A British-Israeli woman is suing EasyJet, the British low-cost airline, for demanding that she give up her seat on a flight from Tel Aviv to London to accommodate an ultra-Orthodox man and his son who refused to sit next to her because of her gender.
Melanie Wolfson, who moved to Israel 13 years ago and lives in Tel Aviv, is demanding 66,438 shekels ($19,515) in compensation from the airline, according to a suit filed last week on her behalf by the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.
The 38-year-old plaintiff, a professional fundraiser, is also demanding that EasyJet stipulate in its guidelines for employees that they are prohibited from asking women to switch seats because of their gender and that they must defend their rights to sit in their assigned seats.
Melanie Wolfson.Credit: Courtesy of Wolfson
According to the suit, Wolfson had paid an extra fee for an aisle seat on a flight to London that took off October 10. An ultra-Orthodox man and his son were already sitting in the row when she arrived. As soon as she sat down, the son got out of his seat, climbed over to the row behind, presumably to avoid physical contact with her, and proceeded to look for a male passenger who would be willing to change seats with her. A few minutes later, he returned, and the father asked Wolfson to switch seats with a man a few rows ahead.
Wolfson says she was “insulted and humiliated” by the request that she move. “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.”
The father insisted that she move but made sure not to look her in the eyes while speaking to her, according to the lawsuit. A flight attendant eventually intervened and offered Wolfson, as an incentive to move, a hot drink free of charge. Determined as she was to remain in her seat, Wolfson became concerned that the flight might be delayed on her account. Feeling she had little choice in the matter, she grudgingly agreed to switch seats.
“What was even more infuriating was that there were passengers watching this happen who said nothing,” she said.
During the flight, according to the suit, Wolfson spoke to several flight attendants who told her that it was common practice in the airline to ask women to switch seats in order to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men. They even encouraged her to complain to the airline in the hope that this might force a change in policy.
An Easyjet Airbus A319 plane is seen at Luton Airport, Britain, June 4, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Paul Childs
A little more than a month later, Wolfson lodged an official complaint with EasyJet. Demanding that she move seats because of her gender, she noted in the complaint, was a violation of anti-discrimination laws. Two months later, Wolfson flew to London again on EasyJet. She had not yet received any response to her complaint at that point. On this flight as well, according to the suit, she was asked to move seats by two ultra-Orthodox men. She refused again. Eventually, two female passengers agreed to switch seats with the two men sitting next to her so that she did not have to move.
During the entire incident, according to the suit, flight attendants did not intervene or try to defend her right to stay seated where she was. After she complained, they again offered her a free hot drink as compensation for her ordeal. Several days later, Wolfson filed a second complaint with EasyJet. After her numerous attempts to obtain a response from the airline had failed, she decided to move ahead with a lawsuit.
EasyJet is being sued for violating an Israeli law enacted in 2000, which prohibits discrimination against customers on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, land of origin, gender, sexual orientation, political views or personal status. Although the airline is not based in Israel, IRAC will argue that it was subject to Israeli law while the plane was on the ground at Ben-Gurion International Airport, where the incident took place.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for EasyJet issued the following statement: "At EasyJet we take claims of this nature very seriously. While it would be inappropriate to comment, as this matter is currently the subject of legal proceedings, we do not discriminate on any grounds."
El Al Israel Airlines planes are seen on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 10, 2020. Credit: Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS
In 2017, IRAC won a groundbreaking case against El Al involving a similar situation. In that case, the organization represented 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 wo refused to sit next to her. Rabinowitz won 6,500 shekels in compensation from El Al. The court also ruled that the Israeli airline could no longer demand seat changes based on gender and that it must publish the new rules and incorporate them into staff training sessions.
Commenting on the latest case, Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of IRAC, said: “The attempt to move a woman from a seat she reserved because of chauvinistic ideas, which have absolutely no connection to Judaism, is immoral, illegal and illegitimate. A direct line connects the attempt to erase women by refusing to sit next to them and the tacit consent that is given to hurt them and their bodies. We, in the Reform movement, through IRAC, will do whatever needs to be done to promote gender equality in Israel.”
Representing Wolfson in the case is Meital Arbel, from IRAC’s legal department.
According to the Israeli anti-discrimination law, the court can award victims up to 50,000 ($15,000) shekels in compensation without the need to prove damages. The higher sum that the plaintiff is demanding includes adjustments for inflation since the law was enacted.
Levitan, Sharon & Co., a Tel-Aviv-based law firm that represents EasyJet in Israel, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Until the coronavirus outbreak, EasyJet ran flights between Tel Aviv and various destinations in Europe including a daily flight to and from London’s Luton airport