The Israel Religious Action Centre, led by Anat Hoffman, has launched an initiative to tackle the controversial issue of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on airplanes.

In a newsletter dated January 5, Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which describes itself as the public and legal advocacy arm of the country’s Reform Movement, told recipients that if action is not taken soon, “we may find ourselves going down a dangerous slippery slope.”

Hoffman is one of the leading figures behind Women of the Wall, the Jewish feminist prayer group.

A number of media reports on seat-switching incidents brought the divisive issue to the fore last year. Most recently, in December, a Delta flight from New York to Israel was delayed by 30 minutes because two Haredi men refused to sit in seats between two women.

According to its January newsletter, IRAC has contacted some 19 airlines this month that fly to and from Israel, and “invited them to meet with us so that we can help them “evolve their positions on this issue.”

The group urged newsletter subscribers to share their experiences using an online form on its website “to show the airlines that our concerns are not hypothetical.”

The group contacted the airlines on January 4, IRAC’s director, Noa Sattah told Haaretz. “Now we are giving them three weeks to answer. We will send reminders at the end of this week,” she said. Sattah wouldn’t elaborate on which companies had responded to date.

The initiative is two-pronged, Sattah explained. On one hand, they plan working with airlines “who are interested in fighting this and protecting women’s rights.” One the other, they will use consumer pressure.

“We know that for our public this is a big issue, and our public is Reform Jews, the biggest stream in the U.S.” IRAC is in discussions with a number of American organizations who are interested in joining the campaign, too, Sattah said.

“We will use the stories we collect to help end this degrading and illegal expression of religious extremism,” the website says. In a November 10 newsletter, Hoffman made a similar request to readers. To date, IRAC has collected nearly 100 stories, Sattah said. “Some people say they don’t fly with certain airlines because of this, and others fly on Shabbat because this is so important to them, she added. “I think airlines who don’t look after women’s rights will suffer economically in the long run.”

In the past, the center has been heavily involved in the issue of gender segregation on Israeli buses. Its appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court led to a >January 2011 ruling that banned forced segregation on public buses.

“Drawing on IRAC’s experience fighting for the rights of women to sit anywhere they choose on public buses,” Hoffman wrote to thousands of newsletter subscribers, “we hope to collaborate with airlines to develop policies to protect the rights of female passengers in the skies.”

The newsletter also linked to a set of IRAC-penned guidelines, according to which the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling on buses in Israel applies to planes, too.

“It is important to note that while airline companies have the legal authority to change seating arrangements after boarding, requiring a passenger to switch seats due to gender segregation is illegal,” the guidelines on IRAC’s website state. Airlines are obligated to ensure that female passengers receive “equal and respectful treatment, and to make sure they are not required to give up their seats due to gender,” the guidelines assert.

Airlines say that, when it comes to such seat-switching requests, they try to accommodate customer needs on a case-by-case basis. In September a spokeswoman for El Al said its “policy in general is to try to accommodate any customer request.”

The problem isn’t when ultra-Orthodox men ask nicely, and a female passenger is happy to move, says Sattah. The problem is when the plane doesn’t take off because a woman refuses to move. “There is a huge pressure on women and we have to protect them,” she says.

El Al told Haaretz at the time that despite public outcry over the matter, the airline has no official policy for dealing with it, and did not intend to put one in place.

This isn’t the first time IRAC has gotten involved in the seat-switch issue. In 2012, the group took on El Al after an American passenger, Debra Ryder, said the flight crew made her switch seats because a man refused to sit next to her. The group asked El Al to pay damages of 50,000 shekels (around $12,600) the maximum amount permitted under Israel’s anti-discrimination law. El AL rejected the demand, and IRAC did not take its case to court. But IRAC representatives met with El Al in 2013, and the company at that meeting said it would set guidelines for seat-switching, according to Orly Erez-Litkhovski, a lawyer for IRAC.

In September, a petition urged El Al to take action on the issue. In the wake of that petition, New York Conservative rabbi and attorney Iris Richman called on unhappy customers to put pressure on airlines using a U.S. federal law that prohibits discrimination on flights to and from the United States. (Alona Ferber)