Inside story

Reporter’s United flight discrimination claim intensifies gender segregation debate

Journalist’s assertion she was asked to move seats so Haredi men wouldn’t have to sit next to her, and shouted at for refusing, comes as issues of gender equality return to fore

Illustrative: Secular Israelis board a gender-segregated bus where women sit in the back of the bus, and men in the front. The secular women sat among ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in the front, as part of a protest against the exclusion of women in the public sphere, January 1, 2012. (Miriam Alster / Flash90)
Illustrative: Secular Israelis board a gender-segregated bus where women sit in the back of the bus, and men in the front. The secular women sat among ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in the front, as part of a protest against the exclusion of women in the public sphere, January 1, 2012. (Miriam Alster / Flash90)

JTA – An Israeli reporter is claiming that she was the victim of discrimination by ultra-Orthodox men on a recent United Airlines flight to Newark — and that the Israeli flight attendant had sided with the men over her.

Neria Kraus’s account ricocheted across the internet while her plane was still in the air. Competing accounts of what transpired and why soon emerged, with other passengers claiming the reporter’s gender was never an issue and arguing that she had jumped to a conclusion based on a man’s religious head covering.

What’s clear is that Kraus, a US correspondent for the Israeli TV network Channel 13, has initiated a new episode in a longstanding tension between religious and secular Jews at a time when issues of gender segregation are returning to the fore in Israel.

The situation erupted on Tuesday, when Kraus tweeted while onboard a United flight from Tel Aviv to Newark that ultra-Orthodox men had tried to pressure her to move seats and that when she refused a female flight attendant “shouted at me that the flight will not take off” if she did not comply.

“I was told the flight might touch down in Egypt and it would be my fault,” Kraus wrote as she posted a video of her arguing with passengers and crew. “What a humiliating event for me as a woman.” Kraus refused to move and the flight departed on time.

The account and subsequent social media frenzy came at a delicate moment, as incidents of sex segregation in public accommodations within Israel, usually illegal, have magnified concerns about the right-wing government’s concessions to religious parties representing communities where sex segregation is the norm.

The country’s growing and politically powerful Haredi contingent enforces strict gender segregation within its own communities, and their political influence has extended to contested gender and modesty norms in other spaces including the Western Wall, public buses, beaches, college classes and trains.

Israel’s top court has typically ruled against gender segregation in public settings. But in recent months, as Israel’s right-wing governing coalition, which includes two Haredi parties and few women lawmakers, has pressed forward with legislation that would sap the judiciary’s power, the country’s press has been rife with reports of activities that flout the law. One Orthodox municipality plans to hold a gender-segregated public concert despite three legal rulings against it; another community adopted sex-segregated swimming hours at a public spring. Multiple women say they have faced discrimination on public buses because of what they were wearing.

“You live in a Jewish state and you should respect the people living here,” a driver told teenage girls as he ordered them to the back of a bus in one incident, according to a video obtained by Israeli news outlets, adding, “When you get on a bus where there are religious and ultra-Orthodox people who respect your way of life, you should respect theirs.” An Israeli protest group that has frequently staged demonstrations wearing outfits from “The Handmaid’s Tale” filed an incitement complaint over the incident.

United is not an Israeli company, and it is not bound by Israeli laws. Still, the incident on the flight filled with Israeli and US Jews triggered associations with the contemporary climate in Israeli, Kraus told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Neria Kraus, Channel 13 US correspondent. (YouTube screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“There have been a few events in the past days or weeks of trying to tell women to sit on the back of the bus, or not allowing women to get on a bus. So I think this is a situation in Israeli society that Israelis really care about,” Kraus said. “I didn’t think that it would get so much exposure, but it did, and a lot of women are writing me, ‘Thank you for talking in our names.’”

The long-term takeaways from the incident involving Kraus remain as uncertain as what actually happened on the plane.

As attention to the incident grew, competing accounts emerged. A “guerrilla” journalist in New York, Daniel Amram, published an interview late Tuesday with Nigel, a Brooklyn man who appears in Kraus’s initial photo and claimed to have been the person who first asked her to change seats. Nigel, who wears a kippah but not any other signifiers of Haredi identity, said he had asked her to move only so that his son and his friend could sit next to each other. He told Amram that he dropped the request when she refused.

“I said, ‘Do you mind switching? It’s the same aisle seat,’” the man recalled. After he removed his cap to reveal his kippah, he told Amram, “She started screaming, ‘It’s because I’m a woman, you want me to move. She started screaming, ‘Discrimination, discrimination!”’

The man further claimed that the flight attendant had threatened to cancel the flight after hearing Kraus allege discrimination. The Orthodox travel site DansDeals also spoke to Nigel and claimed Kraus had exaggerated her account of the flight.

The next day, Kraus continued to defend her interpretation of events, tweeting an interview with a man who she claimed was a fellow flight attendant on the plane. In the video, the man indicated that he concurred that the seating request had been an act of discrimination.

“You have a problem sitting next to a female, you should take a different flight — go fly El Al, we don’t care,” he told the man, referencing the Israeli airline sued for acquiescing to Haredi men’s demands to move women away from them and ordered by an Israeli judge to stop.

“Everything I said is true. Everything else is lies,” Kraus tweeted. However, the man in the video does not address Kraus’s allegation that the United flight attendant “started yelling at me.”

Kraus told JTA that she still believes she had been asked to move because the men did not want to sit next to a woman and disputed details of Nigel’s account. At the same time, she walked back her criticism of the flight attendant, saying, “I don’t want to see anyone losing their jobs because of this.”

United’s response was as muddied as anyone else’s. The plane was still in the air when the company issued a non-committal statement to JTA: “We offered the customer another seat — which was declined — the flight departed for New York/Newark and is expected to arrive on time.”

Thirty minutes later, United publicly tweeted an apology to Kraus, writing, “We deeply apologize for this interaction and would like to look into this further.” Kraus also told JTA the flight attendants had apologized to her during the flight.

She told JTA that she did not want to speculate about why her story went so viral. But she acknowledged that sex segregation has been in the news in Israel. “People really care about it,” she said. “I think this is the issue.”

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