The Right to Religious Expression

The middle-aged man walks down the airplane aisle, anxiously scanning his surroundings. When he arrives at his assigned seat and discovers who is sitting in the adjacent one, he promptly approaches a flight attendant and respectfully requests a seat change. The steward approaches a young girl only two rows away and asks if she would agree to change seats. The Bais Yaakov student, who was feeling distinctly uncomfortable sitting between two men, is delighted with the opportunity to switch, and all parties express their gratitude to the flight attendant.

The aforementioned scene — or some variation of it — occurs on a frequent basis on a host of international airlines. Since the happiness and comfort of its customers is a high priority for almost every business, and especially for the highly competitive travel industry, most airlines will likely continue to accommodate such requests in the future. One notable exception, however, will be El Al airlines, the official airline of the State of Israel.

A Yerushalayim Magistrate’s Court ruled last Wednesday that “under absolutely no circumstances can [an El Al] crew member ask a passenger to move from their designated seat because the adjacent passenger doesn’t want to sit next to them due to their gender.”

During the court proceedings, El Al pointed out that they agree to try to change passenger seats for a variety of other reasons, including so that relatives can sit together. Judge Dana Cohen-Lekah rejected that argument, ruling that while requesting a seat change for any other reason was perfectly appropriate, if the motive behind a seat change was the religious sensibility of a passenger, accommodating such a request is illegal.

The judge’s decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal arm of the reform movement in Israel, on behalf of a woman who flew aboard a December 2015 El Al flight from Newark to Israel.

The plaintiff had been asked by a flight attendant to move to another seat due to the request of a man sitting next to her, and at the time she agreed to do so. She later decided that — though she made the seat change out of her own free will — doing a fellow Jew the favor had “humiliated” her, and allowed the IRAC to sue El Al in her name.

It is most regretful that the reform and their feminist cohorts consistently manage to get away with the outrageous claim that, somehow, gender separation based on religious traditions is somehow disrespectful or discriminatory against women. This, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that for generations many women have consistently practiced and treasured these very traditions, and to this very day women go to great lengths to make the same type of requests that are now banned by the Israeli judge.

The caring and concern that the saintly Chofetz Chaim had for all bnos Yisrael is well documented. He wrote sefarim specifically addressing the halachos relevant to Jewish women, and towards the end of his life, was moser nefesh to travel to Vilna to address a mass gathering of women. Yet each time he traveled, he would stipulate that the wagon driver not take any women passengers.

The court may have sought to cloak its decision in the guise of protecting the rights of the aggrieved, while, in actuality, it is accomplishing the precise opposite. There is nothing discriminatory when men choose to sit with other men, and women with other women. However, when a judge in a democratic society, let alone in a country which claims to be a “Jewish State,” prohibits a flight attendant from trying to accommodate a passenger seeking to practice his traditional beliefs — that is a classic example of religious discrimination.

It is time for all of us to recognize that an attempt to hinder any sort of religious expression, whether it be a matter of halachah, hashkafah, or a sacred minhag that has been faithfully passed down through the generations, should send shudders up every Jewish spine. Regardless as to whether one personally practices a specific mesorah, minhag or chumrah, when a court takes steps to prevent accommodating a fellow Yid who is seeking to practice it, it is something that must distress us all.

This most egregious ruling is only the most recent example of how the reform have found willing allies in the Israeli judicial system as they wage war on all that is holy. This is only one of many battles on numerous fronts that are currently being waged against Torah Jewry in the Israeli court system. Despite positive steps by the Israeli government in recent days on issues such as preserving the sanctity of the Kosel and the validity of giyur, there is grave concern about how the Israeli Supreme Court, an entity that has repeatedly illustrated that it is not only above the law, but totally oblivious to concepts such as fairness and logic, will rule on these issues.

Once more we are being reminded by an Israeli court of our status in our own land, and as we pine for the Geulah Shleimah, we plead thrice daily to Hashem: “Restore our judges as in the earliest times… remove from us sorrow and groaning and reign over us — You, Hashem, alone — with kindness and compassion…”