Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Men “Stand Up” for “Religious Freedom”… On a Plane

I often say that an overly broad religious exemption regime would lead to chaos, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. Apparently I underestimated myself. The Economist reports that ultra-orthodox Jews have been disrupting flights when they’re seated next to women, which, they say, their religion forbids.*

According to the report, the men will sometimes even attempt to bribe the women to move. Ok, so no huge deal there—it’s annoying, perhaps, but hey, that’s the free market economy at work. The problem is what happens if the woman/women won’t cooperate. As one news source described a recent outburst: “Hundreds of ultra-orthodox Jewish men delayed takeoff of a transatlantic flight by refusing to sit next to women, and then caused chaos once it was airborne [by standing in the aisles for the entire flight and refusing to occupy their seats].”

Obviously a congested plane aisle isn’t the end of the world (although one can imagine it might be a safety issue in some situations), and the news reports have treated it as a kind of amusing oddity. But what’s interesting here is the pattern of behavior, which replicates the broader social and political movement strategies we’ve seen on a personal scale.

First, you try to convince people to do what you want—so, for example, if you’re an ultra-Orthodox man on a plane, you ask the woman next to you to move elsewhere, or if you’re a conservative religious employer, you argue that contraception shouldn’t be included in mandatory requirements for prescription coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Second, if that doesn’t work, you try to make it seem like complying is really in the person’s own best interests: you offer to pay your seatmate to vacate, or you claim that contraception is harmful to women.

Third, if none of that works, you create costs for both the authority attempting to regulate you and the innocent bystanders around you in the hopes that if you create enough problems the authority in question will cede way (in other words you block the aisles for a 10 hour flight, or you file lawsuits and cost the government time and money defending the law you tried to convince it not to pass, and then once you get an accommodation you sue to be exempted from that as well).

The real difference here is that if you don’t want to deal with ultra-Orthodox men interfering in your travel, you can just take another airline. If only it were as easy for female employees affected by the numerous lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement to find a better job.

*Correction: This post originally indicated that gender separation was due to concerns about women’s menstrual cycles. To read more about gender separation among Haredi Jews in Israel and in the U.S. read the Forward’s excellent piece from 2011.