Many ultra-Orthodox men see contact with woman as forbidden under a strict interpretation of Jewish law. An 81-year-old retired lawyer whose family came to Israel after fleeing the Nazis during the Second World War is suing Israel’s national airline after staff moved her to another seat because an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man refused to sit next to her.
Staff on the flight asked Ms Rabinowitz to move, saying they would find her a “better” seat closer to first class and, although she thought the request was sexist, she agreed.
“Despite all my accomplishments – and my age is also an accomplishment – I felt minimized,” she said in an interview with the New York Times.
“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?”
A statement from El Al defended its staff, pointing out they are on the “front line” dealing with a wide variety of passengers with different beliefs and requirements.
“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,” the airline said.
Now the Israel Religious Action Centre, which has fought similar cases against Israeli bus companies and the transport ministry, has picked up Ms Rabinowitz’s case, arguing that she was discriminated against.
Campaigners say there is a growing trend of ultra-Orthodox men refusing to sit next to women on aeroplanes, and there have been several instances of flight delays over the issue.
In 2014 the author and sociologist Elana Sztokman chronicled her experience of having an ultra-Orthodox man refuse to sit next to her on a flight to Israel.
She notes her experience was particularly galling as she was returning home from promoting her book The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.
Many ultra-Orthodox men see contact with woman as forbidden under a strict