‘An Innocent Bystander’

‘An Innocent Bystander’

Author Julie Salamon brings new dimensions to Leon Klinghoffer’s murder on the Achille Lauro

Demonstrators in New York protest the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to produce “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 2014. (Raffi Wineburg)
Demonstrators in New York protest the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to produce “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 2014. (Raffi Wineburg)

In the end, despite what she thought she knew, the writer and reporter Julie Salamon learned that the story of Leon Klinghoffer, that terrible story of terror and death, of hatred and fear and loathing, was a story about people.

(She’ll tell the story at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on October 3 — see the box for more details.)

Not that it’s a story whose actors’ actions she ever wants to justify, Ms. Salamon — the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and someone constantly and implacably aware of dehumanizing hate and the way it can end, step by inexorable step, in mass slaughter — makes clear in her new book, “An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer.”

But the story of the Klinghoffers is a lesson about incompetence, about bluster gone bad, and about murder less as a sought-for culmination than an accident born of stupidity and panic, she said. In the end, it’s a story about how irredeemably people can mess up when their minds are fogged by pointless hatred.

She came to write that story — the story about people behaving abominably — through her friendship with people behaving nobly in the face of horrific loss.

Ms. Salamon and her husband, Bill Abrams — he’s the CEO of TrickleUp, a group that helps people out of poverty — are members of the Village Temple, a Reform synagogue in downtown Manhattan. At one point, she became the shul’s co-president; the other co-president was Lisa Klinghoffer’s husband.

Lisa and her sister, Ilsa, who were Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer’s children, remain close both to each other and to the neighborhood where they grew up; they stayed in Greenwich Village, each one is married and has one son, and both still belong to the Village Temple. Ms. Salamon knows them both, and “I’ve known them for quite a long time,” she said, although they didn’t meet until some time after Leon and Marilyn died.

Leon Klinghoffer

Leon Klinghoffer was shot and killed on October 8, 1985, as he sat in his wheelchair on board the Achille Lauro; he and his wife had taken a cruise to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Four months later, Marilyn Klinghoffer died of cancer. “That was too much to bear,” Ms. Salamon said.

“Four years ago was the 30th anniversary of Leon Klinghoffer’s murder, and the Klinghoffer sisters donated all their papers to the American Jewish Historical Society,” one of the five institutions that make up the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street in Manhattan. “To celebrate the donation to the archive, and to commemorate the anniversary of their father’s death,” the sisters organized an evening dedicated to their parents at the museum. Ms. Salamon and her husband were invited; they went “to support our friends,” she said. She knew the story of their parents’ death and expected few surprises.

She was wrong.

The Klinghoffer sisters, who were neither performers nor public speakers, worked with a young woman from the Moth — the live storytelling organization that believes in truth through stories — to learn how best to present their story onstage. “Lisa and Ilsa are very personable, and they worked with Casey to turn it into a great piece of theater,” Ms. Salamon said. They told the story from the vantage point of the people left at home — in other words, their vantage point. They also “periodically called up on stage different people who had been involved,” including the New York Times reporter who’d covered the story as it happened and the U.S. Navy pilot who had been sent into the sky with orders to bring down the plane that carried the hijackers away.

“At that point,” when the pilot told his story, “I turned to my husband, and at the same time he turned to me, and simultaneously we both said ‘No one has ever done a book about this before.’” What they didn’t have to say was that she, Julie, was about to take on that task.

“So I started to do some research,” Ms. Salamon said. “The more I read, the more I realized how little I knew. And I’d thought that I’d known a lot. So I approached Lisa and Ilsa and asked how they felt about it. I wanted their cooperation.” She got it. She wrote a proposal for a book called “Klinghoffer’s Daughters,” and sold it to the publishers Little Brown.

But her research kept expanding. She learned about Alex Odeh, a Palestinian American (and ironically a Christian) who was “not so much a peace activist but worked for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, “which modeled itself on the ADL,” Ms. Salamon said; this was the mid-1980s, when the memory of the Iranian hostage-taking was fresh and rage at people looking Arab (although of course Iranians are not Arab but Persian) was deep and easily unleashed. “He went to a lot of synagogues saying that Arabs are people too,” she said. “He had three young kids; he was a wonderful person. Three days after Klinghoffer was killed he was invited to respond, and he gave a long talk about how terrible it was. Then they asked whether he thought that Yasser Arafat was involved, and he said what was commonly believed at the time — no, Arafat is a man of peace.

Julie Salamon

“The next day he went to his office and opened the door and a bomb went off. He was killed.

“His murder remains a cold case, but the FBI believes it was done by the Jewish Defense League,” Meir Kahane’s organization, Ms. Salamon said. The story she was writing was about both international and domestic terrorism, she realized. And then “the third shoe dropped,” she said.

“I was googling the name of Abu al-Abbas, the mastermind of the Achille Lauro, and I found that his second wife had written a book.” That’s “The Curse of the Achille Lauro,” by Reem Al-Nimer. “So I ordered it on Amazon. It was fascinating, telling the story from their perspective. It was pretty riveting. So I decided I wanted to interview her.”

Ms. Al-Nimer lived in Beirut, so “I found her on Facebook, and I sent her a message,” Ms. Salamon said. “I didn’t think she was going to answer, but I know that anybody who has written a book likes to talk to anybody who has read the book. So I wrote that I’d love to talk to her, and within an hour she wrote back.” First they had to talk about talking; eventually, “I convinced her that I was an open-minded person,” and they had an actual interview. That led to other interviews; she talked to Abbas’s first wife, and to all five of his sons. “Four of them no longer live in the Middle East,” Ms. Salamon said. “The fifth one lives in Dubai — he’s in advertising, and he is a Canadian citizen, a very thoughtful young man who has spent much of his life trying to make sense of his past. He is a very nonmilitant person.”

