Thanks to several readers, staring with Greg Mayer, for sending me a link to this story from yesterday’s New York Times. It involves, as we’ve seen several times before, an Orthodox Jew refusing to sit next to a woman on an airplane, for that might lead, G*d forbid, to touching, which is forbidden (see the religious explanation here, which is based not on pollution but sexuality).
The twist on this story is that it is about a Jewish woman, retired psychologist Renee Rabinowitz, 81, suing an Israeli airline, El Al, for sex discrimination: being removed from her seat next to an Orthodox Jewish man. The complainant:
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 in her elegantly appointed apartment in a fashionable neighborhood of Jerusalem.
“For me this is not personal,” Ms. Rabinowitz added. “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?”
This phenomenon is increasingly frequent (see this article in last year’s Times). And now for the first time, the Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) is suing El Al airlines for sex discrimination. The airline denies discrimination, but uses weasel words:
“We needed a case of a flight attendant being actively involved,” explained the group’s [IRAC’s] director, Anat Hoffman, “to show that El Al has internalized the commandment, ‘I cannot sit next to a woman.’ ”
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.”
Translation: we need to cater to the sexist request of male Orthodox Jews because they’ll delay the plane if their requests are denied.
The question, then, is whether Ms. Rabinowitz was forcibly moved, against her will, and whether she was clearly told why the move was taking place. According to Rabinowitz, the move was not completely voluntary, though the reason was given—but only when she asked. (I love her comment at the beginning of the second paragraph):
By her account, the flight attendant had a brief conversation in Hebrew with her ultra-Orthodox seatmate-to-be, which she could not understand, then persuaded Ms. Rabinowitz to come and see the “better” seat, at the end of a row of three.
“There were two women seated there,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oy, if they are going to talk all night I am not going to be happy.’” 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.”
. . . Still, Ms. Rabinowitz said she felt further insulted because the attendant had tried to mislead her.
And so Rabinowitz sued:
A lawyer for the religious action group wrote a letter to El Al last month saying that Ms. Rabinowitz had felt pressured by the attendant and accusing El Al of illegal discrimination. It argued that 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, because it was by nature degrading. The lawyer demanded 50,000 shekels, about $13,000, in compensation for Ms. Rabinowitz.
The airline offered, instead, a $200 discount on Ms. Rabinowitz’s next El Al flight. It insisted that there was no gender discrimination on El Al flights, that the flight attendant had made it clear to Ms. Rabinowitz that she was in no way obligated to move, and that she had changed seats without argument.
I suppose, then, that the case turns on whether Rabinowitz was indeed told that she could stay in her seat, and whether she was clearly given (without asking) the reason she was being asked to move. Still, although requests to changes seats are made all the time so that family members or friends can sit together, to me this falls into a different class: it is catering to religious sentiments and is discriminatory against a class of people.
If anybody should have been asked to move, it would be the man, but presumably there were no seats available that weren’t (G*d forbid) next to women. I am on the fence about whether such requests should even be made by El Al flight attendants, but in general think not. Would a flight attendant cater to a racist by asking a black person to move because the white person didn’t want to sit next to him? I suppose requests for voluntary movement are legal, but when those are based on sexism or bigotry, perhaps they should be banned, or the complainer told to move.
At any rate, I like Rabinowitz’s attitude, which shows the idiocy of Orthodox Jewish law.
Ms. Rabinowitz has since had time to ponder. She said her son told her that “this whole idea that you cannot sit next to a woman is bogus.” She cited an eminent Orthodox scholar, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who counseled that it was acceptable for a Jewish man to sit next to a woman on a subway or a bus so long as there was no intention to seek sexual pleasure from any incidental contact.
“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.”
It’s time for Orthodox males to suck it up and stop being asses. Inadvertent touching of a woman sitting next to you is under no circumstances a sexual act, and almost certainly not the precursor to one. The religious principle of “no touching” is not supportable when it inconveniences someone in a public situation, and in so doing discriminating against half of humanity.
Weigh in below: should El Al even try to accommodate such requests?