When 34-year-old Lisa Klinghoffer heard that Palestinian terrorists had hijacked the Mediterranean cruise ship on which her parents were aboard, she remembers pausing for a moment, not really understanding what the word 'hijacked' even meant. "I never really heard it before," she said this week, recalling the 1985 watershed event.
Lisa, who is now in Israel this week with her sister Ilsa, are the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, a retired and disabled American Jewish tourist whom terrorists shot and then threw off, together with his wheelchair, from the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro into the waters below. His story, though certainly not the first case of international terrorism, garnered notoriety in its day, perhaps for its sheer cruelty, as Lisa says, of attacking a "completely defenseless man."
The sisters, who live in New York, are the guests of honor this week at the Jewish Agency's special Memorial Day ceremony commemorating Israeli and Jewish victims of terrorism who were targeted beyond Israel's borders. It is the third year the JA has held the ceremony, at which the sisters spoke of their father and lit a torch along with agency chair Zeev Bielski.
Their parents, Leon and Marilyn, were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary on that fateful cruise. The voyage from Italy had several planned stops, including one in Israel. Leon was disabled and partially paralyzed as the result of two strokes and Marilyn was in remission from colon cancer. But the couple decided a vacation would do them good. Leon was the only passenger murdered aboard the ship. It is believed he was singled out because he was Jewish.
In an interview this week, Lisa and Ilsa recalled the moment they were told that the harrowing two-day hijacking had ended peacefully and with no casualties. They threw a party, inviting friends, family and a few reporters who had camped outside their building since the ordeal unfolded. The bitter news broker during the festivities, and their guests quickly left. "At that point, we realized that if it could happen to our father, it could happen to anyone, anywhere," Ilsa recalled.
The terrorists were granted safe passage to Tunisia, but when then-president Ronald Reagan heard that a U.S. citizen had been killed aboard the ship, he ordered a U.S. fighter jet to force the terrorist's escape plane to land in Italy. After an extradition quarrel with the U.S., then Italian Premier Bettino Craxi allowed the terrorists to flee, according to reports.
Their mother died of cancer shortly after her return.
The story, which made headlines across the globe, inspired a book, an opera and two movies, one of which, Voyage of Terror - The Achille Lauro Affair, starred Burt Lancaster. It also spawned a reported $1.5 billion dollar lawsuit by the family against the PLO, which was settled for an undisclosed sum before it reached the courts. Following the attacks, Lisa and Ilsa, who are now both in their fifties, established the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation with the Anti-Defamation League. Much of the sum from the settlement with the PLO has been funneled into the foundation, which continues to lobby for anti-terrorism legislation and funds an anti-terrorism course provided to American law-enforcement officials.
"We feel so honored that our father has been chosen to be commemorated," Ilsa said. "Our parents were very proud to be Jewish and very proud of Israel. It means a lot to know that people still remember him."
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