What happens when a man on a flight says he can't sit next to a woman

It has resulted in several conflicts on flights between the U.S. and Israel.

May 25, 2017, 10:45 AM

— -- Renee Rabinowitz was all set up in her business-class seat on El Al Flight 28, which would take more than 10 hours to get her from Newark, New Jersey, to Tel Aviv, Israel, when she was asked to move.

According to a group representing Rabinowitz, before departure, a flight attendant offered her another seat at the front of the section. Rabinowitz accepted but later questioned why she was asked to switch seats. Members of the flight crew would not answer her. So she approached the man who would have been next to her if she kept her seat.

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish man assigned to the next seat did not want to sit next to her, as his interpretation of Jewish law forbade him from even inadvertent physical contact with a woman, according to Rabinowitz's representatives.

Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old retired Holocaust survivor, said she felt wronged from the December 2015 incident, less personally than as a woman, according to the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of a liberal religious advocacy group in Israel.

The IRAC is representing Rabinowitz in her Israeli lawsuit against El Al, Israel's national airline, accusing it of discrimination.

Although El Al Airlines did not respond to ABC News' multiple requests for comment, after the incident, an El Al spokesperson told The New York Times that that "any discrimination between passengers is strictly prohibited."

"El Al flight attendants are on the front line of providing service for the company's varied array of passengers," the statement said. "In the cabin, the attendants receive different and varied requests, and they try to assist as much as possible, the goal being to have the plane take off on time and for all the passengers to arrive at their destination as scheduled."

Steven Beck, the IRAC's deputy director, said that what happened to Rabinowitz happens on the New York to Tel Aviv route on a weekly basis and possibly even more often during Jewish holidays.

He suggested that airlines often make accommodations based on gender discrimination but that racial discrimination is similarly illegal and never accommodated.

"If somebody said, 'I refuse to sit next to a man who is black,' I imagine they would be taken off the plane," Beck told ABC News.

An increasing number of passengers have shared their stories with U.S. and Israeli media of dust-ups with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men trying to abide by their interpretations of Jewish law and women saying they are standing up for their civil rights.

According to The New York Times, Laura Heywood, 42, was flying to London when she was asked to swap her middle seat with her husband so a man with the window seat could sit next to him instead.

In a time when people feel increasingly motivated to seize opportunities to take a stand for their beliefs, she refused.

Her husband prefers the aisle seat in order to alleviate some of the stress of flying, and "I wasn't going to put [the other man's] comfort for no good reason above my husband's," she told The Times.

The IRAC views this as a civil rights issue and tried to put up advertisements at El Al's gates at Newark Liberty International Airport urging women not to give up their seats and, if asked, to demand to know why. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey denied that request.

The Port Authority told the IRAC that the proposed signs did not adhere to its advertising requirements, according to a letter obtained by ABC News. Advertisements at Newark Liberty International Airport are limited to promoting an item or service, attending an event or soliciting charitable contributions, the letter states.

Efforts in the United States and Israel have surfaced urging the airlines to refrain from making such accommodations, including a Change.org petition and a spoof video titled "The In-Flight Safety Video El Al Should Show."

The airlines find themselves in a difficult spot, trying to balance their commitment to respecting people's religious beliefs and avoiding accusations of tolerating gender discrimination.

Airlines for America, the industry's leading U.S. trade group, declined to comment on this story.

Two airline officials from major U.S.-based air carriers, who spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity, said that some similar incidents occur on flights in or out of Muslim-majority nations but that the vast majority occur on flights in or out of Israel.

Spokespeople for multiple carriers out of Muslim-majority countries did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

In 2014 the U.K.-based Independent reported that a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refused to sit next to women and held up a flight from New York to Tel Aviv.

The men, according to The Independent, eventually agreed to sit in their assigned seats for departure but "jumped out" once the fasten-seat-belt sign was turned off.

Another passenger described the disturbance as an "11-hour-long nightmare."

Samuel Goldman, the executive director of George Washington University's Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom, suggested such a dramatic series of events is likely the exception rather than the rule.

"Most ultra-Orthodox Jews are not interested in imposing their will on others or creating problems," said Goldman. "I don't deny that problems emerge, and I'm sure some of these stories are true, but I wonder how common they really are."

Goldman said that airlines should make clear what accommodations they will and will not provide in their terms of service and that passengers should try to accommodate others' religious beliefs. "I would encourage, to the greatest degree possible, that people confronted with these requests to be tolerant," he said.

"Unless you have a specific reason," he said, "be a mensch. Why not help out?"

Goldman said it is unlikely that ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are unaware that their gender norms are atypical in the U.S. and that it is more likely that some Americans see the requests as "tyrannical."

He urged passengers to be tolerant and said that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are just trying to live in accordance with their interpretation of Jewish law.

One of the airline officials who spoke to ABC News said ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who frequently travel typically know to request such a seat accommodation when they book their flight. In such cases, the airline does its best to accommodate them but cannot guarantee that it will.

In the event that a man makes such a request after he boards, the airline seeks a solution but does not force anyone to move. In the vast majority of cases, someone voluntarily switches seats, and the flight proceeds without delay, according to the two officials.

Hamilton Morris, a journalist from New York, agreed to switch with a Hasidic Jewish man on his flight who was assigned to a seat between two women — although he said he wasn't thrilled to move to a middle seat.

Some men refuse to even speak to a female flight attendant, requiring the crew to find a male staff member to negotiate a solution and resulting in long delays.

That was the case in a 2016 incident on a United Airlines flight reported by The Orange County Register. Mary Campos, 47, from Orange County in California said she was given a new seat assignment right before boarding her United flight because, according to United worker, "the two men who have been assigned next to her have cultural beliefs that prevent them from being near or talking to a woman," the paper wrote.

The Register reported that the men were Buddhist monks and that an attendant on the flight told Campos at the time that she was insulted. "You'd be surprised at some of the stuff we have to put up with."

According to local media reports at the time, United Airlines released a statement on the incident, saying, "We regret that Ms. Campos was unhappy with the handling of the seat assignments on her flight. United holds our employees to the highest standards of professionalism and has zero tolerance for discrimination."

United Airlines did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told ABC News that while it is respectful of different cultures and religions, "A plane is not a public space."

"An individual's religious preference cannot overrule or impede the safety and rights of everyone on board," she said. She added that, regardless of their customs, passengers must heed flight attendants' instructions. "In other words, this case requires the man to recognize the woman in charge."

It's unclear how often airline passengers request seat changes because of their religious beliefs and how often customers complain about such requests.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, Airlines for America and their international aviation counterparts do not keep such statistics.

Discrimination complaints reported to the Department of Transportation regarding domestic and foreign air carriers have generally declined since 2011. In 2016 the DOT reported 94 discrimination complaints against domestic and foreign carriers, making up 0.5 percent of complaints against air carriers. In 2011 discrimination complaints made up 1.1 percent of airline complaints to the DOT.

DOT data indicate El Al Airlines received only one discrimination complaint from 2012 to 2016. El Al data were not available for 2011.

DOT spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey told ABC News that federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry. She did not say if the aforementioned events violated federal law.

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