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The Hijacking

A new anti-memoir memoir revisits a critical moment in the history of air piracy while plumbing the false consciousness of American Jews

Marco Roth
June 01, 2023
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Getty Images
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flag hangs on the door of a hijacked TWA Boeing jet during the standoff between King Hussein and PFLP guerrillas on Dawson Field, Jordan, September 1970Getty Images
Getty Images
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flag hangs on the door of a hijacked TWA Boeing jet during the standoff between King Hussein and PFLP guerrillas on Dawson Field, Jordan, September 1970Getty Images

On an early September day in 1970, right before the start of the New York City school year, Martha Hodes, 12, and her sister Catherine, 13, boarded TWA flight 741 in Tel Aviv en route to New York via Athens and Frankfurt. They were returning from a summer with their mother, a principal dancer for the Martha Graham company, in Israel. Their father—also a pioneering Graham dancer—had been the girls’ primary custodial parent even before the official divorce. Leaving Frankfurt, the plane was hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and rerouted to a makeshift airstrip in the Jordanian desert. There, the girls, along with the majority of the passengers and crew, endured six days of captivity aboard the aircraft itself.

The Hodes sisters and their fellow captives were soon joined by the passengers and crew of two other hijacked planes; a fourth plane was flown to Cairo, while the attempted hijacking of an El Al plane was foiled by the rapid reaction of the Israeli captain and crew. The five hijackings probably even now remain the most complex and daring act of coordinated air piracy in the history of terrorism, especially if one considers the additional logistics involved when the lives of passengers were still deemed to be of some value. Some of the hostages, including the Hodes sisters, were eventually released to hotels in Amman, while others—mostly military-age men, crewmembers, and a few Jewish military-age women and girls—were dispersed to various safe houses in refugee camps and cities in Jordan that were then effectively under PLO control.

The events of the hijacking were extensively covered in the mass media of the time and were later the subject of at least one history book—by David Raab, another survivor, who was 17 years old at the time, traveling with his mother and younger sisters. Raab was separated from his family and became part of a contingent of hostages whose eventual liberation was the fortunate byproduct of the military victory of the Jordanian army during what became known to Palestinians as “Black September.” Catherine Hodes got “quote of the day” in The New York Times for Sept. 13, 1970, “Now I am going to thank God and have a bath,” and both Hodes girls were interviewed by another fellow hostage, a sociologist who published her findings as “Individual and Group Responses to Confinement on a Skyjacked Plane.”

Now Martha—who went on to become a leading historian of the American Civil War and also of interracial sex and marriage in 19th-century United States—has published a book about the experience, My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering. Her motives for writing about the events of her past are not rooted in a desire to offer a definitive history of a particular episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neither is she interested in providing, at this late date, a simple testimonial account of a traumatic event in her personal life. Instead, Hodes attempts something dramatically different from most histories and most memoirs. She wants to answer a personal set of questions: “Why do I remember so little?” “Why did I feel like I wasn’t even there?” and especially, “Why do I have no memory of being afraid?” Her book functions as an investigative report and a narrative of her research, discoveries, and revisions, as well as a Rashomon-style, multiperspectival recounting of the events and political context of the hijacking. The personal pronoun in the title prepares the reader for this intensely subjective framing while also making the book sound a bit like the 12-year-old’s back-to-school essay that Hodes couldn’t bring herself to write once she was finally able to start seventh grade.

Hodes sets out to test her memories against the testimonies and accounts of other surviving witnesses, transcripts in the archives of TWA and the U.S. State Department, video footage stored by the CIA, and documentary evidence from PFLP reminiscences; she returns to the diary she kept as a child and the transcripts of two interviews she and her sister gave on their return—one, separately, to Sylvia Jacobson, the sociologist, and the other, together, along with their father, to their cousin, a reporter for the Boston Phoenix.

Hodes discovers that her 12-year-old self was a thoroughly unreliable narrator—less of the experiences she actually wrote down but of the range of experiences and emotions she was willing to admit. A faithful teenage diarist, inspired, she says, by Anne Frank, with whom she shares a birthday, Hodes later realizes she was also editing her diary as she wrote it, crossing out a sentence taking note of a stewardess comforting her crying older sister—in one instance—and, in other cases, entirely failing to note worrisome events like the moment when she and all the other Jewish passengers were taken off the plane, herded into a circle, and held for an indeterminate length of time, unsure if they were about to be machine-gunned. “The most frightening moment occurred like this ...” she writes, at the end of one page, only to discover that she either failed to write it down at all or recorded it on a piece of loose paper that, unlike several others in the diary, she “allowed to slip away, either on the plane or as soon as I got home.” As Hodes writes, “I see that the aspiring writer in me constructed not a full record but instead a tolerable story; not a truthful story but instead a bearable one; not an honest story but instead a story I could tell when I got home, most especially to my father ... That narrative of omissions would comprise my version of the hijacking and I would carry it with me for years and years afterward.”

At other times, 12-year-old Martha is able to see and remember things that other hostages repressed. Her strongest memory—what she calls, following trauma theorists, “a flashbulb”—is of the copilot coming out of the cockpit with a hijacker’s gun at his neck. She finds no record of this in the copilot’s official testimony or in any other passenger’s accounts, begins to wonder if she invented it, only to discover, through a late interview with the copilot that indeed he’d desperately needed to take a shit and one of the hijackers had led him to the bathroom at gunpoint, but he hadn’t bothered to put it in his official TWA debrief.

