A British-Israeli woman is suing easyJet after the low-cost airline asked her to move seats on a flight from Tel Aviv to London following objections from strictly-Orthodox Jewish men who refused to sit next to a female passenger.
Melanie Wolfson, 38, is claiming 66,438 shekels (almost £15,000) compensation in a lawsuit filed on her behalf by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which won a similar case in 2017 brought against El Al, the Israeli national carrier.
Wolfson, a professional fundraiser who moved to Israel 13 years ago and lives in Tel Aviv, is also asking that easyJet bans its cabin crew from asking women to switch seats because of their gender.
According to the lawsuit, Wolfson paid extra for an aisle seat on her flight last October. A strictly-Orthodox man and his son, who were sitting in the row when she arrived, asked Wolfson to switch seats with a man a few rows ahead.
Wolfson says she was “insulted and humiliated” by the request. “It was the first time in my adult life that I was discriminated against for being a woman,” she told Haaretz.
“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.”
A flight attendant intervened and offered Wolfson a free hot drink as an incentive to move. Concerned that the flight might be delayed on her account and feeling that she had little choice in the matter, she agreed to switch seats. “There were passengers watching this happen who said nothing,” she said.
According to the suit, several flight attendants told Wolfson during the flight that women were often asked to switch seats in order to accommodate strictly-Orthodox men.
Two months later, on another easyJet flight to London, Wolfson was again asked to move seats by two strictly-Orthodox men. She refused their request but two female passengers agreed to change seats with the two men sitting next to her.
Members of the cabin crew did not intervene or try to defend her right to stay seated where she was although again she was offered a free hot drink, according to the suit.
Wolfson complained to the airline on both occasions but when it failed to respond, she decided to sue for violation of Israeli law, which prohibits discrimination against customers on the basis of race, religion, nationality, land of origin, gender, sexual orientation, political views or personal status.
Although easyJet is not based in Israel, lawyers will argue that the airline was subject to Israeli law while its plane was on the ground at Ben-Gurion airport, where the incident took place.
In a statement, easyJet said: “We take claims of this nature very seriously. Whilst it would be inappropriate to comment, as this matter is currently the subject of legal proceedings, we do not discriminate on any grounds.”
Three years ago, Renee Rabinowitz, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, won a landmark ruling against El Al. The Israeli judge hearing the case said that “under absolutely no circumstances can a crew member ask a passenger to move from their designated seat because the adjacent passenger doesn’t want to sit next to them due to their gender”.
At the time, IRAC said almost 7,500 emails had been sent to El Al by members of the public objecting to requests made to female passengers to change seats.