Airline travel is difficult enough without passengers making a scene. But that’s what occurred on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv just before Rosh Hashanah, when a number of haredi men went so far as to try to pay other passengers so they would not have to sit next to women and refused to leave the aisles when they could not switch seats. This behavior not only publicly shamed the women involved, it reflected the arrogance of these men, who apparently felt that their particular “need” trumped that of all the other passengers.
The story grabbed media attention in part because it involved haredim, who are exotic to some. But this story is really about prejudice against an entire class of people. It would be equally offensive if passengers tried to pay others to keep from having to sit next to African-Americans or Orthodox Jews.
According to at least one commentator, the incident also raises the question of whether the airline was abetting the men. Writing last week, attorney Rabbi Iris Richman cited a federal law, 49 U.S. Code § 40127, that states, “An air carrier or foreign air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry.” Is that what El Al was doing?
Nevertheless, an online petition started by Sharon Shapiro, a Chicago-based blogger and Orthodox Jew, called on El Al to “stop the bullying, intimidation and discrimination against women on [its] flights!” Within days, her petition garnered more than 3,000 signatures. Among Shapiro’s suggestions for fixing the problem was to let those who want gender separation request a seat behind a mechitza, or divider, at the back of the plane.
We are not sure whether Shapiro was being flippant. But it is unreasonable to assume that people won’t mix on crowded transportation. Just as haredi men have no right to insist that women be excluded from crowded rush-hour subways, they have no right to redirect other passengers from their assigned seats on an airline.
We do not see this as a choice between the rights of woman passengers and a haredi man’s religious needs. Other than the length of travel time, an airplane is not substantially different from any other method of mass transportation.
Passengers have a right to request specific accommodations at the time of booking – which, apparently, many of these men did not do – but no one has a right to demand gender separation in a public arena. If people want a gender-segregated plane, they should charter one.