Jenni Frazer
Jenni Frazer

When a court ruling falls out of the overhead locker straight into your lap

Readers with long memories may recall my column last March, when I raised the issue of a lawsuit being brought against El Al by an octogenarian former lawyer, Renee Rabinowitz.

Ms Rabinowitz, who is both a Holocaust survivor and Orthodox — one is relevant here, one is not — was sitting minding her own business in, indeed, a business class seat, on an El Al flight back to Israel from Newark, New Jersey.

Moments before take-off, a strictly Orthodox man sat down next to Ms Rabinowitz, who nodded a polite hello.

But the man summoned a flight attendant and a prolonged whispered conversation ensued. Its desperately disappointing result was that the flight attendant asked Mrs Rabinowitz to move seats.

With reluctance, she did so, though she asked her unhappy seat-mate what his problem was. “He started to tell me about about how the Torah prohibits it. I said I was 81.” But this cut no ice with the objector.

“I was pretty upset, but I also didn’t want to sit next to this man, who didn’t want me to be there, for 11 hours. The thought was not pleasant so I decided to move of my own accord.”

The Rabinowitz case has finally come to court and may, once and for all, have lanced the boil that has enraged passengers from all sides of the religious spectrum. Judge Dana Cohen-Lekah ruled 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 said that the policy was a “direct transgression” of Israeli discrimination laws relating to products and services. El Al has accepted the ruling and the notional fine of around £1,450 which it was ordered to pay to Ms Rabinowitz.

An understandably happy Ms Rabinowitz said she looked forward to future flights with El Al, adding, drily: “I hope I could witness a moment in which an ultra-Orthodox man says, ‘I won’t sit until you move this woman’, and the El Al flight attendant tells him the law prevents her from doing so.”

It remains a mystery why, in the first instance, the El Al steward did not ask the man to move, or why Ms Rabinowitz herself did not say to the steward, “If he doesn’t like sitting next to me, tell him to sit somewhere else?”

We are all aware of aberrant behaviour on airlines flying to and from Israel, and it is to be hoped that British Airways and easyJet have also taken notice of this court ruling.

Imagine, if you will, Israeli Jews objecting to sitting next to Arabs, or an airline caving in to a Ku Klux Klan demand not to sit next to a Jew? Gender discrimination falls into the same category.

My only regret is that this important ruling was made by a female judge, since it is inevitable that those on the religious right will dismiss what she had to say.

Anyway, hot tip: next time you see anyone objecting to sitting next to a woman on a plane, ask for details of his rabbi, and whether the rabbi approves of breaking the law.

Sometimes things just fall, out of the overhead lockers, into your lap.

About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.
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