The Current

Flight seating spurs dispute over religious beliefs & civil rights

Certain passengers on flights to-and-from Israel are finding themselves surprised, and annoyed, when some ultra-orthodox Jewish men refuse to sit next to women, who aren't their wives. Today we look at how far is too far when it comes to religious accommodation.
Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refuse to sit next to any woman who is not their wife. Would you give up your airline seat because a male didn't want to sit next to a female passenger? (David Silverman/Getty Images)

It's been a long time since travelling by air was a glamorous way to go. We're pretty well become used to removing the shoes at security check ins... and the ever-shrinking seat sizes in Economy. 

But now some women, especially on flights to and from Israel, are encountering what they say is an unacceptable aviation irritation. They're being asked to switch seats by some ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who refuse to sit next to a woman who are not their wives.

The practice has become prevalent enough to motivate a campaign, and inspire an online video spoofing the Israeli airline, El-Al.

Now, we should note that not all passengers report being upset at requests to switch seats with ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi men... But  Elana Sztokman certainly was.

Elana Sztokman was travelling on an El-Al flight from New York to Israel when an ultra-Orthodox man refused to sit beside her. she happens to be the author of three books on gender and women's rights in Israel, including "The War on Women in Israel: A story of religious radicalism and women fighting for freedom." Elana Sztokman was in Modi'in, Israel. 

Elana Sztokman's blog inspired Sharon Shapiro to launch a petition on ​

Sharon Shapiro is a blogger on women's issues in Judaism. She was in Chicago.

Canada. Quebec, especially, has been grappling with the issue in a very public way... including its proposed Charter of Values. And just this week, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the town council of Saguenay, Quebec may not open its meetings with a prayer.

It can be difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of religious accommodations in civil society — whether the line is at a town council meeting, or at a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet.

  • Lise Ravary is a journalist and columnist with Le Journal de Montreal.
  • Karen Busby is a Professor of law and the Director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba. 

Would you give up your seat on a flight if another passenger didn't want to sit next to you? How much accommodation are you willing to accept?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Sarah Grant and Pacinthe Mattar.