Striking a Blow for Gender Equality

El Al, the Israeli flagship carrier, struck a blow for gender equality a few days ago when it announced it will no longer accommodate unjust and unreasonable demands by ultra-Orthodox Jews not to be seated next to women on flights.

“Any discrimination by passengers is absolutely forbidden,” El Al chief executive officer Gonen Usishkin said in a statement shortly after one of its flights from New York City to Tel Aviv was delayed by about an hour after four haredi men refused to take their assigned seats beside women.

Proclaiming that El Al is an egalitarian company that makes “no distinctions on the basis of religion, race or gender,” Usishkin let it be known that “any passenger who refuses to sit beside another passenger will immediately be removed from the flight.”

This is good, but belated, news.

It appears that El Al caved in to pressure from one of its users, NICE System’s, a major high tech firm which threatened to boycott El Al unless it changed its practices with respect to women. “At NICE, we don’t do business with companies that discriminate on the basis of race, gender or religion,” the company’s chief executive officer Barak Eilam, wrote in posts on social media.

El Al’s announcement came a year after a court in Jerusalem ruled that the airline has no right to ask a female passenger to move if a haredi man objects to sitting next to a woman.

The landmark verdict was handed down last June in response to a lawsuit launched by Renee Rabinowitz, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who sued El Al after it complied with the demand of an ultra-Orthodox man who said he would be offended by having to sit next to a woman.

Rabinowitz was sitting in a business class seat on a flight from the United States to Israel when an  attendant asked her to change her seat.

Dana Cohen-Lekah, the Israeli judge who heard Rabinowitz’s complaint, described El Al’s practice as “discriminatory” and said that “under absolutely no circumstances can a crew member ask a passenger to move from their designated seat because the adjacent passenger doesn’t want to sit next to them due to their gender.”

The judge noted that El Al’s policy was a “direct transgression” of Israel’s discrimination laws relating to products and services.

In this day and age, Israeli companies that discriminate against women should be penalized not only by consumers but by governments as well. Unfortunately, due to Israel’s proportional representation system, the haredi minority, comprising only 10 percent of Israel’s population, is in a position to blackmail the Israeli government on a variety of fronts.

This is patently unjust, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefers the status quo so as to preserve his coalition government and his powers and privileges.

This cosy, self-serving and expedient arrangement goes against the grain of fairness and equality and makes a shambles of democracy. When will Netanyahu emulate the example set by El Al and finally break the stranglehold that the haredi community exerts over Israeli society?

In the interests of human rights, Israel should not play politics with the fundamentals of decency.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,