An ultra-Orthodox Knesset member has threatened El Al with a consumer boycott should the airline remove ultra-Orthodox passengers unwilling to sit next to women from its flights, characterizing criticism of such passengers as “anti-Semitic” and “terrorism.”
An El Al flight from New York to Israel last week was delayed for over an hour amidst intense arguments, as a number of ultra-Orthodox men refused to sit next to women. The flight was only able to depart after two women agreed to change seats.
Following the incident and in light of intense public backlash, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin said that in the future, any passenger who refuses seating “will be immediately removed from the flight.”
United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler pushed back against the notion that the men’s behavior on the flight was illegitimate, saying Wednesday in the Knesset plenum that claims the women were in any way humiliated or excluded were “malicious… anti-Semitic libel.”
Eichler asserted, “Never has anyone been forced to move against their wishes.
“In any airline, and in El Al as well, there are various requests to change seats… Each person has his considerations over where to sit. But to say women are being excluded is a lie,” he said. “After all, just as there are men who do not want to be seated beside women there is an equal number of Haredi women who do not want to sit beside men.”
Eichler went on to threaten El Al with a massive boycott by his constituents should it make good on its vow.
“El Al shuttles hundreds of thousands of Haredi Jews every year,” he said. “The last thing I expect them to do is remove passengers who ask to change seats. I’m telling El Al that if you give in to the terrorism of Haredi-hating groups and remove a passenger who behaved properly and asked nicely to sit next to a man, we will remove hundreds of thousands of your passengers every year. Terror against terror.”
Eichler went on to claim that flight attendants, often helpful in arranging new seating, were being intimidated into refusing such requests in a campaign of “fear-mongering and incitement.”
Khen Rotem, who was on the flight last week, said passengers were being seated 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.
One of them, he 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.
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.