Holocaust survivor sues El Al for gender discrimination

Renee Rabinowitz, 81, was asked to move seats on a Newark-Tel Aviv flight because an ultra-Orthodox man refused to sit beside her

File: Planes sit on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv, on August 21, 2014. (AFP/Jack Guez)
File: Planes sit on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv, on August 21, 2014. (AFP/Jack Guez)

A Holocaust survivor is suing El Al, Israel’s national airline, for discrimination after a flight attendant asked her to move seats on a flight in December because an ultra-Orthodox man refused to sit next to her.

Renee Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old resident of Jerusalem who fled the Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1941, told The New York Times in an interview published this week that an ultra-Orthodox passenger on her flight from Newark to Tel Aviv in December didn’t want to sit beside a woman. A flight attendant offered her a different seat in the business class section to accommodate the man’s religious beliefs.

“For me this is not personal,” Rabinowitz told The New York Times. “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?”

The Israel Religious Action Center is using her case as part of a lawsuit against El Al. It’s part of a larger battle between women’s rights and religious pluralism activists in Israel against religiously observant men refusing to sit next to women on planes and buses.

“We needed a case of a flight attendant being actively involved,” IRAC director Anat Hoffman told the paper, “to show that El Al has internalized the commandment, ‘I cannot sit next to a woman.’”

El Al responded in a statement that all discrimination against passengers is prohibited and that it attendants “are on the front line of providing service for the company’s varied array of passengers.”

“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 company told the paper.

IRAC’s lawyer demanded NIS 50,000 ($13,000) in compensation from El Al for Rabinowitz, arguing she was pressured into moving and that it was degrading. El Al offered $200 off Rabinowitz’s next flight, insisting the flight attendant made it clear she wasn’t obliged to move.

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