Renee Rabinowitz. Photo: Uriel Sinai for The New York Times
Renee Rabinowitz is a sharp-witted retired lawyer with a doctorate in educational psychology, who escaped the Nazis in Europe as a child. Now she is about to become a test case in the battle over religion and gender in Israel's public spaces - and the skies above - as the plaintiff in a lawsuit accusing El Al, the national airline, of discrimination.
Rabinowitz was comfortably settled into her aisle seat in the business-class section on El Al Flight 028 from Newark, New Jersey, to Tel Aviv in December when, as she put it, "this rather distinguished-looking man in Hasidic or Haredi garb, I'd guess around 50 or so, shows up."
The man was assigned the window seat in her row. But, like many ultra-Orthodox male passengers, he did not want to sit next to a woman, seeing even inadvertent contact with the opposite sex as verboten under the strictest interpretation of Jewish law. Soon, Rabinowitz said, a flight attendant offered her a "better" seat, up front, closer to first class.
Reluctantly, Rabinowitz, an impeccably groomed grandmother of 81 who walks with a cane because of bad knees, agreed.
"Despite all my accomplishments - and my age is also an accomplishment - I felt minimised," she recalled in a recent interview in her elegantly appointed apartment in a fashionable neighbourhood of Jerusalem.
"For me this is not personal," Rabinowitz added. "It is intellectual, ideological and legal. I think to myself, here I am, an older woman, educated, I've been around the world, and some guy can decide that I shouldn't sit next to him. Why?"
That is just what many feminists and advocates of religious pluralism in Israel and abroad have been asking in what by all accounts is a growing phenomenon of religious Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on airplanes. Several flights from New York to Israel, on El Al and other airlines, have been delayed or disrupted as women refused to move, and there have been social media campaigns including a protest petition.
Just this week, in a different but related situation, an ultra-Orthodox man created a disturbance on an El Al flight from Warsaw, Poland, to Tel Aviv to protest the screening of Truth, starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, a movie he deemed immodest, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported.
Now, a liberal advocacy group that had spent two years searching for a test case on switching seats plans to sue the blue-and-white flag carrier on Rabinowitz's behalf in a Tel Aviv court next week.
"We needed a case of a flight attendant being actively involved," explained the group's director, Anat Hoffman, "to show that El Al has internalised the commandment, 'I cannot sit next to a woman'."
An El Al spokeswoman said in a statement that "any discrimination between passengers is strictly prohibited."
"El Al flight attendants are on the front line of providing service for the company's varied array of passengers," the statement said. "In the cabin, the attendants receive different and varied requests and they try to assist as much as possible, the goal being to have the plane take off on time and for all the passengers to arrive at their destination as scheduled."
Hoffman's group, the Israel Religious Action Center, which works to advance pluralism in public spaces, previously fought Israeli bus companies and the Transportation Ministry over gender segregation on so-called kosher lines that serve ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods.
The Supreme Court in 2011 made it illegal to require women to sit in the back of the bus and allowed men and women to sit separately only if they did so voluntarily. Two years later, Israel's attorney general issued guidelines calling on government ministries and public agencies to end all manifestations of gender segregation in the public sphere.
The group has since turned its focus skyward. Rabinowitz attended a lecture by Hoffman a few weeks after her fateful flight. The topic of seat switching came up, and Rabinowitz told Hoffman it had happened to her.
"When I told Anat that the flight attendant had asked me to move, she got very excited," Rabinowitz recalled.
Rabinowitz, who moved to Jerusalem from the United States about a decade ago, says she is not anti-Haredi - the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox, meaning one who trembles before God - and she comes with her own God-fearing credentials.
Born in Belgium, she fled with her family during the Nazi occupation in 1941. She had a religious upbringing, attended an Orthodox Jewish school in New York, where a strictly modest dress code applied, and she still observes most of the laws of the Sabbath. Both her second husband, who died three years ago, and her first (they divorced in 1986) were rabbis.
She described one of her grandchildren as being Hasidic or Haredi, and said, "The idea of having a Haredi population is wonderful, as long as they don't tell me what to do."
Rabinowitz had been visiting family in New York before boarding the Dec. 2 El Al flight home. By her account, the flight attendant had a brief conversation in Hebrew with her ultra-Orthodox seatmate-to-be, which she could not understand, then persuaded Rabinowitz to come and see the "better" seat, at the end of a row of three.
"There were two women seated there," she said. "I thought, 'Oy, if they are going to talk all night I am not going to be happy.'" She asked the flight attendant if he was suggesting the switch because the man next to her wanted her to move, she said, "and he said 'yes' without any hesitation."
When Rabinowitz returned to her original seat to collect her hand luggage, with the attendant's assistance, she asked the other passenger, "Why does it matter? I'm 81 years old. And he says, 'It's in the Torah.'"
After briefly arguing the point, she moved to the new seat. "I thought, 'He's going to be unhappy,'" she recalled. "There was no other seat available for him next to a man so I thought I'd try it."
The other women in the new row were busy working and did not chatter. Still, Rabinowitz said she felt further insulted because the attendant had tried to mislead her.
"The flight attendant treated me as if I was stupid," she said, "but that's a common problem in Israel if you don't speak Hebrew. They assume things about you. They assume they can put one over you."
A lawyer for the religious action group wrote a letter to El Al last month saying that Rabinowitz had felt pressured by the attendant and accusing El Al of illegal discrimination. It argued that a request not to be seated next to a woman differed from other requests to move, say, to sit near a relative or a friend, because it was by nature degrading. The lawyer demanded 50,000 shekels (about $13,000) in compensation for Rabinowitz.
The airline offered, instead, a $200 discount on Rabinowitz's next El Al flight. It insisted that there was no gender discrimination on El Al flights, that the flight attendant had made it clear to Rabinowitz that she was in no way obligated to move, and that she had changed seats without argument.
Rabinowitz has since had time to ponder. She said her son told her that "this whole idea that you cannot sit next to a woman is bogus."
She cited an eminent Orthodox scholar, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who counselled that it was acceptable for a Jewish man to sit next to a woman on a subway or a bus so long as there was no intention to seek sexual pleasure from any incidental contact.
"When did modesty become the sum and end all of being a Jewish woman?" Rabinowitz asked. Citing examples like the biblical warrior Deborah, the matriarch Sarah and Queen Esther, she noted: "Our heroes in history were not modest little women."
The New York Times