A British-Israeli woman is suing easyJet for £15,000 after they made her move seats twice because ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refused to sit next to a female passenger.
Melanie Wolfson, 38, is claiming 66,438 shekels compensation from the low-cost airline in a lawsuit filed on her behalf by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).
Ms Wolfson, a professional fundraiser from Tel Aviv, is also asking that easyJet bans its cabin crew from asking women to switch seats because of their gender.
According to the lawsuit, Ms Wolfson paid extra for an aisle seat on a flight to London last October. An ultra-Orthodox man and his son, who were sitting in the row when she arrived, asked her to switch seats with a man a few rows ahead.
Ms Wolfson said she was ‘insulted and humiliated’ by the request. ‘It was the first time in my adult life that I was discriminated against for being a woman,’ she told Haaretz in a telephone conversation.
‘I would not have had any problem whatsoever switching seats if it were to allow members of a family or friends to sit together, but the fact that I was being asked to do this because I was a woman was why I refused.’
She added: ‘What was even more infuriating was that there were passengers watching this happen who said nothing.’
A flight attendant eventually intervened and offered Ms Wolfson a free hot drink as an incentive to move. Concerned that the flight might be delayed on her account and feeling that she had little choice in the matter, she agreed to switch seats.
‘There were passengers watching this happen who said nothing,’ she said.
According to the suit, several flight attendants told Ms Wolfson that women were often asked to switch seats in order to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men.
Just over a month later, she lodged an official complaint with easyJet, arguing that requests she move seats because of her gender was discriminatory.
Two months later, on another easyJet flight to London, Ms Wolfson was again asked to move seats by two ultra-Orthodox men.
Though she refused their request, two female passengers agreed to change seats with the two men sitting next to her, according to the suit.
Members of the cabin crew allegedly did not intervene or defend her right to stay seated where she was although again she was offered a free hot drink.
Ms Wolfson complained to easyJet on both occasions but when it failed to respond, she decided to sue for violation of Israeli law, which prohibits discrimination against customers on the basis of race, religion, nationality, land of origin, gender, sexual orientation, political views or personal status.
Although easyJet is not based in Israel, lawyers will argue that the airline was subject to Israeli law while its plane was on the ground at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
A spokeswoman for easyJet said: ‘We take claims of this nature very seriously. Whilst it would be inappropriate to comment, as this matter is currently the subject of legal proceedings, we do not discriminate on any grounds.’
In 2017, IRAC won a groundbreaking case against El Al for Renee Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor and lawyer in her eighties who was pressured by flight attendants to move seats because of an ultra-Orthodox man who refused to sit next to her.
Ms Rabinowitz, 82, won 6,500 shekels in compensation from El Al. The Israeli judge hearing the case said that ‘under absolutely no circumstances can a 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’.
At the time, IRAC said almost 7,500 emails had been sent to El Al by members of the public objecting to requests made to female passengers to change seats.
Three years ago, a group of Orthodox Jewish men caused ‘absolute bedlam’ on an easyJet flight by refusing to sit next to women.
Staff were forced to call police from 30,000ft during the ‘nightmare flight’ from Tel Aviv to Luton Airport, which one steward described as the ‘worst in 11 years’ of making the trip. According to witnesses the Haredim men stood in the aisles and refused to move until they had been accommodated.
Others also persistently rang the service button, disrupting other passengers and infuriating staff, while another man tried to charge his phone in a special panel – which could have led to dangerous circumstances.
A passenger told the Jewish News: ‘A group of around 10 ultra-Orthodox men caused absolute bedlam on the flight.
‘It was infuriating to witness both for passengers and for the stewards, who tried but failed to control them.
‘It was impossible for the stewards to get these people to listen to them.’
They added: ‘The men were blocking the aisle, making it really difficult for other passengers to get past and take their seat.
‘I was next to quite an elderly gentleman and he did not sit down the entire time. Everybody had to walk round him, he was just oblivious, because he was trying to swap his seat, so he wouldn’t be sitting next to a woman.’
Eventually a ‘bemused’ female passenger offered to swap her seat.
The witness said: ‘I chatted to her later on. She just couldn’t believe the whole thing and they didn’t even say thank you.
‘That was something the staff mentioned as well, that they did not say please or thank you.’
The perplexed passenger also noted the group – a wedding party, which made up more than 50 percent of the flight – kept using the call button, causing disruption to the other passengers.
She said: ‘They were constantly ringing the bell for the steward. I’ve never heard it go off so many times. It was dinging constantly and to the point it was really intrusive if you are trying to read or something.
‘I overheard the steward say, ‘I’ve only got one pair of hands’. They were just really stressing the staff out.
‘One steward said he’d been doing the route for 11 years and it was the worst flight he had ever experienced.’
Officers from Bedfordshire Police were waiting on the tarmac when the plane finally touched down at London Luton Airport.
The passenger said: ‘When we arrived, the captain said: ‘Please stay in your seats. We are waiting for the police’. It went deadly quiet and I think people were shocked.
‘One policeman then came on the plane, stood by the door and oversaw everybody leaving – and there were two more officers standing on the tarmac.’
A statement from easyJet said: ‘easyJet can confirm that flight EZY2084 from Tel Aviv to Luton on 13 February 2017 was met by police on arrival at London Luton.
‘This was due to a small group of passengers behaving disruptively, by not complying with the captain and cabin crew’s request to take their seats, both prior to departure from Tel Aviv and during the flight.
‘For the safety of all passengers easyJet’s crew must ensure that whenever the seat belt signs are illuminated all passengers are in their seats with their seatbelts fastened.
‘easyJet’s cabin crew are trained to assess and evaluate all situations and to act quickly and appropriately to ensure that the safety of the flight and other passengers is not compromised at any time.
‘Separately during the flight a passenger plugged a mobile device into a USB port on the crew control panel in the forward galley in a foolish attempt to charge it.
‘This led to the exit light above the panel being illuminated but did not in any way comprise the safety or security of the aircraft.’
Bedfordshire Police said: ‘We were called at around 5.55pm on Monday to reports of a group of disruptive men on a flight landing at London Luton Airport.
‘Officers attended and escorted the men off the flight preventing a breach of the peace. No offences were found to have been committed.’
Haredi Jews are a stream of Orthodox Jews characterised by their rejection of mainstream secular culture.
Haredim regard themselves as the most religiously authentic group of Jews and although this claim is contested by other streams of Judaism, it is a perception which is often held in wider Jewish and non-Jewish society.
In December 2014, a Delta Airlines flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Israel was delayed by half an hour when a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refused to sit next to female passengers.
Delta Flight 468, bound for Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, was reportedly held up due to several Haredi passengers refusing to to sit in their assigned seats, which were in between two women.
The delay was prolonged when the two female passengers involved reportedly refused to move to accommodate the men’s request, claiming discrimination.
In April 2013, one passenger took his beliefs a step further by covering himself in a plastic bag for the whole of his journey because his religion forbids him to fly over cemeteries.
It was believed the man was a Kohein, a religious descendant of the priests of ancient Israel, who are banned from flying over cemeteries.
The startling photograph went viral after being posted on Reddit and it showed fellow passengers straining over their seats to get a look.
Beneath his plastic wrapping, the man was dressed entirely in black, and appeared to be wearing a Jewish skullcap or ‘kippah’.
As a controversial solution – not entirely allowed by those in the Jewish Orthodox – the plastic bag creates a kind of barrier between the Kohein and the surrounding tumah, or impurity.