Sunday, June 20, 2010

Airplane Hijacking, Freedom Fighters, and the New York Times

Last week the New York Times printed a remarkable OpEd piece by Gal Beckerman of the Jewish Daily Forward entitled "Hijacking Their Way Out of Tyranny." The article recounts the planned 1970 hijacking of a small Soviet airplane by a group of dissident Jews in Leningrad. Arrested before they could seize their intended plane, the hijackers hoped to fly the plane to Sweden and then emigrate to Israel. Led by one Yosef Mendelevich, the hijackers hoped that successfull or not, their action "would make their demand for free emigration impossible to ignore." Eventually the attempt by the Soviet state to prosecute the hijackers rebounded, and a massive movement for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was born. Furthermore, as the piece puts it, "The bravery of the hijacking plotters also ignited a movement in the United States that would lead Congress, a few years later, to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which withheld preferred trading status from the Soviet Union until it allowed tens of thousands of Jews to emigrate...As a result, not only were hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews able to build new lives, but forces were set in motion that would bring down the Berlin Wall and, eventually, an empire — a world-shaking transformation born from the hopes once placed on a small airplane that never even left the ground."

I am fascinated that the New York Times ran this piece, because it calls to mind other freedom-fighting airplane hijackers who the New York Times would never acknowledge in a similar way. Long before airplane hijacking came to imply the indiscriminate murder of civilians or the smashing of airplanes into office buildings, airplane hijacking was used as a desperate symbolic measure by Palestinian freedom fighters, who just like these desperate oppressed Soviet Jews, hoped it would call attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of oppressed people and snowball into events that would bring down a state that was the instrument of that oppression.

Leila Khaled was--and is--a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the left-wing faction of the Palestinian movement led by George Habash that accused the mainstream Fatah movement of Yassir Arafat of accommodation to Israel. That's her on the Palestinian wall stencil above. She led a spectacular hijacking of a TWA jet in 1969, blowing up the plane in Syria after the passengers were safely taken off. She was captured in 1970 while attempting to hijack a second plane as part of the "Black September" campaign. Released in a prisoner exchange in 1971, Leila Khaled became a spokeswoman for the Palestinian cause in later years in Jordan. The PFLP soon set aside the tactic of airplane hijackings; Khaled and the PFLP always maintained that their intention was never to harm innocent civilians in their actions, though it does seem like some actions the PFLP had connection to did unfortunately cross that line.

Now as someone who has flown in airplanes let me state clearly I hope never to be hijacked. I think it's wrong, murderous intent or propaganda-only intent, to make innocent people suffer, even if not fatally, for the faults of evil and corrupt governments. I don't think hijacking airplanes was the finest hour of the PFLP or of Palestinian freedom fighters in general. And if the PFLP didn't intend to hurt civilians, clearly those who carried on the hijacking tradition after them have had no such qualms; 9/11 RIP. But Leila Khaled was not a terrorist, only a Palestinian born in a city to which she is unable to return, and neither was Yosef Mendelevich, trapped in a country where anti-semitism ran rampant. We need not associate Ms. Khaled with 9/11 any more than the New York Times associates Mendelevich with 9/11.

Clearly, the attempted seizure of this Soviet airplane in 1970 by Jewish dissidents was inspired by the seizures of airplanes by Palestinian dissidents. We shall be quietly waiting for the Times editorial board to thank Leila Khaled for freeing Soviet Jewry. And when the struggle for justice in Palestine is finally won, and the Apartheid State of Israel is swept aside like the Apartheid State of South Africa before it, and all the citizens of Palestine are living together in multicultural secular democracy, we look forward to reading, in a reevaluation of Leila Khaled's hijacking, "not only were hundreds of thousands of Palestinians able to build new lives, but forces were set in motion that would bring down the Separation Wall and, eventually, a State — a world-shaking transformation born from hopes the once placed on a small airplane."

(Above photo of wall stencil in Bethlehem snagged from tsweden's flickr)

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