She went to Beirut, where she talked to one of the hijackers.

“I had to tell my editor that this was going to be a very different book than I thought it was going to be,” Ms. Salamon said. Her editor “thought it was great.” She kept talking to the Klinghoffer sisters; “they were apprehensive, but they also were curious. They really wanted to know.

“That’s the advantage of doing this book now, after so much time has passed, but it’s still recent enough that there are still enough people around who can talk.”

She circled back to a main point. Despite everything she’s learned, “the number one thing that never changes is that no innocent person ever should be killed. No matter what. And hijacking is not a good way to resolve issues.”

So — what did she learn? First, that the hijackers, who ranged in age from 17 to 23, grew up in “constant war, in either Syria and Lebanon, and from the time they were born they were told that the Zionists had taken their homes away, and until they could go back to their homeland — where they had never been — their lives would be worthless.”

Ilsa, left, and Lisa Klinghoffer

Even so, “their intention was not to go onto the ship and kill Leon Klinghoffer,” Ms. Salamon said. “They had a plan. They were not going to hijack the ship, but to use it basically as a taxi.” They wanted to get to Ashdod. “Abbas was obsessed with penetrating the Israeli border.” They expected to shoot up the Israeli city, and be shot and killed in that act.

They were sent for “training” — “in quotation marks,” Ms. Salamon said — in Italy, where they did not excel. Then they boarded the Achille Lauro, carrying their machine guns — “there was no security then, we forget that” — and “basically they were nervous wrecks.” They had fake passports — the hijacker she interviewed was the 17-year-old, “and he had the passport for a 35-year-old Norwegian.”

Eventually what started as a murderous Keystone Kops performance turned into bloody murder. “One of them just lost it,” she said. The story’s never been clear — it’s rarely told the same way twice — but the ship stopped to let tourists see the pyramids. Only the very old, the very young, the sick, and the disabled passengers were left on the boat. That’s when the hijacking happened; the British and American passengers were separated.

“He was not killed because he was Jewish,” Ms. Salamon said. “I truly don’t think so.” Nonetheless, stories that Jewish passengers were separated from others, only 40 years after the Holocaust, have resonated in the 30 years since they first were told.

The passengers were sent upstairs, to a place where the wheelchair-bound Mr. Klinghoffer could not go.

Instead, one of the hijackers shot him, tried to throw him overboard, failed, and shanghaied Achille Lauro staff to do it for him.

And then the rest of the story unfolded — through Egypt, through Italy, through American action, through the opera that enraged Jews around the world with what seemed to be its blithe on-the-one-hand-and-then-on-the-otherness. Ms. Salamon will detail much of it.

She can — she was able to interview the hijackers’ lawyer in Genoa (the story unfolded internationally and insanely), who sent her an enormous trove of documents. She also was able to gain access to papers from the Reagan library, and to speak to the American officials who were involved.

Leon Klinghoffer had a life as well as a death. He was the inventor of the Roto-Broil.

“It is a story of many things — incompetence, tragedy — and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict runs through its heart.

“To me, the book is about humanity. It is about the three families most affected by it.

“As the daughter of Holocaust survivors — both my parents were in camps — I have thought throughout my whole life about historic tragedy. About how tragedy takes on all kinds of symbolic and iconic and mythic qualities.” She grew up in a small town in southern Ohio where she and her family basically were the entire Jewish community, but she had relatives in New York, and they all told stories.

“So I know — from my parents and my cousins — that individual stories always are different from mythic stories. The same is true here. That doesn’t make the story any less tragic, but one of the things I saw is how governments, politicians, people take events like this and use them.

“The political side is particularly interesting. I was looking at these previously classified documents, and I was able to see all these machinations, and it resounds so strongly now.

“It is just riveting to see how these decisions are made, and how haphazard some of them are.

“What I tried to do in the book was constantly move between the political and the personal,” she concluded. “One of the things that really emerged very powerfully for me were the women’s stories, the women who had to deal with the consequences of what happened.

“There was the wife of Alex Odeh, a woman in her 20s with three young kids. There were Ilsa and Lisa, nice young women from Greenwich Village who all of a sudden are thrust into the middle of a geopolitical crisis. And then the two wives of Abou al-Abbas.”

There was one last little irony. If Leon Klinghoffer hadn’t been murdered by terrorists aboard the Achille Lauro, he’d have been remembered differently, Ms. Salamon said. “He would have gone down in history as the inventor of the Rotobroil,” a 1955 “cult item,” according to the podcast Burnt Toast, that looks more or less like a toaster oven but can do almost everything short of churning butter. His daughters remember him that way, as a “hardware store owner, inventor, and entrepreneur.” Because he and Marilyn had lives before they got on the Achille Lauro.

Who: Julie Salamon, author of “An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of
Leon Klinghoffer”

What: Will speak at the morning session of the JCC U

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly

When: On October 3 at 10:30 a.m.

What Else: After a break for lunch, film historian Max Alvarez will talk about “Martin Scorsese & Robert De Niro: An Intense Collaboration.”

How much: $36 for JCC members, $44 for everyone else

For more information or to register: Go to www.jccotp.org/adult-jcc-university or call (201) 408.1454.

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