El Al loses discrimination case brought by Holocaust survivor asked to move after ultra-orthodox man refused to sit next to her, reported by Guardian.

Flight stewards working for Israel’s national carrier El Al cannot request female passengers to move seats to accommodate ultra-orthodox men who do not want to sit next to them, a court has ruled.

The landmark case was brought by 82-year old Holocaust survivor Renee Rabinowitz, who sued the airline for discrimination after being asked to move seats to accommodate an ultra-orthodox male passenger in 2015. When she challenged the practice, she was told by staff that the policy had been approved at board level.

Describing the controversial practice as “discriminatory”, judge Dana Cohen-Lekah ruled 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”.

Speaking in a Jerusalem court on Wednesday, Cohen-Lekah added that the policy was a “direct transgression” of the Israeli discrimination laws relating to products and services.

Rabinovitz, a retired lawyer who fled the Nazis as a child, said she was thrilled with the verdict.

“I didn’t think the judge would close this case today. It was supposed to be a preliminary discussion. I’m happy with the verdict,” she said.

“I hope El Al takes this verdict seriously. I look forward to my future flights with El Al, and I hope I could witness a moment in which an ultra-orthodox man says ‘I won’t sit until you move this woman’ and the El Al flight attendant tells him the law prevents her from doing so.”

The sight of flight attendants asking female passengers to move so ultra-orthodox men do not have inadvertent physical contact with women is a familiar sight on flights in an out of Israel.

In February this year, 10 ultra-Orthodox passengers stood in the aisles and refused to take their seats, causing a delay on an easy Jet flight to the UK before female passengers agreed to move so the flight could leave.

Similar incidents occurred on flights from the US, including a Delta flight in New York, which were delayed in 2014 after male ultra-Orthodox passengers refused to sit next to women.

Rabinowitz, who is religious herself, was returning from a family visit to the US when she was asked by a flight attendant to move seats at the request of the ultra-Orthodox man in the window seat. Although she moved, as she was waiting to leave the aircraft on landing, she talked to one of the pilots and complained about the practice.

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Rabinowitz said: “The man had no other reason to complain than my gender – and that’s unlawful discrimination. It’s no different than if a person of another religion had said: ‘I don’t want to sit next to a Jew.’ And I don’t believe El Al would move a person in those circumstances.

“I asked the flight attendant point blank if the man sitting next to me had asked me to be moved, and unabashedly he said yes. I then went back to the man and said: ‘I’m an 81-year-old woman, what’s your problem?’

“He started to tell me it was forbidden by the Torah. I interrupted him to say the Torah says nothing about a man sitting next to a woman. He conceded I was right but said there was a general principle that a person should not put himself in a dangerous situation.”

At court, Rabinowitz was represented by the Israel Religious Action Center and its lawyer Riki Shapira Rosenberg, who said after the ruling that the centre had received dozens of similar complaints alleging discrimination on El Al flights.

IRAC added that it had approached El Al last year offering to help write guidelines to prevent in-flight gender discrimination, but the offer was turned down.

Anat Hoffman, IRAC executive director, said: “Renee Rabinowitz, an 82-year-old holocaust survivor, set out to fight El Al because she wanted to prevent humiliation and discrimination of other women on flights.”

The ruling requires El Al to define its procedures and explain them to all in-flight staff in writing and through training. El Al was also told to pay Rabinowitz 6,500 (£1,450) shekels in damages. Her lawyer had asked for 50,000 shekels.

Commenting on the ruling, which gives El Al 45 days to change its policies, the airline said: “The sides reached an agreement that the airline’s procedures on the matter would be clarified to its employees. The court validated this agreement and the company will respect the verdict.”