The result of these scrupulous exercises in comparative memory is a book that constructively challenges most readers’ (as well as most publishers’ and literary agents’) basic assumptions about how memoir (and memories) work, and also how the primary sources used by professional historians work. The archive is both valuable and treacherous. As a historian, Hodes reminds us that she always “implores” her students to ask “Why did this person tell this story this way?” Her answers, in this case however, are more psychological than historical, or more to do with a personal family history revolving around the dynamics of her parents’ divorce, a gifted child’s protectiveness toward her vulnerable custodial parent, and her reluctance to face up to the legacy of their mother’s absence.

History, then, is what can be glimpsed between the blinds of the family. The title’s personal pronoun gains an ambiguous darker meaning as the book unfolds—hinting that Hodes herself had been a kind of hijacker of her own feelings and memories for nearly 50 years.

In the terms Hodes sets out for herself, My Hijacking succeeds as a valiant and valuable act of self-investigation, a meta-autobiography that’s also a sensitive work of historiography. But the book becomes most interesting and truly alive in those moments when it most escapes the author’s second, more mature effort to control the narrative. In other words, My Hijacking is also worth reading against its own grain, as a historical document.

Unintentionally, Hodes offers us an in-depth cross-section of a moment in the history of savagery, an account of a milder age of mass terrorism and of air travel. The seats were bigger and human beings could actually sleep in them for several days, especially when furnished with tranquilizers from the Red Cross. Lavishly produced print airline magazines with color photographs of other countries and advertisements for dolls offered the girls hours of escapist entertainment even after the electricity had been shut off. Taking over the plane, the female member of the PFLP hijack team announces “Kindly fasten your seatbelts, this is your new captain speaking, we will take you to a friendly country with friendly people.”

The “commandos” as Hodes refers to them—never terrorists, which would have been an anachronism—distribute the pretentious propaganda literature of PFLP founder George Habash along with freshly made pita and falafel. Several exchanges between captors and captives are included, including 10-year old Yosef Trachtman’s response when asked by a Palestinian fedayeen whether he believed people should fight for their country, “Yes, if it is their country.” Hodes’ favorite personal memory was of the “commandos” and kids playing jump-rope outside the planes. Two years later, Israeli athletes were castrated in Munich.

Many of the earliest released hostages would provide favorable reviews of their captors—either from a tactical wish not to jeopardize those left behind, or, less nobly, because they, unlike others, really had been comparatively well-treated. About the experience, one woman tells a reporter that it was “very wonderful.” Another stewardess put a PFLP button in her lapel. While the Jewish passengers tended to be less enthusiastic, even Hodes’ sister Catherine concedes, in the Boston Phoenix interview with their cousin, that “the plea of any peoples to get back their homes is a valid plea,” and that “mistakes were made when these people were kicked out in the first place.”

It is in places like these that My Hijacking also becomes a remarkable document of assimilated postwar American Jewish identity. This history, however, is told in passing, scattered in various chapters. Neither of Hodes’ parents came from religious families, both families had lost ties to Europe. The Shoah, which Hodes refers to throughout as “The Holocaust,” was known to them, but not viscerally. In the course of her retelling the hijacking story it becomes clear that several hostages were survivors of the camps. Yet—when Hodes finally recounts her “most frightening moment”—this remarkable experience of discrimination nearly-unto-death, during which her sister becomes persuaded that they will all be shot, does not ultimately alter her retrospective attempt to give equal voice to all sides. What could be more American? Or, precisely, what could be more postwar American Jewish?

“We had traveled to Israel, lived in Israel, and felt an attachment to Israel for reasons different from [our fellow Jewish hostages],” Hodes writes, in one of her rare moments of Jewish introspection. “As best we could we stirred the new history we had learned into the history we already knew, then stirred the pain of our captors into our own fear and the fears of our fellow hostages.”

When—in adult life—Hodes returns to interview the hostages who were older teenagers—that is the draft-age boys and girls who were held captive for an additional month in various Palestinian safe houses in Amman and Irbid—a reader of footnotes will discern that many of these interviews took place at their homes in Israel. Presumably, they made aliyah, though Hodes doesn’t comment on this, nor does she ask if their experiences at the hands of the PFLP played a role in their decision to become Israelis. Instead she wants to know whether their memories complement her own and wants to piece together the rest of her story, which includes the story of what happened to these other hostages who had looked after her and her sister while they could. But she can’t quite bring herself to ask the question that David Raab asked her, “how do you think the hijacking influenced the course of your life?”

At moments like these, the subjective imperative of the contemporary memoirist prevails over the instincts of a professional historian. Having made a living, “writing books that made meaning out of other people’s stories, other people’s fears and grief,” Hodes notes, she has given herself permission to “turn finally to my own.” It is here that the language of contemporary recovery starts to intrude. “My voyage is a story of empathy for Catherine and a journey of empathy for that twelve-year old child unable to break the silence ...”

There’s nothing “wrong,” as such, with this psychological turn. But it’s worth noting that psychology and psychotherapy have their own histories. For Hodes, the purpose is to uncover and recover the sense of being terrified that she didn’t allow herself to acknowledge at the time and in the aftermath. This seems to line up with the injunction that it is healthier to experience and acknowledge negative emotions rather than contain them. But to what end? The word “bravery” does not appear in the book, although Martha and Catherine and most of their fellow hostages were very brave. Bravery, of course, does not imply fear’s absence but fear’s overcoming.

The conversation that would bridge the growing divide between post-Holocaust, post-traumatic Jewish experiences, both in Israel and in the diaspora, begins with this question of how to acknowledge fear and still be brave. It does not end with the recovery of vulnerability for its own sake, or the acknowledgement of other people’s pain and suffering. Nor can it end by achieving the impossible aim of living a life free from terror. It is as much in its recapitulation of the collective evasive mechanisms of a wildly fortunate group of people as in its attempt to “recover” the “truth” of a particularly awful experience of childhood fear or its account of the early days of airline hijacking that Hodes’ book is likely to interest future historians.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.