action Center.”Trying to condition public service on the basis of gender is illegal and we are working to facilitate change in all of these contexts.” IRAC, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, has been in the front lines of gender exclusion cases involving gender segregation on buses, modesty signs and prayer at the Western Wall.

Rabinowitz, a Jerusalem resident who is now 83, was settling into her business-class seat on El Al flight 028 from Newark to Tel Aviv when a flight attendant asked her to move to another seat, also in business class, to accommodate an ultra-Orthodox man who did not want to sit next to a woman.

An El Al Airlines aircraft at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv.
An El Al Airlines aircraft at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv. NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

Rabinowitz agreed, but later, feeling that she had been insulted by the request, decided to go to court to challenge the policy.

She told The New York Times, that first reported the story, she was “exhilarated” when she learned of the ruling during a Bible study class at her assisted-living facility. “I’m thrilled because the judge understood the issue,” she said, praising Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Dana Cohen-Lekach, who handed down the decision.

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“She 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.”

El Al argued in court that its policies and the actions of its employees should not be considered discrimination and that accommodating gender-based seating preferences applied to both men and women. The airline said that flight attendants should be able to assist with such preferences as they do in cases where family members who want to sit together or passengers are disturbed by small children.

When Rabinowitz filed the suit, a company spokeswoman, Dana Hermann, said in a statement that “EL AL Israel Airlines maintains the highest levels of equal treatment and respect for all passengers.” She added, “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.”

There have been numerous instances of flights not being able to take off on time in recent years due to ultra-Orthodox men’s refusal to sit next to women, particularly on El Al. Public pressure on the company proved unsuccessful: A 2014 grassroots campaign, including an online petition signed by several thousand people, was unable to spark change. At the time, El Al told Haaretz that it dealt with each case individually, had no official policy for dealing with the issue and no intention of putting one into place.

Erez-Likhovski said the ruling still allowed men (or women) who didn’t want to sit next to members of the opposite sex for religious reasons to switch to vacant seats or ask other passengers to switch with them – if they made such requests themselves. But she said that the decision made clear that it was illegal for any airline employee to ask a passenger to switch seats in order to accommodate others’ gender preferences.

The language of the court document did not specify whether flight attendants can ask other passengers whether they would be willing to switch seats with the person who does not want to sit next to a woman.

It reads: “In no situation may a crew member ask a passenger to move out of their assigned seat when the adjacent passenger won’t sit beside them because of their gender.”

However, Erez-Likhovski said she believes the language expressly forbids flight attendants from taking the lead in asking any passenger to switch seats to accommodate gender preferences, including requesting that secular people switch seats with the ultra-Orthodox passenger who does not want to sit next to a woman.

“They can’t ask any passengers to move seats for that reason,” she said.

The court decision gave legal weight to the terms of the settlement agreed on by the two parties after negotiation. Rabinowitz had initially asked for 50,000 NIS (around $14,000) in damages and was ultimately awarded only 6,500. The court also required El Al to communicate its policy in writing and train its staff on how to properly abide by it within the next six months.

“It was very important was that El Al pay damages to our plaintiff, to make it very clear that what they did to her was illegal, and we are very happy that this was done,” Erez-Likhovski said. “It is a very important decision, and I think it will change what El Al and other airlines do in the future. Of course, we are going to monitor it very closely and make sure it really happens.”

She said if anyone is asked to move seats for reasons of gender, “they have to tell the flight attendant it is illegal,” and if pressure persists, “they should contact us.”

In a response, El Al said that “The two sides came to an agreement in which [El Al] policies will be clarified to its employees. The court gave legal standing to that agreement and the company will abide by the ruling.”



El Al Hit by Gender-discrimination Suit Over ultra-Orthodox Seating on Planes

Photo: Renee Rabinowitz, 81, is suing the airline after being asked by a flight attendant to move to another seat when an ultra-Orthodox man refused to sit next to her.

Haaretz, Nir Hasson and Rina Rozenberg

Feb 27, 2016 6:50 PM

An 81-year-old lawyer and refugee from the Nazis is suing El Al Airlines for discrimination after she was moved from her seat to make way for an ultra-Orthodox man on a flight from the U.S. to Israel, The New York Times reports.

