An El Al flight from New York to Israel this week was delayed for over an hour due to the refusal by a number of ultra-Orthodox men to sit next to women, a passenger said.
Khen Rotem, who was on the flight, said passengers were taking their seats on the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport when four ultra-Orthodox men boarded and refused to take their seats, as they were next to women, causing the protracted delay. (Another passenger later reportedly offered a very different narrative, saying the plane was already delayed for unrelated reasons, and that the behavior of the ultra-Orthodox men added only a few minutes’ further delay.)
One of the ultra-Orthodox men, Rhotem said, was “particularly devout and ascetic,” having got on the plane with his eyes closed and keeping them shut for the duration of the flight in an apparent effort to avoid looking at any woman on board.
“The crew tries to solve the problem. This doesn’t work. The female flight attendants clear space for the authoritative men on board… the ultra-Orthodox are not ready to speak with, or even look at the female flight attendants,” wrote Rotem in a Facebook post Friday.
“All the men in the crew, except for the captain, are now only dealing with this instead of preparing for takeoff and serving the passengers. The ultra-Orthodox don’t blink. One of the crew members threatens: ‘If you don’t sit down, you can get off the plane right now,'” added Rotem.
Despite the threat, the crew eventually gave in after a prolonged argument, “beginning the long diplomatic process of moving female passengers from their places.”
Eventually, “after a lot of writhing, shouts and maneuvering,” an elderly American women and a young Israeli woman agreed to switch seats, allowing the flight to proceed for takeoff.
Rotem noted that other yarmulke-clad men aboard expressed “surprise and revulsion” at the four ultra-Orthodox men’s conduct.
“The bottom line: At the time the El-Al plane was dealing with matters of practical theology and personal belief against individual rights and civil order, 12 planes from other companies cut ahead of the [El-Al] plane,” he wrote, saying the delay lasted 75 minutes.
Rotem called on El Al to clarify whether the airliner has an official policy on the issue.
“Can any traveler demand — and receive — moving other passengers from their places for their personal well-being and in accordance with their beliefs. Or is this a privilege reserved only for a segment of travelers,” he wrote.
El Al, Israel’s national carrier, later apologized for any “inconvenience” that was caused.
“Any discrimination against passengers is absolutely forbidden. El Al flight attendants do all they can in order to provide service to a wide variety of passengers with different and diverse requests and try to assist to the best of their ability,” Hadashot TV news quoted the company as saying.
“All this in order to take off on time and bring the passengers to their destination on schedule,” it added.
El Al has been known to regularly ask passengers to move seats at the request — and sometimes the demand — of ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to sit next to women.
Last year, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that El Al cannot force women to change seats at the request of ultra-Orthodox men. The court agreed with Israel Religious Action Center, which brought the suit, in ruling the practice was illegal and discriminatory.
JTA contributed to this report.