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Israeli airline hit with discrimination suit after passenger asked to switch seat

Retired lawyer, supported by advocacy group, sues airline after flight attendant suggested she move seats to suit ultra-Orthodox passenger
An El Al flight lands at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport (AFP)

An 81-year-old lawyer who escaped the Nazis as a child is suing Israel’s national airline after a flight attendant asked her to move seats when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish passenger said he was uncomfortable sitting next to a woman.

Renee Rabinowitz was sitting in her business class seat on an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv last December when the passenger called a flight attendant.

Soon after, Rabinowitz, who moved to Jerusalem from the US 10 years ago, was offered what the attendant described as a better seat which she declined at first. But pressed further, she moved.

“I asked the flight attendant point blank if the man sitting next to me had asked me to be moved, and unabashedly he said yes,” Rabinowitz told The Guardian.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an advocacy group which successfully campaigned against gender segregation on Israeli buses and had reportedly been looking for two years for a test case to take on the same issue in the skies, is supporting Rabinowitz in her legal action.

The lawsuit calls for El Al to pay a little over $13,000 in damages and publish clear staff guidelines which would, for example, let attendants know that they are not required to fulfil requests from passengers for seat changes based solely on gender, the Guardian reported.

“We kept hearing from women, both Israelis and tourists, that they had been asked to move seats on planes. We were looking for a good case to take up, and then Renee walked in,” IRAC’s director Anat Hoffman told The Guardian.

An El Al spokeswoman told the New York Times that discrimination between passengers is “strictly prohibited”.

“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," she said.