Martha Hodes Talks "My Hijacking" with HNN

Historians/History
tags: terrorism, Middle East, interviews, memory, memoir, Israel-Palestine

Martha Hodes (l) and her older sister Catherine on the single passport they shared. Photo courtesy of Martha Hodes.

On September 6, 1970 Martha Hodes, then aged 12, and her older sister Catherine boarded a TWA around-the-world flight in Tel Aviv to return to New York after spending the summer in Israel. After a stop in Frankfurt, militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked the flight and rerouted it to a makeshift airfield in the Jordan desert, part of a coordinated campaign of four hijackings. The Hodes sisters became part of a six-day drama that held the world’s attention before the ultimate release of all of the hostages.

Yet, for years her own memories of the event were vague and unclear, and she occasionally felt as if it weren’t certain that she had, in fact been inside that plane at all. Her new book My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Rememberingpublished to acclaim by HarperCollins, describes her work to apply her craft as a historian to her own memory.

Professor Hodes agreed to a discussion over email of the book and her unique experiences as a historian examining her own hostage crisis.

HNN: Readers might initially be shocked to learn about your longstanding ways of relating to your experience, which included anxiety and avoidance around air travel, but also a sense of unreality and detachment from the events. How did you begin to approach your own experience as a historian?

Martha Hodes: One of the oddest parts of thinking back on the hijacking was the sense that it had never happened to me. As a historian, I wanted to dispel this illogical perception by researching, documenting, and reconstructing the event—from the moment of the hijacking up in the air, to our week inside the plane in the desert, to our release. Yet even when I came upon raw news footage in which my sister and I appeared on screen, I felt more like a historian coming upon evidence of a distant historical subject. 

Bringing a historian’s skills to memoir-writing, I studied the work of other scholars writing about their own lives: Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies, Clifton Crais’s History Lessons, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, Jonathan Scott Holloway’s Jim Crow Wisdom, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, Edward Said’s Out of Place, Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran, to name a few. Working as a memoirist writing a personal story and working at the same time as a historian writing about the past, I found it valuable to think of my twelve-year-old self as an historical actor in the past. In the end, that helped me come around to the fact that I had really been there, in the desert.

Part of this journey was reading your own diary from this period. I imagine most people would find their half-century old diary a challenging reading assignment even with much lower stakes—What did this document tell you?

My 1970 diary turned out to be a key document, though not in the way I’d expected. I’d packed my diary in my carry-on bag and wrote every day during the hijacking, so I thought it would be the scaffolding on which to build the book—after all, historians place considerable trust in documents from the time and place about which we are writing. Soon, though, I discovered that I’d omitted a great deal from those pages, in particular descriptions of frightening circumstances and events, as well as my own feelings of fear. When my students work with primary sources, I always teach them to ask, “Why did this person tell this story this way?” In that light, I came to understand my own inability, as a twelve-year-old caught in a world historical event, to absorb everything that was happening around me. Or maybe it was that I didn’t want to record what I knew I wouldn’t want to remember.

At many other times, documents speak to you in ways that disrupt your understanding; can you describe some of these moments?

I’ll mention a crucial one. Along with my diary, the other key document I discovered was a tape recording of an interview that my sister and I had given less than a week after we returned home—again, valuable as a document created very close in time to the event under investigation. From that astounding document I learned a great deal about how my family handled the immediate aftermath of the hijacking and how I would approach the hijacking for decades afterward. For me, writing the book broke my own pattern of denial and dismissiveness.

Your writing is particularly effective, I think, in mirroring your own developing understanding of the unfolding of the hostage crisis breaking emotional barriers you had long maintained. For me, this was most dramatic when you begin to confront a question that preoccupied people from your 12-year-old self to Henry Kissinger for that week in September: would the PFLP follow through on its threat to kill hostages? What can you conclude about as a historian about the danger you and your fellow hostages faced?

