81 year-old woman asked to change seats by Orthodox Jewish man


An 81-year-old woman who walks with a cane was asked to switch seats on an airplane when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man refused to sit in the same row as her.

The woman’s name is Renee Rabinowitz. She’s a retired lawyer with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. She was raised as an Orthodox Jew. She is also a survivor of the Holocaust.

Now, she’s suing the airline in a battle of gender and religion in Israel in a case that shouldn’t even be up for discussion.

Rabinowitz was seated in an aisle seat in the business class section of an El Al Airlines flight from Newark to Tel Aviv when a middle-aged Jewish man dressed in Hasidic wear took the window seat in her same aisle. The Jewish man told a flight attendant that he wouldn’t sit next to a woman, and soon Rabinowitz was offered a better seat closer to first class.

Rabinowitz rightly felt dehumanized, embarrassed, and insulted. Regardless of the reasons, Rabinowitz paid for that seat and had every right to it. Being asked to move shows the airline’s obvious value of the Jewish man’s preferences over Rabinowitz’s own rights.

The man’s reasons for not sitting next to a woman stemmed from his ultra-Orthodox religious beliefs; under a strict interpretation of Jewish law, even such unintended contact with the opposite sex as sitting in the same airplane row is considered taboo.

But is this issue a matter of the Jewish man’s religious freedom, or Rabinowitz’s own rights as not just a woman, but a human being?

It is well within the man’s religious freedom to not want to sit next to a woman; however, it is not within his rights to impose that desire upon anyone else, including Rabinowitz. If the man didn’t want to risk sitting next to a woman, he should have made prior accommodations, perhaps quietly switching seats with a fellow passenger or alerting the airline of his special circumstances beforehand. Instead, his actions made Rabinowitz feel as though her rights were being ignored.

“Despite all my accomplishments — and my age is also an accomplishment — I felt minimized,” Rabinowitz said in a recent interview with the New York Times.

“For me this is not personal,” said Rabinowitz. “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?”

This man has every right to his religious beliefs, but that right ends as soon as it starts to affect the lives of other people. Rabinowitz explicitly states that she has no prejudice against Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews. In the Times interview, she discusses having a strict religious upbringing, attending an Orthodox school in New York, and being married to a rabbi.

“The idea of having a Haredi population is wonderful,” Rabinowitz said. “As long as they don’t tell me what to do.”

Ultimately, that is what this issue comes down to: the individual rights of Rabinowitz to not be discriminated against based on another’s religious preferences. Rabinowitz should not have been asked to move seats, period. The issue began with the man’s religious beliefs and should not have extended to Rabinowitz. While many feminists have voiced their opinions on this issue as being one of gender discrimination — and the oppression of women under the guise of religious piety certainly is — this is a conflict of religious plurality and the rights of individuals.

In simplest terms, men and women have equal rights to airplane seats. If any sacrifices were to be made in this situation, it should have been by the man himself — not by the flight attendants, not by the airline and certainly not by Rabinowitz.