Dr. Renee Rabinowitz, an eighty-one-year-old grandmother, is suing El Al, the Israeli national airline, for sexual discrimination. December 2, 2015, Dr. Rabinowitz, a retired attorney, was on El Al Flight 028, waiting for the plane to take off from Newark, NJ for its trip to Tel Aviv, Israel. She was seated in the aisle seat. Another passenger, whom Dr. Rabinowitz described in the New York Times as a “rather distinguished-looking man in Hasidic or Haredi garb, I’d guess around 50 or so.” Unwilling to sit next to a woman, he summoned a flight attendant and had a brief conversation with him in Hebrew. The flight attendant then urged Dr. Rabinowitz to move to a better seat, even escorting her up to see this “better” seat. Dr. Rabinowitz agreed reluctantly. She thought at the time, and still thinks, that El Al and the Haredi passenger were discriminating against her because of her gender. She is suing El Al.
Judaism, like any religion, has several denominations and sects. The Haredi are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Haredi men refuse to sit next to women on public transport, other than close relatives, lest they be tempted. Like the Wahhabi Muslims and the Christian Dominionists, Haredi men regard immodestly clothed women as a temptation, and have a stricter definition of modesty than most people.
Dr. Rabinowitz is herself Jewish. Both her husbands (she is a widow) were rabbis. Her family fled Belgium during the Nazi occupation in WWII. As a child, she attended an Orthodox Jewish school in New York. One of her grandchildren is Haredi. She is a lawyer with a Ph. D. in educational psychology, is well-educated, and well-traveled.
Despite all my accomplishments—and my age is also an accomplishment—I felt minimized.
This is far from the first time that Haredi passengers have refused to sit next to female passengers on airlines. As The Inquisitr,Tablet, the Huffington Post, the Independent, Haaretz, and several other websites, newspapers, and magazines have reported, Haredi men have delayed flights because they refuse to sit next to women. There have been reports of harassment, bullying, and bribes to get women to change seats.
Anat Hoffman is director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. The Israel Religious Action Center has fought other cases of sexual discrimination on public transportation. Ms. Hoffman is assisting Dr. Rabinowitz with her lawsuit. The Israel Religious Action Center has been searching for a test case on switching seats to accommodate Haredi passengers for the past two years, and when Ms. Hoffman learned that a flight attendant had asked Dr. Rabinowitz to move rather than a fellow passenger, she knew that they had a case with a strong chance of winning.
“We needed a case of a flight attendant being actively involved to show that El Al has internalized the commandment, ‘I cannot sit next to a woman.’ “
The Israel Religious Action Center will be suing El Al for sexual discrimination on Dr. Rabinowitz’s behalf in a Tel Aviv court next week. It’s the 21st century CE — the year 5776 by the Hebrew calendar — an era when most people think sexual discrimination should be a thing of the past.
El Al’s official policy is that “any discrimination between passengers is strictly prohibited.” The airline is trying to find a balance between the religious sensibilities of Haredi passengers and the legal rights of women. Rabbi Iris Richman warned in the Times of Israel that El Al’s unofficial policies may be in violation of U. S. law.
Dr. Rabinowitz pointed out that not all Jewish scholars regard sharing seats on a bus or a plane with someone of the opposite sex sinful. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the 20th century CE, said it was permissible for men and women to sit next to each other on buses. Dr. Rabinowitz cited the Biblical examples of Deborah, Sarah, and Esther, asking “When did modesty become the sum and end all of being a Jewish woman?” Any student of history could add other examples: Doña Gracia Mendes, Henrietta Szold, Lillian Wald, Emma Goldman, Golda Meir.
“Our heroes in history were not modest little women,” Dr. Renee Rabinowitz told the New York Times.
[Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images]