The Israel Action Center this month focused attention on a topic we’ve been concerned about for quite some time. The Reform movement-affiliated organization tried unsuccessfully to post a billboard in the waiting area of Newark Liberty International Airport, which read: “Ladies, please take your seat … and keep it!”
At issue was the recurrence of haredi Orthodox men who were seated next to women on El Al flights to and from Israel, asking them to move elsewhere because it is immodest for a haredi man to sit next to a woman who is not his wife. The Israel Action Center, a public and legal advocacy organization, determined that such incidents spiked around Passover and the High Holidays, so the group sought to post the sign to point out that “requiring passengers to switch seats because of gender is illegal.”
Days before Yom Kippur, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey rejected the ad. And debate over the ad became caught in a thicket of guidelines, partly over what kind of messaging the billboard constituted. We are confident that the billboard issue will be resolved. But the bigger question is how to handle situations that could infringe on someone’s rights.
In recent years there have been increasing complaints by women who have been asked to switch seats. In one example, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor last December sued El Al after she was asked to change seats on a flight from Newark Liberty to Tel Aviv.
We’ve longed believed that passengers have a right to request specific accommodations at the time of booking — which, apparently, many of these men did not do — but no one has a right to demand gender separation in a public arena. If people want a gender-segregated plane, they should charter one.
We noted, too, that this story is really about prejudice against an entire class of people. It would be equally offensive if passengers tried to keep from having to sit next to African-Americans or Orthodox Jews.
While we have our own misgivings on the religious justifications for this kind of behavior on a public flight, we won’t quibble over reasonable interpretations of religious law. Still the onus clearly is on the haredi Orthodox male travelers to find a solution that does not pressure or shame anyone else. Anything less would be foisting one interpretation of Judaism on another, a prospect we can never condone.