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Passengers accuse JetBlue of antisemitism after Orthodox Jews ordered off plane

Flight crew complained that passengers who switched seats made them uncomfortable

Three Orthodox passengers were ordered off a New Year’s Eve red-eye flight from California to New York after they changed seats.

“My inflight crew tells me they do not want to have you on their plane,” the JetBlue pilot can be heard telling the passengers in an audio recording of the incident supplied to The Lakewood Scoop. “I have to support them.”

One of the passengers protested the order, calling it “antisemitism.”

JetBlue did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Switching seats

The kerfuffle began when a visibly Jewish elderly man took what he apparently thought was a vacant seat on a red-eye from Palm Springs to John F. Kennedy Airport. A flight attendant asked if that was his assigned seat, and when he said no, she told him he couldn’t sit there. He took another seat he thought was vacant and the attendant said he could not sit there either. 

One of two Orthodox women seated elsewhere on the plane who were traveling with him then intervened, explaining that he couldn’t occupy his assigned seat because of “religious purposes,” presumably because it was next to a woman.

Another passenger, Ron Passaro, then offered to sit in the elderly man’s seat, next to a window, and in turn gave the elderly man his aisle seat. “You’re a hero to me,” the Orthodox woman told Passaro. The elderly man then traded places again with one of the two women, who took Passaro’s original seat, while the elderly man took the woman’s aisle seat. It was unclear why they made the additional switch.

Weight imbalance — or antisemitism?

Passaro told the Forward that he thought the seating was settled when suddenly the captain and a security official appeared in the aisle, telling the Orthodox passengers they’d have to deplane. The captain said the crew had informed him they were “not comfortable” with them on the flight. 

The security official can be heard on the audio recording saying: “The captain and crew have made the decision. You’re coming off this plane.” He added that “changing seats is a violation when it comes to weight imbalance. You have to sit in your assigned seats.” 

Passaro said the “weight imbalance” issue made no sense because the three passengers were, “if anything, svelte.” 

The Orthodox woman defended the elderly man, saying, “Did he shoot? Did he do anything, did he touch anybody? He did nothing. It’s just for religious purposes. Do we look dangerous?” She added that she had a job, children and grandchildren waiting for her to come home, then declared, “It’s antisemitism.”

Passaro’s girlfriend, Rachel Sklar, who was also on the flight and who posted about the incident on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), agreed, telling the Forward: “They said obviously this is clearly antisemitism, and I was like, ‘It sure seems like it to me.’ The whole thing was really upsetting. It seemed very unnecessary and kind of bewildering.” 

She added: “I was stunned that they kicked them off the plane at that hour on New Year’s Eve.” The flight departed at 10:30 p.m., about a half-hour late.

Accommodating seat change requests

Sklar said she assumed that airlines try to accommodate requests for religious accommodations the same way they accommodate requests for people to sit with their families. Sklar herself is allergic to cats and has asked for help changing seats if another passenger has a cat with them. “Flight attendants have a lot of discretion; they can switch people around,” she said. “The weight thing didn’t make any sense.”

Passaro said “the one thing I didn’t see happen that would have resolved all of this would have been for the flight attendant to ask if anyone in the general area had a seat they’d be willing to trade.” 

Incidents involving Orthodox Jewish men requesting seat changes to avoid sitting near women are not infrequently in the news. Critics say the requests are sexist as well as inconvenient for other passengers, and that women should never be imposed upon or expected to accommodate them. Others say it’s no big deal if someone is willing to make the switch.

All JetBlue reservations except those with the lowest-priced fares allow passengers to select their seats when they book. Passengers who purchase the lowest-priced fares can pay extra to choose their seats.

El Al barred from asking women to move

A 2017 court decision in Israel decreed that El Al Airlines cannot ask female passengers to move seats to accommodate a man who won’t sit next to women. The decision termed the airline’s policy of asking women to move at the request of a Haredi man “a direct transgression of the law preventing discrimination” — even though women were not required to assent to the request. 

The El Al ruling was made in response to a lawsuit brought by an 83-year-old woman who agreed to switch seats on a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Israel. The plaintiff was represented by the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.

IRAC did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Agudath Israel, which represents Orthodox Jews in the U.S., declined to comment.

On the social media platform Threads, some observers agreed that forcing the Orthodox passengers to deplane was antisemitism, but others said it was wrong to expect people to accommodate a man who refused to sit next to a woman. 

“It’s not anti-semitism,” said @djzoetrope. “Orthodox men will not sit next to a woman. They either follow the rules or they don’t fly. Bigotry is not acceptable against any group even if that bigotry is part of your religion.”

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