Israeli hi-tech giant cuts ties with Israeli national carrier after women forced to move seats on Tel Aviv-bound flight
A woman on board an Israel-bound flight who is asked by an attendant to move seats in order to accommodate a religious man’s request can sue the airline for damages totaling $18,000, a leading women’s rights advocate revealed to The Media Line.
“Any woman who can show that a flight attendant either in gesture or in word encouraged her to move from her seat can sue El Al [or other Israel-bound airlines] and receive 65,200 NIS [roughly $18,000],” Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), told The Media Line. She noted, however, that lawsuits would not apply in cases where the flight attendant is not involved.
“Only very few of these cases are when the flight attendant actually participates,” Hoffman said, adding that usually the flight crew “turns a blind eye” to such incidences and the woman moves following pressure from other passengers.
Israel’s national carrier El Al is facing increasing backlash over its failure to adhere to Israeli law on the matter of asking women to move seats in order to accommodate religious men’s preferences.
Last week, the airline drew international criticism after four ultra-Orthodox men on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv demanded not be seated next to female passengers. The flight was delayed by more than an hour and only took off after much arguing, and after two women onboard finally agreed to move.
Hoffman, who is also the Chair of Women of the Wall, a feminist organization dedicated to promoting egalitarian prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, said that El Al was culpable not only because it disregarded an Israeli court ruling, but also since its own official policy forbids discrimination.
The incident sparked a wave of condemnation, including from the head of NICE Systems—a major Israeli tech firm specializing in software and advanced analytics—who publicly announced his company would no longer travel on El Al.
“At NICE we don’t do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion,” CEO Barak Eilam wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “NICE will not fly El Al Israeli Airlines until they change their practice and actions discriminating [against] women.”
In response to Eilam’s criticism, El Al’s CEO Gonen Usishkin wrote in a statement to The Media Line that, “The post by the CEO of NICE was made hastily without checking the facts, and I made that clear to him when we spoke.
“The El Al personnel who handled the incident in question did so with due sensitivity,” the statement continued. “Anyone who flies with our airline can sense the values we built the company on: an egalitarian company that makes no distinctions between religion, race or sex.”
Usishkin stressed that he has ordered that stricter measures be implemented to avoid similar incidents.
“In the future, any passenger who refuses to sit next to another passenger will have be immediately removed from the flight,” he asserted.
In recent years, there have been several cases of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on flights for religious reasons relating to fear of impropriety. The demand to be assigned new seating has resulted in countless flight disruptions and generated a growing backlash on social media.
A few years ago, the Israel Religious Action Center initiated the first class-action lawsuit against El Al on the basis of gender discrimination. In the case, the organization represented Renee Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor in her eighties who was asked to change seats on an El Al flight in 2015. Rabinowitz sued the airline for discrimination and won last year, when a Jerusalem court issued a landmark ruling ordering El Al to end the practice.
“We actually saw a dramatic decrease in the number of incidences wherein the flight attendant tells the woman to move since we won [the case],” she told The Media Line. “But we have not seen a decrease in the number of cases where there is social pressure [for the woman] to move.”
Hoffman also noted that despite the court ruling the number of lawsuits brought against airlines for this reason has remained almost unchanged.
It remains unclear why NICE opted to break business ties with El Al after this latest incident, especially since there have been numerous similar examples in the past. When The Media Line reached out to the business for comment, a spokesperson said, “the company has nothing further to add on the topic at the moment.”
Regardless of the motivations behind the move, women’s rights advocates like Hoffman believe they will ultimately be effective in persuading airlines to implement stricter protocols to prevent religious men from causing disruptions. She added that public outcry over discriminatory practices has grown significantly in the past decade, leading to an overall decrease in similar incidents.
“NICE did a good thing and it’s very important,” Hoffman contended. “[Ultra-Orthodox men] can go to a travel agent and request that they be seated next to someone specific ahead of time. But once the boarding pass is in their hand it is a contract. They can’t bully the rest of us.”