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LONDON — Israeli airline El Al said it would "immediately" remove any person from a flight who won't sit next to another passenger following outrage after four ultra-Orthodox men refused to take their assigned seats because they were next to women.
An incident last Friday at Kennedy Airport on El Al's New York-Tel Aviv flight prompted one of Israel's largest tech firms to say it would boycott the national airline. The women in that case were moved away from the men — despite a court ruling against the practice.
Barak Eilam, CEO of Ra’anana-based software company NICE Systems, said his company would not fly with the Israeli flag-carrier until it changed its “practice and actions discriminating [against] women.”
"At NICE we don't do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion," he wrote on LinkedIn.
In response, El Al CEO Gonen Ussishkin confirmed in a statement this week that passengers who decline to sit next to someone based on religious or other reasons will be pulled from the plane.
"Anyone who flies in Israel's national airline company feels the values on which we built our company: egalitarian regardless of religion, race or gender," Ussishkin said.
During Friday's incident, the witness, Khen Rotem, posted on Facebook that the plane’s departure was delayed while male flight attendants at first tried to force the men to sit down, then asked women to move until the stand-off was resolved.
One of the men was so devout that he boarded the plane with his eyes closed in an apparent effort to avoid looking at any woman on board, Rotem said.
While the flight attendants were busy “putting personal practice of faith ahead of individual rights and civil order,” the flight missed its turn for take-off and departed one-and-a-quarter hours late, Rotem wrote.
Ussishkin responded that El Al personnel who "handled the event did so with appropriate sensitivity."
The incident took place almost a year to the day after a landmark ruling by an Israeli court that airline employees cannot ask female passengers to move seats to accommodate men.
The case was brought against El Al by Renee Rabinowitz, an 82-year-old who fled the Nazis during World War II and who was asked to move seats on a 2015 flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem Magistrates Court ordered El Al to set up a procedure for similar occurrences in future and awarded Rabinowitz the equivalent of $1,834 in damages.
The Israel Religious Action Center, a progressive group that led last year's case, was also unavailable for comment but asked passengers to report any similar cases. “If you have witnessed or experienced illegal gender segregation, please report the incident to us, and we will take action,” it said on Facebook.
NICE Systems employs 4,900 workers worldwide. Haaretz reported Tuesday that any boycott could present a serious problem for El Al, for whom both ultra-Orthodox travelers and high-tech companies are important customers.