The dynamics of hostage-taking required our captors to keep their hostages off-balance. Sometimes they conveyed that no one would be harmed and occasionally they threatened that if their demands were not soon met, we would all die. And of course they told the world that the planes, along with the hostages, would be destroyed if their demands were not honored. In the course of my research, though, I learned that the Popular Front’s internal policy was not to harm anyone (and all the hostages did in fact return unharmed). But I also learned, during my research, of other ways that harm could have come to us—say, in an attack from the outside or by the accidental firing of one of the many weapons all around us. As a historian of the American Civil War, I teach my students about contingency on the battlefield; looking back, there was also considerable contingency out there in the desert.

Your parents’ story also presents something remarkable from today’s perspective: two people of modest origins making long, gainfully employed careers in the arts (dance, in their case). Can you discuss a bit the story of your family, and how it placed you on that TWA airliner?

My parents were both modern dancers in the Martha Graham Dance Company. They were divorced, and my sister and I had spent the summer in Israel with our mother, who had moved there to help start the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s first modern dance troupe. I learned during my research—something I hadn’t quite understood at the time—that my sister and I were different from most of the other American Jews among the hostages, who were keen on visiting Israel after the 1967 war. Both my parents were raised as secular Jews, and my mother had moved to Israel as a dancer, with no interest in Zionism, or even any particular interest in Israel. My childhood attachment to Israel stemmed from the fact that Tel Aviv was the place I spent carefree summers.

Stepping back a bit, I want to talk about historiography. In your career, you’ve been no stranger to writing about other people’s grief and trauma as it’s preserved and remembered in the archives. In My Hijacking you explore the way that forgetting can be a necessary, even purposeful, part of people’s response to loss and harm. How can readers and writers understand how this work shapes the historical record?

I’m a historian of the nineteenth-century United States, and in different ways, each of my previous books has addressed the problem of forgetting in the historical record. In White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South, I found that overpowering ideas of white anxiety about sex between white women and black men erased the historical record of white southerners’ toleration for such liaisons under the institution of slavery. In The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth-Century, the act of forgetting was more personal: the protagonist, a white New England woman who married a Caribbean man of color, had been partially erased from family history. In Mourning Lincoln, I found that widespread gleeful responses to Lincoln’s assassination—in the North as well as the South—came to be forgotten, overtaken by narratives of universal grief.

Returning to the dilemma of my diary in My Hijacking, I saw quite starkly how first-person documents can be crafted in particular ways, and how erasure can then foster forgetting. As for My Hijacking shaping the historical record, it’s deeply researched, but it’s also my story alone. The experience of each hostage depended on factors ranging from where you were sitting on the plane to your convictions about the history of Israel/Palestine. As I write in the book, “I could strive only to tell my own story of the hijacking in the truest possible way.”

At HNN, we seek to connect the past and the present, and to draw insight onto current events from historical thought. It seems to me that in Americans’ collective responses to upheavals in recent history, from 9/11 to the COVID pandemic are deeply structured and enabled  by forgetting. Would you agree? And how can understanding the work of forgetting help us think about the recent past? 

Forgetting can be a way to survive, and during my research I found that my family was not alone in not talking much about the hijacking after my sister and I returned home. But it’s also the work of historians to remember, and while researching My Hijacking I learned about the process of forgetting in another way. Like many American Jews in 1970, I had no idea that Palestinians had once lived on the same land. In the book, I recount a visit my sister and I took with our mother to the village of Ein Hod. We didn’t know that in 1948 Palestinians had been exiled and the village resettledby Israeli artists. My sister wrote a letter home to our father, saying that the artists lived “in quaint little Arab style houses” surrounded by “beautiful mountain views and flowers,” thereby illuminating a kind of collective forgetting. At twelve years old, in the desert, I began to learn about the irreconcilable narratives told by different sides of the conflict. On the plane, my sister and I felt sorry for everyone—for our fellow captives, especially the Holocaust survivors among us, and for our captors and their families, some of whom had lost their homes in 1948 and 1967. We puzzled out the conflict, but at twelve and thirteen years old we couldn’t think of a solution.