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June 23, 2017 by

Flying While Female on El Al

aircraft-1679200_1920Jewish feminists are celebrating the ruling that El Al airlines can no longer ask women to change seats in order to accommodate Haredi men who believe it is their religious prerogative not to sit next to women. The suit arguing that such religious accommodations are gender discrimination was brought not by a young upstart but rather by an 81 year-old Holocaust survivor, Renee Rabinowitz, with the support of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. According to the Times of Israel, Rabinowitz changed her seat at a flight attendant’s request but the wrongness of the request rankled her.  

Dana Cohen-Lekah, Jerusalem’s Magistrate Court Judge, was unambiguous in her judgment: “Under absolutely no circumstances can a crew member ask a passenger to move from their designated seat because the adjacent passenger doesn’t wasn’t [sic] to sit next to them due to their gender…. The policy is a direct transgression of the law preventing discrimination.” Hopefully, this ruling will end the disruptions and delays that often attend demands for gender-segregated seating.  

Renee Rabinowitz’s legal triumph reminded me of the Jewish feminist anguish that I experienced on an El Al flight several years ago. I was making my first trip to Israel to present my research at a film conference at Tel Aviv University. Professionally, this was my coming out as a Jewish film scholar (I had already established myself as a Jewish literary critic), and I was still adjusting to and reveling in the new and exciting directions of my academic career. 

My assigned seat was the middle one. To the left of me sat a female translator. I couldn’t have been luckier—like me, she was a lover of language, and she was fully bicultural.  When she learned that this was my first trip to Israel, she gave me a list of cafes and neighborhoods in Tel Aviv that I shouldn’t miss. Every one of her suggestions was spot on, and years later, I still reflect fondly on the kindness of strangers and the power of klal Israel

As the plane began to fill, a bit of an uproar began on my right. An identifiably ultra-Orthodox man was clearly not happy. He parked his rather large carry-on bag in his seat, effectively boxing me in, and then proceeded down the aisle to speak to a flight attendant.  The translator on my left clued me in to what was happening—the man did not want to sit next to impure me. She was clearly agitated; such cultural clashes were a frustrating part of her daily life in Israel. I, who have written optimistically about feminism and Orthodoxy not being an oxymoron (work that has been championed by some and reviled by others), suddenly felt as if the most sacred parts of my being—Jewish, feminist, intellectual—were being tested. 

A flight attendant arrived and asked me if I would be willing to change seats. I hesitated.  The translator on my left was whispering anti-Orthodox sentiments in my ear. The flight crew was clearly getting ready for take off, and I understood that expediency was the attendant’s ultimate motivation. 

What to do? Should I keep the peace, or stand my feminist ground? Although I have quite an assertive voice in writing, in person my default mode is to avoid conflict unless I’m really pushed (by New York and Israeli standards, I’m impeccably polite, borderline mousy; in Texas, where I profess English, I’m regarded as a bit of a ball-buster). I strive to be respectful of those who choose a Haredi life for themselves, but the imposition of that life—and its attendant gender codes—on others should be beyond the pale. How could I respond to this request in a way that honors my life and work, Orthodox feminists with whom I am in alliance, as well as a harried flight crew?

My internal struggle must have been evident because the flight attendant indicated that I had a choice in the matter, even though it was clear she wanted me to acquiesce. Ultimately, I politely but firmly indicated that I would be keeping my seat. I did so largely because I couldn’t bear the thought of telling my students any other version of this story.

After huffily stowing his luggage in the overhead compartment, the man to my right waited until the plane was about to take off and then took his seat, face averted. I feared that not even a cleaver could cut through the tension and that intra-Jewish theological difference was going to lengthen an already long flight. I also wondered if this trip was going to require me to rethink all that I had written about feminist debates going on within Orthodoxy.  

Thank the goddess, human relations are unpredictable and ever-evolving. As the meal service was starting, the tray table stymied me (a combination of tiredness and my habitual klutziness). To my great surprise, the man on my right assisted me. God only knows what was going through his head—a learned desire to be a mensch, amusement at and superiority over a hapless woman, an instinct to respond to “the face of the other” (as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas might put it) that religious dogmatism could not extinguish? No matter, I was grateful for the practical help and the recognition of my humanity that it conferred. Uttering both “thank you” and “todah rabah” to the man, I took my meal from the flight attendant. 

That bit of Hebrew further softened him.  He asked me if I was Jewish and why I was traveling to Israel.  He was impressed though also clearly surprised that I was a professor.  We proceeded to have a short conversation hampered by his limited English and my even more limited Hebrew; at one point, the translator to my left whose kindness to me had been matched by her hostility to him and his ilk did her thing and allowed us to cross the language barrier.  The two of them even had a short conversation of their own in Hebrew.  When the plane landed in Tel Aviv many hours later, we all wished one another safe travels. 

That EL AL flight confirmed for me both the possibilities and the challenges of feminist Orthodoxy. In that confined space as in my scholarship, I was the middle woman who refuses to believe that feminism and Orthodoxy each has only one predetermined face that must be turned away from one another. But today I say “thank you” and “todah rabah” to Renee Rabinowitz, who gave up her seat but not the larger fight. Where one sits when flying while female should not be open to debate nor need translation.


Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University.   She is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness and Reading Michael Chabon.  Her more journalistic writing has appeared in Lilith, Tablet, Ms. Magazine’s Blog, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.  She is currently writing a book on Jewish American cinema.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.