Israel’s national airline El Al has been criticised for allowing ultra-orthodox Jewish men to disrupt flights by refusing to be seated next to women.
A petition on change.org is demanding that the carrier “stop the bullying, intimidation and discrimination against women on your flights”.
According to passengers, one flight last week – from New York’s JF Kennedy airport to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport – descended into chaos after a large group of Haredi men, or ultraorthodox Jews, refused to take seats next to women, in accordance with religious customs.
The episode has prompted other women to come forward with similar stories on international flights to and from Tel Aviv. Amit Ben-Natan, a passenger on last week’s El Al flight from New York, said take-off was delayed after numerous and repeated requests by ultraorthodox men for female passengers to be moved.
“People stood in the aisles and refused to go forward,” she told the Ynet website. “Although everyone had tickets with seat numbers that they purchased in advance, they asked us to trade seats with them, and even offered to pay money since they cannot sit next to a woman. It was obvious that the plane wouldn’t take off as long as they kept standing in the aisles.”
Asked to sit separately from husband
Another passenger on the flight, named only as Galit, said ultraorthodox passengers had suggested she and her husband sit separately to accommodate their religious requirements. She refused, but added: “I ended up sitting next to a Haredi man who jumped out of his seat the moment we had finished taking off and proceeded to stand in the aisle.”
On a different flight, Elana Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, refused to accede to a request to move seats, triggering “frantic negotiations”, she said, between ultraorthodox men and airline staff.
“What happened to me on this flight isn’t that different from what happens on almost every flight,” she told Voice of Israel radio.
Sharon Shapiro, from Chicago, the organiser of the online petition, said it was “not right that female passengers are being intimidated or harassed. It’s one thing to ask nicely …”
But, she added, there was a genuine dilemma for ultraorthodox Jews. “What most people don’t understand is that it’s not personal, it’s literally the [religious] law.”
Airlines should seek a way of accommodating the religious requirements of passengers without breaching others’ civil rights, she said. “I’m not quite sure why El Al asks passengers to sort out these things among themselves.
“It would be better if people can get on a plane knowing they’re sitting somewhere they feel comfortable. Otherwise it adds tensions between religious and secular [people].”
In a statement, El Al said it made “every effort possible to ensure a passenger’s flight is as enjoyable as possible while doing our utmost to maintain schedules and arrive safely at the destination. El Al is committed to responding to every complaint received and if it is found that there are possibilities for improvement in the future, those suggestions will be taken into consideration.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014