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Israeli court stands up for woman in airline gender seat swap case

JERUSALEM (Reuters) The case against El Al was brought by 83-year-old Renee Rabinowitz, who was asked by a flight attendant, after boarding a flight from Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv in 2015, if she would agree to move.

An El Al Boeing 777 aircraft at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Nir Elias

JERUSALEM (Reuters) A court has told the Israeli airline El Al that it can no longer ask women passengers to switch seats if ultra-Orthodox Jewish men object to sitting next to them, an Israeli advocacy group said.

A case for damages from the carrier was brought by 83-year-old Renee Rabinowitz, who was asked by a flight attendant, after boarding a flight from Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv in 2015, if she would agree to move.

The airline has said it tries to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men, who cite religious beliefs in seeking to avoid close proximity to women other than their wives, but never pressures female passengers to accede to a seat swap request.

Rabinowitz did agree to move to another seat but later sued El Al, arguing she had felt “deep humiliation,” the Israel Religious Center, which represented her, said in a statement on Thursday (June 22).

The group, which is the legal advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, said a Jerusalem court ruled on Wednesday that asking women to change seats at the request of ultra-Orthodox passengers violated anti-discrimination laws.

The court ordered El Al to issue a written directive to its staff that such requests are illegal. It awarded Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor, 6,500 shekels ($1,800) in damages.

“I feel good about the fact that (El Al) will now be required to tell … haredim (ultra-Orthodox men) who want women to move, that they can’t do it, that El Al flight attendants can’t do it,” Rabinowitz said on Israel Radio.

Incidents in which flights on El Al and several non-Israeli airlines have been delayed on the tarmac over the refusal of some ultra-Orthodox men to sit next to women have drawn media attention in recent years.