Last summer in Crown Heights, a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn, signs went up urging residents, guests and visitors to “Please dress modestly” as “This is a Jewish neighborhood.”
Besides being false — Crown Heights is home to Orthodox Jews, but the majority of its residents are non-Jewish blacks of West Indian and African-American descent — the signs struck me as hubristic.
As a human being I can grasp the psychological impulse that might lead a person of faith, especially one who feels embattled by the secular world, to try to impose his will on others. But as a secular feminist raised in a mixed-faith household, I was infuriated by those signs and narrowly resisted the temptation to parade around in hot pants in response.
Now, according to a recent New York Times article, “A growing number of airline passengers, particularly on trips between the United States and Israel, are ... sharing stories of conflicts between ultra-Orthodox Jewish men” and women. “Several flights from New York to Israel over the last year have been delayed or disrupted over the issue,” with the disputes spawning “a protest initiative, an online petition and a spoof safety video from a Jewish magazine suggesting a full-body safety vest ... to protect ultra-Orthodox men from women seated next to them on airplanes.”
Surely a relatively small number of flights have been disrupted and the men causing the disruptions represent a minority of men, as well as of Jews. Why get worked up over it?
Because this is exactly the sort of incursion a free society must not tolerate. Because, according to the Times, “ultra-Orthodox men and their families now make up a larger share of airline travelers to Israel and other locations, giving them more economic clout with airlines.” Because it is outrageous that anyone would weigh the rights of all women against, let alone subordinate them to, the feelings of a tiny minority of men.
I can understand an airline not wanting to offend a paying customer. Which is precisely why, if I were on a flight on which a man demanded that I give up my seat, and he was then permitted to delay takeoff and be otherwise disruptive, I would boycott that airline. The ultra-Orthodox may account for a growing share of travelers, but women pay for airline tickets, too.
In a pluralistic nation such as the United States and a city as diverse as New York, there’s no such thing as universally agreed-upon national or local values. Legally, there’s no such thing as a Jewish neighborhood, in which residents are obligated to live by Jewish values, whatever those are — opinions vary widely. On large commercial airlines serving massive, diverse customer bases, there’s certainly no such thing as a Jewish flight (or a Muslim or a Catholic one, for that matter).
“Imagine how you would feel if a bunch of non-Jews were standing around saying that they can’t sit next to you because you’re a Jew, that they are willing to sit anywhere but next to you, because their religion won’t allow it ... How would you feel? How would you ever get over that insult?”
These are the questions Elana Sztokman, an Israeli women’s rights activist whose flight to Israel was delayed last September by an ultra-Orthodox man’s refusal to sit next to her, says she posed to her would-be seatmate.
Sztokman apparently received no answer. But her questions are important ones. It is good social policy to allow the faithful to carry out most customs in peace, no matter how nonsensical they may appear to non-believers. But one can locate (or invent) a religious rationale, based on selective interpretations of ancient texts, for almost any behavior or demand. It is when the preferences of the religious impinge on the rights of others that those preferences can no longer be accommodated. Asking a woman to give up her seat isn’t any less offensive when the request is rooted in religious conviction.
Debates like these aren’t really about secular society versus minority religious communities, or religious freedom versus individual rights. They are about whether we will defend women’s rights as human rights — or allow them to be treated as objects onto which bigoted men may project their fear and loathing.
Asking women to dress a certain way or give up their seats on airplanes, much like banishing them to the back of the bus (a practice not officially banned in Israel until 2013), is not a minor inconvenience. It is a major insult. Airlines and other businesses that depend on women’s money should not tolerate it.