So a man boards his El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, but when he sees Elana Sztokman there in the seat adjacent to his, he refuses to sit next to her. 

Was she holding a howling baby? Did she have a hacking cough? Ebola, maybe?

No. Her offense? This person was a she. 

The man, an ultra-religious Orthodox Jew, was so certain that God didn’t want him to sit beside a woman that he demanded a seat change. Other Orthodox men on board took up his cause, and the ensuing brouhaha delayed takeoff until, finally, another seat could be found for him. 

51t1Hqayy2LSztokman just happens to be the author of a new book, The War On Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting For Freedom,  in which she calls for an end to “the religious extremism that is hurting women” in that country. 

Proving? That God, if he does exist, has a sense of humor. Or, at the very least, a deep sense of irony.

The outraged essay  that Sztokman wrote about the incident quickly went viral. 

Will this help Sztokman sell books? 

I certainly hope so.

Seating flaps like this aren’t unusual for El Al. It happens often enough that instituting gender-segregated seating on their planes has been discussed.  

And playing musical chairs with airplane seats, of course, is nothing new. It usually results when families who have been assigned seats all over the plane actually want to sit together. But seat shifting happens for other reasons too. To maximize legroom. To move away from a bathroom. 

I’ve quietly asked the flight attendant for a change when seated beside a woman so obese that she was crowding me out of my seat. Or in front of a child who kept kicking my seatback.  Flight attendants, I’ve found, will try to accommodate you if you’ve got a reasonable request. 

But was this man’s request reasonable?

Sztokman didn’t think so. “What offends me,” she wrote, “is the premise that sitting next to me is a problem. . . . After all, I had just spoken to hundreds of people about exactly these issues and the way women are made to feel like second-class citizens as a result.” 

My Facebook pals are also appalled, based on their comments to me about her essay: 

“He should have been shown the door and told he can fly when he grows up” 

“Shame on him for his lack of understanding and rigid misinterpretation of archaic rules.” 

“He needs a private jet to control his flying environment, but I guess it’s easier to try to control women.” 

“Make him walk.” 

“It’s an airplane, not a shul!”

“Let him sit in the bathroom where he can be alone with his deep thoughts.” 

“Maybe he should fly alone. Like, take a flying leap!”

As a single woman who usually flies alone, I’d rather sit next to a woman than a man, because women don’t hog the armrests. But when I find myself seated next to a guy, I don’t demand to be moved.  

I cope. 

But then, for me, it’s a question of comfort, not one of religious belief.

So where does it end? One section for religious men. Another for religious women. Well then, how about another section for secular humanist Jews like me, where we can nosh our non-kosher snacks and read the New York Times in peace?    

What about a section for anyone traveling with a screaming baby? Or a really bad cold? A section for folks who plan to feast on pungent food?   

A section for introverts only, to ensure that they won’t have to talk to each other?

A window-shades-closed section for travelers who want to nap through the flight?

A section for white-knuckled flyers, with special “This Plane Is Safe and Will Not Crash” affirmations printed on the seat-back cards?

And why not a special section for those restless flyers who bounce up every five minutes to stretch their legs, visit the bathroom, and schmooze with the flight attendants?

But this “woman, begone!” idea is way different from a mere benign preference (like the desire not to be near the bathroom). It is a serious attack on women’s hard-won right to equality in public accommodations. Travelers who see the entire female sex as “the other”—beings who are somehow too alien to sit in the next seat—should not get their way. This is a matter of standing up for every woman’s right to ordinary, taken-for-granted equality in normal public life—the very sort of equality that people of color spent the past century fighting for. To give a religious reason for the disdain, as Sztokman writes, “doesn’t excuse the insult.”

El Al, I trust, will eventually get this all sorted out. (Seeking a reality check, I spoke with a friend who is a Professor of Jewish Studies with Orthodox rabbinic ordination, who assured me that the vast majority of men in the modern Orthodox world have no problem working with women and interacting with them on a regular basis, including in flight.)  Either that, or people will begin to behave in the tolerant, kind way that most religions, when not taken to fanatical extremes, encourage them to. 

In the meantime, I’ve got an idea. Feminist Airlines! The very first airline to fly in accordance with feminist values. Every passenger will be considered equal and worthy, and all will be expected to treat each other with consideration and kindness. (And, of course, Gloria Steinem always flies for free.)  

Fly the feminist skies with me, Elana! I’ll see you at the airport.

 

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  • Kelly October 26, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    They should have made him sit between 2 women!

    Reply
  • Suzanne Fluhr October 26, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    I don’t think his request should have been accommodated. On the other hand, it would make my skin crawl to have to sit next to him.

    Reply
  • Stacey Gustafson October 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    I believe there should be a germfree zone, move me to first class!

    Reply
  • Janie Emaus October 25, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    I can’t believe this happened. But then on second thought, I can. What is this world coming to?

    Reply
  • Lenore October 25, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    It’s surprising to me that people with such solid liberal credentials are so wholly unwilling to give someone else the benefit of his beliefs. Roz, neither you nor Elana has bothered to get to the bottom of this issue despite all the words (funny though yours are, as usual). The issue is sex. That’s it. Orthodox Jewish men are not to put themselves in positions where they touch women. In fact, they are not allowed to touch their wives when they have their periods; how would they know whether a strange women, assigned to the seat next to them, is menstruating or not? Thus, this one man sought an accommodation to his religious beliefs by not having to sit next to a woman.
    These are not my beliefs but I have no problem respecting them. I imagine that lots of liberals have no problem respecting the beliefs of other religions but somehow, especially from other Jews, it’s ok to disrespect those of the Orthodox branch of Judaism.
    Again, I wouldn’t want to live them (as I am much too fond of the equality in my upbringing, relationship with my husband, and education), but I can make an accommodation for Orthodox beliefs – which, overall, are no worse than those in many other religions and have a solid base of such values as charity.

    Reply
  • bill October 25, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    For free, hmmm?

    Reply
  • Don Kollisch October 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Roz,

    Check out this YouTube clip. This would be an alternative response for the ElAl flight attendant and captain.

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SOAbA4E88iY
    (or)
    http://youtu.be/SOAbA4E88iY

    Be well!
    Don

    Reply
  • Carolann October 25, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Yes, your idea sounds like a flight I’d like to be on! Bigotry and hate will always exist as long as mankind does – unfortunately.

    Reply
  • Lois Alter Mark October 25, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    The idea of religious freedom is for everyone to be able to believe what they want but not expect anyone to change the rules to accommodate those beliefs. Women do seem to get the short end of every religion.

    Reply
  • Lisa @ Grandma's Briefs October 25, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    A ludicrous request. Hard to believe anyone might even take it seriously.

    I’ll happily fly Feminist Airlines with you! Save me a seat.

    Reply
  • Kathleen O'Keefe October 25, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Yes, this is appalling! What would the airline have done if the white passenger had refused to sit next to an African-American? Racism would have been shouted from rooftops all over the world, as well it should be. This is sexism, clear and simple, and no more acceptable.

    Reply
  • Carol Cassara October 25, 2014 at 10:42 am

    I really think this is a matter of common sense. The world doesn’t always easily accommodate personal beliefs.

    Reply