El Al loses case brought by Holocaust survivor asked to move after ultra-orthodox man refused to sit next to her.
As an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor and a former lawyer, Renee Rabinowitz might seem an unlikely figurehead in Israel’s culture wars.
Rabinowitz has been thrust into the spotlight over an issue that has become an increasingly familiar problem for airlines flying in and out of Israel: ultra-orthodox men who refuse to take their seats next to women, demanding changes in seating and sometimes causing delays.
In February, 10 ultra-orthodox passengers stood in the aisles and refused to take their seats, causing a delay on an easyJet flight to the UK before female passengers agreed to move so the flight could leave.
Rabinowitz, who has received scores of emails and phone calls congratulating her on her stand, explained on Thursday how she had come to sue the company, in the process becoming a media celebrity.
“It was 2015. I was flying back from Newark to Tel Aviv,” she explained to the Guardian. “I was seated in business class when after a while a Haredi-looking [ultra-orthodox] gentleman and came and sat down next to me.
“I said hello, and I guess I thought that was the end of it until next thing I knew the flight attendant was talking to him, and they were whispering. I didn’t pay too much attention but thought it was a little strange when the flight attendant said he had a better seat.
“It wasn’t better so I asked why did he suggest moving me. Then I realised he’d done so because the man sitting next to me had requested that I move. I asked him what his problem was and I said I was 81. He started to tell me about about how the Torah prohibits it.
“I was pretty upset but I also didn’t want to sit next to this man who didn’t want me to be there for 11 hours. The thought was not pleasant so I decided to move of my own accord.”
Rabinowitz did not give much thought to what had occurred, she said, until she attended a talk by Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Centre a fortnight later, who discussed their campaign against airlines’ practice of moving women to accommodate ultra-orthodox passengers.
“Afterwards I told her it had just happened to me, just recently, and when she learned it was an El Al flight she asked if i would be willing to sue,” she said.
“I do not think of myself as a feminist,” she said, adding that when she practised as a lawyer she had worked on sexual harassment cases. “But I do think of myself as standing for principles.”
She placed the issue of the ultra-orthodox community and airline seating within a wider context of ultra-orthodox attitudes towards women, and the depiction of women, in Israel’s public spaces, saying she believed this had become more problematic over the years.
“I think it is related to the fact that the ultra-orthodox have a lot of political power so they feel freer to make demands that they don’t make in the US.”
The speed of the judgment, during the preliminary hearings – and after negotiation – has delighted her.
“I’m so happy. And my phone has not stopped ringing. Since yesterday I’ve had more than 100 emails congratulating me,” although she admits when she brought the case not everyone was complimentary.
“Originally, when the suit was brought, some people did not like the idea that I was suing El Al. They said, ‘oh well, she’s just doing it for the money.’”
“I do hope El Al takes this verdict seriously. I look forward to my future flights with El Al, and I hope I could witness a moment in which an ultra-orthodox man says ‘I won’t sit until you move this woman’ and the El Al flight attendant tells him the law prevents her from doing so.”
Welcoming the judgment IRAC, which is linked to the liberal Movement for Reform Judaism, said the court’s decision set a precedent.
“With the implementation of this ruling, a passenger asking to move their seat because of their gender will qualify as discrimination, and as such will be prohibited,” it said in an English-language statement. IRAC said it had approached El Al last year offering to help write guidelines to prevent in-flight gender discrimination, but the offer was turned down leading to the hearing.
Hoffman, IRAC’s executive director, said: “Renee Rabinowitz, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, set out to fight El Al because she wanted to prevent humiliation and discrimination of other women on flights.”
The ruling now requires El Al to define its procedures and explain them to all in-flight staff in writing and through training. El Al was also told to pay Rabinowitz 6,500 shekels (£1,450) in damages. Her lawyer had asked for 50,000 shekels.
Commenting on the ruling, which gives El Al 45 days to change its policies, the airline said: “The sides reached an agreement that the airline’s procedures on the matter would be clarified to its employees. The court validated this agreement and the company will respect the verdict.”