One passenger described the trip as “an 11-hour long nightmare.”
El Al passengers heading to Israel to celebrate the Jewish new year were delayed leaving New York on the eve of Rosh Hashanah when ultra-Orthodox passengers refused to sit near women.
Because their beliefs require men and women to be segregated, the ultra-Orthodox men, recognizable by their black hats and curly tendrils over the ears, attempted to trade their pre-assigned seats with other passengers, offering money in some cases, the Israeli news Web site ynetnews.com reported.
The pilot pleaded for them to sit down and the flight finally took off. But after takeoff, chaos erupted.
“I ended up sitting next to a … man who jumped out of his seat the moment we had finished taking off and proceeded to stand in the aisle,” a woman passenger identified only as Galit told Ynet. The man had asked her to move from the seat beside her husband to accommodate his religious beliefs, but she refused.
“People stood in the aisles and refused to go forward,” said Amit Ben-Natan, a passenger who was on board the plane.
“I went to the bathroom and it was a mission impossible, the noise was endless,” Galit said of the men crowding the aisle and praying loudly.
El Al promised to look into the issue, Ynet reported: “The company will examine the complaints and if some passengers are found to have acted out of line the company will examine its future steps,” the airline said.
This isn’t the first time the Israeli airline has run into trouble with ultra-Orthodox men, also called “Haredim.”
Haaretz reported that in 2012 El Al noticed an increasing number of Haredi men asking to switch seats to avoid sitting next to women. Large groups of up to 20 would try to reserve seats in blocks to avoid it. They would also approach female passengers asking to trade seats before takeoff. An American woman sued, claiming an El Al flight attendant moved her to the back of the plane to accommodate Haredi men.
Israeli ultra-Orthodox communities have also lobbied for gender segregation on buses, at checkout counters and in other public spaces. Sitting next to women isn’t the only issue for ultra-Orthodox airplane passengers.
Airlines have also had to deal with ultra-Orthodox men of priestly descent called “kohanim” sealing themselves in plastic bags used to transport dead bodies to avoid ritual impurity when flying over a cemetery. According to Haredi Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, sealing oneself in a plastic bag is the solution to this problem.
El Al initially allowed the practice before banning it in 2001 due to safety considerations. But in 2002, an El Al flight had to return to Ben Gurion airport after an ultra-Orthodox passenger insisted on wearing a plastic bag. And last year, another ultra-Orthodox traveler drew attention after a photo of the man shrouding himself in plastic on an airplane was posted on Reddit and circulated online.
In-flight movies are also a problem for the Haredim. In 2008, ultra-Orthodox passengers caused a disturbance on an El Al flight to Kiev when, according to Haaretz, witnesses said the men began shouting and trying to stop the movie screens from unfolding because they objected to a film. “It was a pretty frightening sight,” one passenger said.