Amanda Bennett is a contributing columnist for The Post.
Not very long ago I met a young man at a business function. “Hello, I’m Amanda,” I said, sticking out my hand in greeting. He kept his arms glued to his side. “I don’t touch women,” he said.
He was, I realized belatedly, a deeply Orthodox Jew whose tradition prohibited even minor physical contact between men and women outside their families. I nodded politely and moved on. But the encounter deeply troubled me, then and now. Faced with someone who refused to shake my hand because of who I was, I defaulted to social courtesy, wishing neither to make a fuss nor disparage this young man’s religious beliefs.
Yet later I wondered: Why are biased acts against women — even religiously motivated ones — considered so much less toxic than biased acts of any other kind? Why do women often demur and accept humiliation rather than make a fuss? Why does respect even for admittedly extreme religious beliefs trump respect for half the human race?
My encounter came to mind again as I pondered recent stories of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refusing to take airline seats next to women. Several cases were reported in the New York Times this month. Others have appeared in the Israeli press as far back as 2012.
On some flights women reportedly moved when asked. Some men switched places with women to eliminate the adjacency problem. Some flight attendants assisted the Orthodox men in relocating. Yet when others did not, some flights were delayed as men refused to be seated. The incidents have spawned lively discussions among Jews and non-Jews alike.
Yet I wonder: Why are we even discussing this?
Would such blatant behavior be treated merely as a social choice, a courtesy issue or an awkward airline customer-service problem if the targets were anyone other than women?
Let’s test it. What if we recast my encounter, giving me a different race and gender. How do I react now if someone says, “I don’t touch black men.” Do I quietly move on? How would this young man have reacted had the tables been turned? What if I had done something I could never imagine myself doing? Would he have treated it as a social issue if I had refused his hand, saying: “I don’t shake hands with Jews?”
And how do fellow airline passengers react if the person standing in the aisle refuses to be seated next to a black man or woman, citing race rather than gender? Or if he or she cites religion and demands to move away from a gay couple? Or if a Christian refuses seating next to a Muslim, a Muslim refuses to sit next to a Jew?
But, you may argue, religious beliefs should be honored. Extreme practitioners of many faiths cite Old Testament statements that women — and anyone who touches them — become unclean during their menstrual periods and for seven days afterward and that men must eschew physical contact rather than risk defilement. The other reasoning is that women are such powerful sexual stimulants that men must avoid any touch that might awaken their senses — including handshakes and accidental jostling.
Many Orthodox Jewish scholars permit moderation, granting dispensation for such things as ordinary travel or a job-seeker’s handshake. Other people dismiss the whole thing as hooey, an ancient practice ill-suited for modern-day adherents. Yet a minority has demanded segregated transport within Israel and respect for reseating needs everywhere else. After all, they say, it is a very small accommodation.
Sorry. That doesn’t, uh, fly.
Consider the recent turmoil when some, including an Oregon baker and an Indiana pizza maker, cited Christian belief as a justification for refusing to serve at gay weddings; a new Indiana law that supposedly permitted such a refusal led to national outcry and rebukes from companies including Angie’s List, Apple, Salesforce.com and Walmart. Or when, as was recently reported from UCLA, a student was initially barred from student governance because of her involvement in Jewish causes. In a very short time our larger society has come to recognize and reject such acts as symbols of the larger disrespect and discrimination that makes them possible.
When will we see the same about women? What if Rosa Parks had been asked to give up her seat on the bus not because she was black but because she was a woman? After she refused, would we have seen as clearly and followed?
One female Jewish airline passenger urged other women to reject “the insult” after she herself became the object of an Orthodox man’s request to move. “I want women to believe they deserve better,” wrote Elana Sztokman in Tablet, an online Jewish news magazine.
Like her, if my hand is refused again, I hope I too will be strong enough to say: “I respect your religious views, but I deserve better.”