Ultra-orthodox Jews, called Haredi, have been refusing to sit next to female passengers, causing disruptions and delays for the Israeli airline El Al. No more, though. The CEO of El Al, Gonen Usishkin, released a statement last week saying, “Any traveler who refuses to sit next to another traveler will be immediately removed from the flight.”
Jewish law forbids physical contact with members of the opposite sex except for close relatives, and reportedly, this has been a source of corporate headaches for El Al for years. In 2014, The Times of Israel reported on how groups of Haredi men have caused flight delays because they refused to take their seats. Regulations do not allow planes to take off until all of the passengers are seated. In September 2014, an El Al flight was delayed for 11 hours because “a group of Haredi men refused to sit next to a female passenger.”
According to reports from passengers, if the Haredi men aren’t accommodated, they will often “spend flights bullying and harassing women who refuse to change seats.”
According to HuffPost, an incident last week is what prompted El Al to officially change its policy:
Last week, four ultra-Orthodox men delayed an El Al flight from New York to Israel by over an hour because they were assigned seats next to women. According to another passenger on the flight, the men boarded the plane, but refused to take their seats or negotiate with female flight attendants. Two female passengers eventually agreed to move to accommodate the men.
El Al is not the only airline to have to deal with this headache. In December of 2014, a Delta flight from New York City to Tel Aviv was delayed because a group of ultra-orthodox Jewish men refused to take their seats. It was only after a fellow passenger offered to switch seats that the flight was able to take off.
However, it’s El Al that has found itself in the crosshairs of potential corporate boycotts over their standard practice of asking female passengers to change seats in order to appease Haredi men. NICE Systems, a large Israeli-based tech company, published a post on the company’s LinkedIn page stating, “At NICE we don’t do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion. NICE will not fly @EL AL Israel Airlines until they change their practice and actions discriminating women.”
El Al had already been ordered by an Israeli court to stop asking women to change their seats. A little over a year ago, HuffPost wrote about a case involving a female Holocaust survivor who took El Al to court:
Renee Rabinowitz, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor. Rabinowitz was traveling on an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv in December 2015 when a flight attendant asked her to change seats to accommodate the request of an Orthodox man had complained about sitting next to a woman.
Rabinowitz gave in that day, but later on, with the encouragement of the Reform Jewish Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), she decided to sue El Al.
While El Al appeared willing to drag its feet after the court’s ruling, the prospect of losing corporate business has proven to be a strong enough incentive to stop discriminating against female passengers.