Flying too high for their hats

Flying too high for their hats

Column for the Jewish News March 11 2016

Column JN issue March 12 from Jenni Frazer

Classic news stories in both tabloids and broadsheets sometimes begin with the hoary introduction, “Mystery surrounds…”

Unfortunately mystery does indeed surround the peculiar case of Renee Rabinowitz and El Al Israel Airlines.

Ms Rabinowitz, a lively 81-year-old retired lawyer, was returning to Israel, where she now lives, after visiting family in New York, where she once lived.

According to the New York Times, which saw fit to splash this story across its front page, Ms Rabinowitz was suing El Al after being forced to move seats. The NYT reported that a strictly Orthodox man, in the window seat of the area where Ms Rabinowitz was due to sit, had objected to her presence.

Ms Rabinowitz, said the paper, was a Holocaust survivor, though quite what that had to do with anything was unclear. Mystery was already beginning to surround this story. In any case, it was claimed, she was offered a seat in business class. Readers, she took it and moved.

So far, so ridiculous. The flight took off for Tel Aviv, the strictly Orthodox man was able to fly untroubled by the presence of an 81-year-old woman, and everyone was happy. Well, happy-ish.

Because Ms Rabinowitz, once the flight had landed, complained to the pilot – and the pilot responded that the practice of moving passengers was one imposed by the airline’s board of directors. Whether this is indeed true is not known. Perhaps the pilot just wanted to go home and not engage in a long debate about the rights and wrongs of moving passengers.

Not long after her return Ms Rabinowitz made her feelings known to Anat Hoffman and the Israel Religious Action Centre, (IRAC) which had been looking for a long time for a test case to bring against El Al. IRAC’s basic position is that the airline should not move women because of the complaint of strictly Orthodox men. I agree with this – but I felt that the case was undermined because Ms Rabinowitz agreed to the request to move, and because she had been upgraded. Annoying though the reason might be, I would lay bets that most women, faced with sitting through an 11-hour flight next to a furiously tutting neighbour, or being offered an upgrade into business class, would also have acceded to the request.

But now, it turns out, contrary to most of the original reports, Ms Rabinowitz was flying in business class anyway. She was offered a seat a few rows further forward of where she had been due to sit. So she wasn’t actually upgraded.

Here is where mystery surrounds what the El Al steward actually did. When the strictly Orthodox man complained that he did not want to sit next to a woman – and not, let it be noted, a young, nubile, and potentially predatory woman, but a woman of 81 – why on earth was he not asked to move?

Why, in fact, did Ms Rabinowitz, who doesn’t seem backward in coming forward, not say to the El Al staff, in terms, “If he doesn’t like sitting next to me, tell him to sit somewhere else?” Was the approach made to her out of pure logistics – because the man was already sitting in the window seat and she was due to take her place in the outer seat and was thus more easily movable?

These and other mysteries are likely to be resolved when the case comes to court in Tel Aviv. Even odder, it appears that Ms Rabinowitz comes from an observant family and has a strictly Orthodox son and daughter-in-law, and thus might have been the very last person to agree to go to law as a spear-carrier for IRAC, which leads battles on behalf of the non-Orthodox and secular in Israel.

It seems to me, without wanting to second-guess what the court may say, that El Al – and, for that matter, all airlines likely to carry strictly Orthodox passengers – needs to get its act together. Last month a strictly Orthodox passenger on a flight from Warsaw to Tel Aviv ran amok after objecting to “immodest” scenes in the Cate Blanchett film, “Truth”. He broke two screens – this plane did not carry individual screens, only ones wedged between seats – and was duly arrested when the plane landed at Ben-Gurion.

Those who dislike this kind of behaviour often say, well, if “they” don’t like flying with women or viewing feature films, “they” shouldn’t fly, or “they” should buy all the seats and have all-male flights. Such responses are quite as ridiculous in their own way as the actions which provoke them.

But perhaps it’s time to ensure harmony before the flight. Passengers who are likely to object to potential seat-mates should be told bluntly that they will have to pay a premium in order to sit in divine solitude. That should, er, clear the air.

  • 7 March, 2016