Leon Klinghoffer (September 24, 1916 – October 8, 1985) was a disabled American appliance manufacturer who was murdered and thrown overboard by Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985.
Klinghoffer grew up on Suffolk Street in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City. Among his close friends was Jack Kirby, who would go on to become a major figure in the history of comic books.
Hijacking and murder
In 1985, Klinghoffer, then 69, retired and in a wheelchair, was on a cruise on the Achille Lauro along with his wife Marilyn (née Windwehr), to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. On October 7, 1985, four hijackers from the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) took control of the liner off Egypt as it was sailing from Alexandria to Port Said, Egypt. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they ordered the captain to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons, including the Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar.
The next day, after being refused permission by the Syrian government to dock at Tartus, the hijackers singled out Klinghoffer, a Jew, for murder, shooting him in the forehead and chest as he sat in his wheelchair. They then forced the ship's barber and a waiter to throw his body and wheelchair overboard. Marilyn Klinghoffer, who did not witness the shooting, was told by the hijackers that he had been moved to the infirmary. She only learned the truth after the hijackers left the ship at Port Said. PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi said that perhaps the terminally ill Marilyn Klinghoffer had killed her husband for insurance money. However, the PLO later accepted responsibility and apologized.
Initially, the hijackers were granted safe passage to Tunisia, but U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. fighter plane to force the get-away plane to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. After an extradition dispute, Italian authorities arrested and later tried the Palestinian terrorists, but let Abu Abbas fly to Yugoslavia.
Klinghoffer's body was found by the Syrians on October 14–15, and it was returned to the United States around October 20. His funeral, with 800 in attendance, was held at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. Leon Klinghoffer was buried at Beth David Memorial Park in Kenilworth, New Jersey. Four months after her husband's murder, Marilyn Klinghoffer (October 5, 1926 – February 9, 1986) died of colon cancer, aged 59. The Klinghoffers are survived by two daughters, Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer.
After his death, their daughters established the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation with the Anti-Defamation League. The foundation combats terrorism through educational, political, and legal means. The foundation is funded by an undisclosed settlement paid by the PLO to the Klinghoffers, to settle a lawsuit seeking damages for the PLO's role in the hijacking (Klinghoffer v. PLO, 739 F. Supp. 854 (S.D.N.Y. 1990) and Klinghoffer v. PLO, 937 F.2d 44, 50 (2d Cir. 1991)). This lawsuit spurred passage of the Antiterrorism Act of 1990, which made it easier for victims of terrorism to sue terrorists and collect civil damages for losses incurred.
PLF leader Muhammad Zaidan, a.k.a. Abu Abbas, was freed by the Italian government in the aftermath of the Achille Lauro affair, but was continually sought by the United States government. He was captured in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he died in custody a year later of heart disease, according to the U.S. Government.
The ship involved in the hijacking, the Achille Lauro, returned to cruise duty until she caught fire off the coast of Somalia on November 30, 1994. After evacuating the ship of passengers, the crew could not control the fire, and the abandoned ship sank on December 2.
In popular culture
American composer John Adams' second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the events of 1985, opened to great controversy in 1991. The concept for the opera was suggested by director Peter Sellars and it featured a libretto by Alice Goodman. The Los Angeles Opera shared in the work's commission but never presented it, after the work was criticized by some[who?] as overly sympathetic to the terrorists. A Prix Italia-winning television version of the opera, starring Sanford Sylvan and Christopher Maltman, and directed by Penny Woolcock, was screened by United Kingdom's Channel 4 in 2003.
- Berman, Daphna. "Klinghoffer daughters recall personal tragedy at commemoration of terror victims outside Israel". Haaretz. Retrieved 2009-07-11.
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- The Second Death of Leon Klinghoffer, Samuel Lipman, Commentary, 11-01-91 (Subscription required)