‘Klinghoffer’ the opera: Biased and banal
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‘Klinghoffer’ the opera: Biased and banal

The Achille Lauro: What really happened

Leon Klinghoffer, 69 years old when he was murdered in 1985, is buried in Beth David Memorial Park in Kenilworth. His funeral, held in Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, drew about 800 mourners.

An American Jew, Mr. Klinghoffer had been killed by one of four hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, sailing in the Mediterranean, and his body and wheelchair were thrown overboard. The hijackers had separated the 20 Jews, Americans, and Britons from the other passengers. Mr. Klinghoffer’s body washed up on shore in Syria, and the Syrians returned it to the United States.

Four months after her husband’s murder, 59-year-old Marilyn Klinghoffer died of colon cancer. The Klinghoffers left two daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, who both live in New York City.

Mr. Klinghoffer, whose company manufactured small appliances, and his wife, a personnel manager for Gralla Publications in New York City, had been aboard the ship to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. Mr. Klinghoffer, who had suffered two strokes and was partially paralyzed, was confined to a wheelchair.

The young terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front (a small arm of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization) had hijacked the liner off the coast of Egypt on October 7, 1985. Wielding machine guns, they ordered the captain to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. The Syrian government refused the ship permission to land.

The next day, Youssef Majed Molqi, the leader of the hijackers, singled out Mr. Klinghoffer as a murder victim, shooting him in the forehead and chest as he sat in his wheelchair. The hijackers forced the ship’s hairdresser and a waiter to throw Mr. Klinghoffer’s body and wheelchair overboard, and vowed to kill a passenger a day until their demands were met. (Next in line to be executed was a Jewish woman, Mildred Hode of Springfield.) Benjamin Netanyahu, then an Israeli representative to the United Nations, said that Mr. Klinghoffer and his wife “were singled out for one thing – they were Jewish.”

Mrs. Klinghoffer, who did not see the murder, was told by the hijackers that her husband had been moved to the infirmary. She learned the truth only after the hijackers, who were granted safe conduct, left the ship at Port Said.

PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi said that perhaps Marilyn Klinghoffer had killed her husband for insurance money. The PLO itself denied any responsibility and apologized for the hijacking.

The hijackers surrendered after being assured of safe conduct to Tunisia. They wound up being tried by Italian authorities. Molqi, the terrorist who shot Mr. Klinghoffer, at last report was in prison, awaiting release in 2016. The other hijackers were treated leniently by the Italian authorities, serving short sentences.

The Klinghoffers’ daughters had been told that the two-day hijacking ended peacefully, with no casualties. They held a party, complete with Champagne, inviting friends and family, along with a few reporters stationed outside their building since the hijacking began. When the news of the murder broke, the party ended quickly.

After their father’s death, the Klinghoffers’ daughters, working with the Anti-Defamation League, established the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation, which lobbies for anti-terrorism legislation and sponsors anti-terrorism courses. The two women had sued the PLO, and the foundation was funded by an undisclosed settlement from it. The daughters said that it was a small amount of money.

The mastermind of the hijacking, Palestine Liberation Front leader Abu Abbas, had served as a mediator with the terrorists. Told that Mr. Klinghoffer’s body had washed up on shore, he joked, “Maybe he was trying to swim for it.” Abbas was jailed, then freed by the Italian government, but was captured by U.S. forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He died in custody of heart disease a year later. Michael K. Bohn, a former director of the White House situation room and the author of “The Achille Lauro Hijacking,” wrote: “I think justice was done in some fashion. Abbas died an ignominious death, alone in a cramped cell in Iraq.”

Mildred Hoge, slated to be killed after Mr. Klinghoffer, lived to 85. She died in 2006.

The Achille Lauro returned to cruise duty, but caught fire off the coast of Somalia in 1994 and sank.

-W.B.

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