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. 


  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    How much do they pay? What if the only open seat was next to another conservative Jewish man? Would it be possible to have a bidding war between them? Also, what about the wife of the conservative Jewish man? Wouldn’t it also be just as wrong for her to sit next to another possibly menstruating woman? I suppose there could be more questions along these lines, but lets just leave it as these for today.

    One more. We know the conservative Jewish man can’t ask the question, but couldn’t the woman sitting next to the conservative Jewish man help the situation by just volunteering the answer without it being asked? At least he would then know one way or the other.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    Anyone who refused to sit down should have been kicked off the flight, regardless of the reason. Problem solved. I don’t really understand why there was an issue.

    If I cause a disruption on a plane because I think Odin will torture my soul after I die if I touch someone considered unclean, would the airline make the same allowances for me?

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    Exactly. Disruption for religious reasons should be treated the same as disruption due to too much alcohol, or any other reason.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Religion is socially acceptable in moderation. Don’t become a religioholic.

  • janbeee2@gmail.com' Janice Best says:

    I think you have your last sentence backward. Why should menstruating women accommodate ultra-orthodox Jewish men?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The last sentence was to show how foolish that approach was. We tried it with cigarettes, but mixing the two groups was never going to work well, so we just decided no smokers allowed.

  • janbeee2@gmail.com' Janice Best says:

    Ah. Although in that case, it was separating all smokers from all non-smokers. This would be separating all menstruating people from all non-menstruating people, not just the ultra-orthodox men.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It’s not that simple. There were flights when the only available seat was in the smoking section, and I got stuck there with the concentration of smokers. There were also lots of smokers in the non-smoking section because they didn’t want to smoke on that flight, and they wanted to avoid the smoke, so I got stuck back there. There were also flights when I got stuck in the very last non-smoking row, one foot away from them. That was even worse than getting stuck at a restaurant table next to them. I think it would be best if women would just volunteer the info, because it would be improper for the men to ask.

  • janbeee2@gmail.com' Janice Best says:

    I was referring to the goal, not the actual practice, of separating smokers from nonsmokers.

    I am hoping you’re joking about women volunteering info that is nobody’s business. I would think you are, because your other posts are usually quite thoughtful. But now I’m not so sure (about joking or not, not about thoughtful or not).

    The better solution would be for people who feel they cannot take the chance of touching menstruating women, to not put themselves into a situation where they might touch menstruating women. Problem solved.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    When dealing with religious topics, everything needs to be both serious and not serious at the same time. It can be hard to stay balanced, but that is living in a conservative world.

  • awerling@gmail.com' andrew123456789 says:

    Just choose another airline? At what point between buying your ticket and being in a plane with guys standing in the aisles blocking your way to the bathroom are you supposed to make that decision? Unless you’re arguing that we all develop our psychic capabilities, I don’t see that as a solution.

  • buddyrayo@gmail.com' BROwens says:

    Your religious peculiarity is not my behavioral mandate.

  • moonberggj@gmail.com' golden_valley says:

    “Hello. I’m Magda. I am menstruating.” Coming soon to buses, subways, and air planes…?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    And maybe TV commercials, but hopefully not Super bowl commercials.

  • dennis@fpaofnys.org' Rabbi Dennis S. Ross says:

    Religious Jewish who want gender segregation and birth control opponents are taking advantage here, gaming the system to impose their religious restrictions on others. It is a shame that they are getting away with it!

  • polyearp2@gmail.com' Laurence Charles Ringo says:

    Here’s a solution to situations like this (At least, it would SEEM to be a sensible solution?)—Why don’t the so-called”Utra Orthodox”simply buy/rent their own planes? After all, women not under control of their religious constructs are practically EVERYWHERE, so…wouldn’t my suggestion solve the problem? Or, is there a religious prohibition against THAT, too??

  • mmartha61@yahoo.com' Murmur1 says:

    How will I know in advance about the ultra-orthodox fliers if I want to take another airline? These men should be told that, if they don’t want to sit next to a woman, they have to purchase two seats.

  • they should be arrested for disrupting the flight. and btw, the conservative religious groups in the ‘HOBBY LOBBY” case didn’t object to contraception under the ACA,, they objected to providing four of the 16 methods of contraception that could also be used to abort a fetus. they had no problem with the other 12. how about stating the truth and not spreading the dishonest rumors that they wanted to ban contraception, which just isn’t true.

  • hollyhock@roadrunner.com' hollyhock says:

    I would never agree to move to another seat that I had paid for just to accommodate such a bigot. And I will stick out my hand to make sure he feels contaminated in the process. What the hell is wrong with such people? If they don’t want to be contaminated by me (74-year-old white lady) they should buy an entire row; even then, I might entertain myself by kicking their seat backs.

  • hollyhock@roadrunner.com' hollyhock says:

    Like hell.

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