Klinghoffer Daughters Recall: The Palestinian Terrorists Killed Our Father to Prove They Had No Mercy
“The reason they killed our father was because they wanted the world to know the that they had no mercy,” Isla Klinghoffer told an audience of hundreds at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan on Thursday, recalling her father’s macabre death 30 years ago at the hands of Palestinian terrorists on a hijacked cruise ship in 1985.
Her tone, although composed, was nevertheless emphatic: her father, Leon Klinghoffer had been destined to become the sole victim aboard the Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by four terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Front traveling on fake passports. Though their original plan, sisters Isla and Lisa recalled, was to moor the vessel at an Israeli port and detonate the ship, killing and maiming as many Israelis as they possibly could, instead their mission dissolved and they decided to make an example out of just one hapless passenger.
Discovering Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound New York Jew who had already survived two strokes in his life, they wheeled his helpless body toward the edge of the ship, shot him in the back of the head, and dumped his body along with the wheelchair into the churning Mediterranean waters below. Fascinatingly, they recalled how their father’s body washed up on Syria’s shore, and the country sent it back to the U.S. for a proper burial.
On Thursday, the Klinghoffer daughters, public health worker Ilsa (57) and local artist Lisa (64), elegantly retold their tale to a full audience of mostly middle-aged and senior individuals, at the Center for Jewish History in New York’s chic Chelsea neighborhood, divulging little-heard details of the excruciating moments when the family, home in New York, discovered that their father, Leon, had been slaughtered and cast away into the seas between Alexandria and Port Said.
Former New York Times correspondent Sara Rimer, recalled that the night began as a celebration at the Klinghoffer home in New York. The State Department had yet to reveal the details concerning their father’s death; actually, the true facts were obfuscated to avoid more casualties. But, as the Klinghoffers gathered friends and relatives to celebrate, slowly news broke out, and Rimer was there to witness the grief that unfolded when the truth was revealed that night. It was the most profound she had ever experienced, Rimer explained.
The Times correspondent recalled a hardened Marilyn Klinghoffer, Leon’s wife, conjuring up a message of vaguely cynical personal strength, despite the trying circumstances: “I’m strong… All these situations add up, one after the other, and then you’re old and strong.”
Marilyn, whose character was colorfully portrayed through the memories of her daughter, was also described in a situation where she identified each terrorist for law enforcement. Ilsa rose from her chair and assumed her mother’s role: Pointing toward the audience, she declared “murderer,” dramatically repeating the process four times. Then, to punctuate her disgust with the men who took her husband’s life, Marilyn spit in each of their faces.
Marilyn’s retribution did not end there. A formidable woman, she decided it proper to sue the Palestinian Liberation Organization — though the group’s allegiance with the Palestinian Liberation Front was, at that point, somewhat tenuous itself, as these things go in the capricious political landscape of Middle East terrorism.
“We were petrified,” quipped Isla. “We were terrified,” added her sister, Lisa, recalling their mother’s pronouncement one night in the kitchen.
While Marilyn tragically died just four months later, as Lisa explained, her attempt to put a face on the abstract concept that was (and, really, still is) terrorism, the sisters managed to see out one lawsuit against a Palestinian arms dealer whose weapons ended up in the hands of the very Palestinian terrorists who took their father’s life.
Following the settling of this lawsuit, the Klinghoffer sisters went on to found The Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation of the Anti-Defamation League, whose goal it is to educate law enforcement about terrorism and its victims. The two sisters heaped praise on former longtime national director Abraham Foxman, who was present at the event, and recently resigned from the ADL and joined Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
At the time, the Klinghoffer story quickly became a high-profile affair, especially in an era of frequent plane hijackings and mass bombings against U.S. military installations across the Middle East and especially in the eastern Mediterranean.
Marilyn Klinghoffer even met with a touched Ronald and Nancy Reagan, a meeting that was captured in a photograph on display among the trove of Klinghoffer archive material at the Center for Jewish History, which also includes some family pictures of a youthful Marilyn (in a wedding dress) and Leon (in his army uniform), official correspondences with President Reagan and even crude sketches of the terrorists aboard the Achille Lauro, which were long-sequestered by the FBI.
“Once Again, we had a crisis in the Middle East in which American lives were hanging in the balance,” President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary at the time, according to U.S. historian and Israeli lawmaker Michael Oren in his history on U.S. involvement in the Middle East: Power, Faith and Fantasy.
In fact, once the cruise ship docked in Egypt, the north African nation (which had recently signed a peace deal with Israel) allowed the terrorists safe passage to the PLO headquarters in Tunisia, and the Italians promptly released the ringleader once the plane he traveled on was forced by U.S. military personnel to land in Sicily.