Israeli airline asked her to change seats – must not offend an Orthodox male

Renee Rabinowitz is a sharp-witted retired lawyer with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, who escaped the Nazis in Europe as a child. Now she is about to become a test case in the battle over religion and gender in Israel’s public spaces — and the skies above — as the plaintiff in a lawsuit accusing El Al, the national airline, of discrimination.

Ms. Rabinowitz was comfortably settled into her aisle seat in the business-class section on El Al Flight 028 from Newark to Tel Aviv in December when, as she put it, “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, like many ultra-Orthodox male passengers, he did not want to sit next to a woman, seeing even inadvertent contact with the opposite sex as verboten under the strictest interpretation of Jewish law. Soon, Ms. Rabinowitz said, a flight attendant offered her a “better” seat, up front, closer to first class.

Reluctantly, Ms. Rabinowitz, an impeccably groomed 81-year-old grandmother who walks with a cane because of bad knees, agreed.

“Despite all my accomplishments — and my age is also an accomplishment — I felt minimized,” she recalled in a recent interview…

Now, a liberal advocacy group that had spent two years searching for a test case on switching seats plans to sue the blue-and-white flag carrier on Ms. Rabinowitz’s behalf in a Tel Aviv court next week.

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

❝ “When did modesty become the sum and end all of being a Jewish woman?” Ms. Rabinowitz asked. Citing examples like the biblical warrior Deborah, the matriarch Sarah and Queen Esther, she noted: “Our heroes in history were not modest little women.”

I have no notion of how Israeli courts will rule. That nation’s relationship with state religion is obviously very different from the United States. As are many other countries with official state religions. There are standards for international commerce and travel and I believe – at a minimum – segregated flight isn’t allowable.

Maybe not.

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