A few years ago I boarded an El Al airplane at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel headed back to the United States. I had a lot running through my mind. Earlier that morning I watched as two female colleagues of mine were arrested at the Western Wall for the odd crime of praying while wearing tefillin (phylacteries). While those two women rabbis were being detained at the police station in the Old City of Jerusalem I sat in a conference room with a dozen other colleagues listening to the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky explain how he hoped to solve the issue of religious and gender discrimination at the Western Wall plaza.
As I settled into my seat on the plane and readied myself for the long flight home, I was tapped on my shoulder by a Haredi Orthodox man and asked if I'd give up my seat so he could sit there and not be forced to sit next to a woman. On any other day I likely would have explained to this man that I had already spent time and energy procuring my bulkhead seat with extra leg room (I'm tall) and was already situated in my assigned seat so I would not be able to acquiesce to his request. On this particular day, however, my denial was based on principle. His religious views would not trump my right to my assigned seat. The man then asked the woman next to me to give up her seat so he could sit next to me and avoid violating his religious convictions of sitting next to a woman for a prolonged period of time. My seatmate simply looked at him and said, "Absolutely not!"
The practice of seat switching on airplanes to accommodate the Haredi men who won't sit next to the opposite sex has gotten out of hand. After my mother's flight landed in Israel a couple of weeks ago, I called her to check in. When I inquired about her flight she lamented that it was very late taking off from Newark because of a frustrating game of "musical chairs" in which the flight attendants had to orchestrate the seat switching fiasco so families who wanted to sit together were still able to do so after the Haredi men refused to sit in their assigned seats.
Unfortunately, it's not just about the Haredi men causing turmoil on airplanes over sitting next to women. There has also been unrest in the friendly skies when it comes to what some ultra-Orthodox Jews consider immodest movies. Last week a passenger from Beit Shemesh reportedly damaged two viewing screens and attacked the cabin crew during his rampage on an El Al flight. He was angered that the airline was showing a movie that he felt was indecent based on his religious views.
Perhaps this problem has finally reached a boiling point. Renee Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor, is the plaintiff in a lawsuit accusing El Al Airlines of discrimination. She was seated in her aisle seat in business class this past December and watched as the flight attendant moved the ultra-Orthodox male passenger assigned to the seat next to her into first class. Ms. Rabinowitz said she felt minimized. El Al has succumbed to the pressure by an extremist religious group and is now acting in a discriminatory way.
I'm always very appreciative when accommodations are made for my own religious needs. If I'm at an event and request a kosher meal, for example, I'm always grateful if they are able to oblige. However, I would never want or expect someone else's meal to be compromised in order that my request is granted. That is the difference. If a movie is playing on an airplane's communal monitor that is against someone's religious or moral convictions, they should put on headphones and close their eyes. If they know they can't sit next to members of the opposite sex, they should find two members of the same sex and purchase the seats together. Or if they are traveling alone and feel so strongly about this issue of modesty, they should purchase an extra seat to ensure they're comfortable.
Following one's religion is laudatory, but when it comes into conflict with other people's well-being or causes conflicts, then it must be called into question. The practice of Haredi seat switching on airplanes delays flights from taking off and makes people uncomfortable. I'm glad to see that it is finally being dealt with in a serious way. When it comes to air travel, people need to check their religion before boarding the plane.