The suit, mounted on behalf of Renee Rabinowitz by the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, is due to be heard by a Tel Aviv court next week.

Rabinowitz’s case is likely to “become a test case in the battle over religion and gender in Israel’s public spaces — and the skies above,” the newspaper reported.

Rabinowitz told The New York Times that she was already seated in a business-class aisle seat of an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv in December when, “this rather distinguished-looking man in Hasidic or Haredi garb, I’d guess around 50 or so, shows up.”

The man was assigned the window seat in her row, but did not want to sit next to a woman. A flight attendant offered Rabinowitz what he said was a “better” seat in a row closer to first class.

She asked the flight attendant if he was suggesting the switch because the man next to her wanted her to move, she said, “and he said ‘yes’ without any hesitation.”

“I asked the other passenger what the problem was and he said it was in the Torah. I said that I know a bit about the Torah and there’s nothing in it about sitting next to a woman. Then he said that we shouldn’t put ourselves in difficult positions. I needed to decide whether to give in or sit down. But it’s a long flight and I didn’t want to sit 11 hours next to someone who was feeling uncomfortable. So I moved.”

At the end of the flight, she said, she spoke with the pilot who acknowledged that it was El Al policy to meet the demands of Haredi passengers.

“Despite all my accomplishments — and my age is also an accomplishment — I felt minimized,” she told the Times in an interview. “For me this is not personal. It is intellectual, ideological and legal. I think to myself, here I am, an older woman, educated, I’ve been around the world, and some guy can decide that I shouldn’t sit next to him. Why?”

Rabinowitz, who also holds a PhD in educational education, moved to the other seat but decided to test the legality of El Al’s actions in court.

“We needed a case of a flight attendant being actively involved,” explained Israel Religious Action Center director Anat Hoffman, “to show that El Al has internalized the commandment, ‘I cannot sit next to a woman.’”

According to Hoffman, El Al is not the only airline that gives in to the demands of Haredi passengers that they not be seated next to women.

“We have been collecting such stories for almost two years,” she said. “It is always accompanied by peer pressure, with other passengers shouting ’Nu, move. What do you care?’ In this specific case, we see that it is company policy. It’s always justy before takeoff and there’s a lot of pressure to get everyone seated.”

An El Al spokeswoman said in a statement that “any discrimination between passengers is strictly prohibited.”

“El Al flight attendants are on the front line of providing service for the company’s varied array of passengers,” the statement said. “In the cabin, the attendants receive different and varied requests and they try to assist as much as possible, the goal being to have the plane take off on time and for all the passengers to arrive at their destination as scheduled.”

Before turning to the court, a lawyer from Israel Religious Action Center wrote a letter to El Al, saying that Rabinowitz had felt pressured by the attendant and accusing El Al of illegal discrimination. A request not to be seated next to a woman differed from other requests to move, say, to sit near a relative or a friend, the lawyer wrote, because it was by nature degrading. The letter demanded 50,000 shekels ($13,000) in compensation for Rabinowitz.

El Al countered with an offer of a $200 discount on Rabinowitz’s next El Al flight, arguing that the flight attendant had made it clear to Rabinowitz that she was in no way obligated to move, and that she had changed seats without argument.

“Ms. Renee Rabinowitz was politely and sensitively asked if she wished to move to a different seat that was considered better,” said the company. “She was informed that she was not at all bound to move to an alternative seat if she wanted to stay in her seat, as is her right.”El Al maintains equal treatment for all travelers and passengers. Our crews, in the air and on the ground, in Israel and across the world, are instructed and do their best to listen to and grant the special requests of our customers on a variety of issues, including requests regarding seating changes on the plane."

A 2011 ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice made it illegal to require women to sit in the back of a bus. All gender-specific seating must be voluntary, it ruled. Two years later, Israel’s attorney general issued guidelines calling on government ministries and public agencies to end all manifestations of gender segregation in the public sphere.

In a related incident last week, an ultra-Orthodox man broke TV screens on an El Al flight from Warsaw to Tel Aviv to protest the screening of “Truth,” starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford — a movie he deemed immodest.