Photo Credit: Ehud Amiton / TPS
El Al Airlines

by Andrew Friedman

Feminist and civil rights groups in Israel celebrated a High Court of Justice ruling Wednesday prohibiting El Al, Israel’s national airline, from forcing women to change their seats on El Al flights when hareidi-religious Jewish men refuse to sit next to them.

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The court ruled that El Al’s policy of requiring women to move violated the country’s anti-discrimination law and awarded the plaintiff, 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Renee Rabinowitz, NIS 6,500.

Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Committee, the public and legal advocacy branch of the Reform Movement in Israel, welcomed the decision as a victory for Mrs. Rabinowitz and for all Israeli women. The IRAC represented Rabinowitz, herself an Orthodox Jewish woman, throughout the proceedings.

“I am thrilled for our client – El Al offered her all kinds of things to drop the suit, but she refused, because of the principle involved. Mrs. Rabinowitz is herself an Orthodox woman, no a stranger to Judaism. But she feels that there is no place in Jewish religious law preventing unmarried men and women sitting next to one-another in a public setting,” Hoffman told TPS.

Hoffman added that the court gave El Al 45 days to inform employees of the policy change, and six months to provide “frontal instruction” to flight crews instructing them on the new policy.

Some hareidi-religious women also welcomed the ruling. On Facebook and other social media, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women used phrases like “victory for sanity” and “reason to party.”

“It’s about time,” said one hareidi-religious businesswoman who lives in a prominent Israeli haredi town and frequently travels abroad. Speaking anonymously because she feared that speaking to secular media would cause a social backlash in her community, she said it is a “great” ruling that served not only justice, but the hareidi community as well.

“It’s about time,” she said. “As hareidi people we are responsible for our own modesty – if we decide to hold ourselves to higher standards of modesty than others, that’s our business and our decision, not something we can impose on anyone else.

“Aside from the fact that it is far from agreed upon in the hareidi world [that gender separation on buses or airplanes is required by Jewish religious law], the issue has only served to bring haredim into disrepute. When the only contact people have with the Orthodox Jewish world is negative and aggressive, it reflects badly on all of us,” the businesswoman said.

“Let the men move and rearrange themselves if they are so uncomfortable,” said another hareidi woman.

El Al’s lawyers had argued that the policy of accommodating special seating requests was not discriminatory because there are multiple cases where people are asked to move, or request to move.

The airline said its policy cited other reasons for people to request seating reassignments, including to be next to a relative, or to move away from a crying baby.

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