Posted by: Lister | August 29, 2008

Abie Nathan

I hadn’t heard of this man before today. Which is a shame, because he sounds interesting. Haaretz has his obituary:

Nathan burst onto the world of Middle East diplomacy in 1966 with a dramatic solo flight to Egypt in a rattletrap single-engine plane, more than a decade before Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty.

Although he failed in his initial bid to talk peace with the Egyptians, his daredevil escapade won the affection of many Israelis, and he launched a long and often eccentric one-man crusade to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Over time, he earned a reputation as a maverick peace activist who often took diplomacy into his own hands. He was called a crackpot and a prophet. But many admired the daring of the former Israel Air Force fighter pilot as he pounded on Egypt’s doors, sailed his pirate radio ship into hostile Middle East waters or risked his life on hunger strikes for peace.

Yossi Sarid, the former leader of the leftist Meretz party, said Nathan paved the way for Israel’s peace movement. “He was ahead of his time, and he did everything himself,” he said.

Abraham Jacob Nathan was born April 29, 1927 in Iran, educated in India, and served in Britain’s Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot, before joining the Jewish immigrant influx into newborn Israel in 1948.

[…] The Voice of Peace became especially popular among youth. It was the only radio station in the Middle East that broadcast music from the world’s Top 40 charts and used English as its primary language, yet offered both Israeli and Arabic news.

[…] Apart from his peace efforts, Nathan flew or shipped emergency supplies to victims of war, earthquakes and famine around the world, including to Biafra, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Lebanon and the former Zaire.


Haaretz has more on Nathan’s peace ship from Gideon Levy:

It was a Saturday afternoon in the late 1980s. We entered The Voice of Peace’s rickety Subaru truck and drove to Gaza to Mahmoud Zahar’s house. Afternoon coffee with the Hamasnik, just imagine. Imagine that once it was possible to visit Zahar on a Saturday afternoon. Just think – there once was a man here who dreamed of peace.

Picture a pilot who never drove a car. All those things sound like hallucinations now, even more than they used to.

Abie Nathan was perhaps the only Israeli who felt guilty about 1948. As a volunteer pilot from overseas he had bombed Palestinian villages and then wanted to make up for it. He didn’t shoot and whine about it but actually tried to make amends.

And the JPost:

Others said they had never personally met Nathan, but were moved by his efforts at starting dialogues between enemies. Rabbi Menachem Fruman, the rabbi of the Gush Etzion settlement of Tekoa, spoke of Nathan as he took part in the Sulha Peace Project at Latrun – a three-day gathering of Israelis and Palestinians that aims to begin the process of dialogue and reconciliation.

“My children often say that I meet with all the crazy people in the world,” Rabbi Fruman said. “But I never got a chance to meet Abie Nathan. That said, I think that what he did was an inspiration to all of us. Pursuing peace is not a natural desire… It’s truly a holy task.”

“I feel that I am following in his footsteps,” said Jeff Halper, an Israeli professor who was on board one of the two boats that sailed into Gaza port last week to protest the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. “I don’t compare myself to him, but I certainly draw from him as an inspiration.”

Halper made two correlations between Nathan’s efforts and his own, the first regarding Nathan’s own sea voyage to Gaza in 1972.

“He sailed there in ’72 to bring toys to kids in Gaza, and later he organized a summer camp in Ashdod for Israeli kids and kids from Gaza,” Halper said. “The second thing is that he said in 1966 that Nasser wanted to talk peace with the Israelis, and no one listened to him. If they had, think of the countless lives that might have been saved and the terrible violence that might have been prevented.”

Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, who works for Rabbis For Human Rights, called Nathan “a very positive figure. I’m a rabbi that belongs to a dovish group, and we’re a bit of a minority. But something about Abie Nathan that is in contrast to Peace Now and other peace groups is that he was not anti-religious.

“He seemed to rise above the divisions on the left and was a character that put his money where his mouth was. I think that’s something that he was respected for even on the right, even if they didn’t agree with him.”

The Guardian:

When, in 1968, he mooted the idea for an offshore pirate radio station that would spread regional goodwill, sceptics predicted that it would sink, metaphorically if not literally. Instead, the Voice of Peace blasted out pop, political commentaries and celebrity interviews for 21 years.

Many also thought Nathan mad when, in 1977, he sailed through the Suez Canal distributing chocolates and toys to Arab children. By the year’s end, though, Nathan and fellow Israelis were negotiating directly with President Sadat. Their meeting presaged Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, and the 1979 bi-national peace treaty.

Israeli security chiefs regarded Nathan as dangerously naive for talking to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Yasser Arafat in 1989, and he spent nine months in prison in 1991 for his contact with the PLO. Yet within four years, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shaking hands with Arafat at the White House.

Nathan was an entrepreneur, a man with business acumen, an ability to exploit photo opportunities – and a hatred of injustice and suffering.

He was born the third child of observant Jewish parents, in Abadan, which is now in Iran. His Yemeni-born father worked for the Anglo-Iranian oil company (now BP) and later prospered as a linen-trader. At six, Nathan began at a Jesuit boarding school in Bombay. In 1939 his entire family moved to India. When his mother discovered that he adored Catholic icons, she enrolled him at the Jewish Sir Jacob Sassoon school – which imbued Nathan with a love of patriotic Hebrew songs.

Flying was a lifelong obsession. He took his wings with the Royal Air Force in 1945 and two years later had the traumatic experience of transporting Hindu and Muslim refugees between just-partitioned India and Pakistan.

In 1948, after ferrying planes and parts from Czechoslovakia for the nascent Israeli Air Force, Nathan bombarded Galilee villages and the Egyptian army from a converted DC3 transport plane. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the future Egyptian president, survived one of his raids. After later visiting several villages, Nathan was shocked at the damage he had caused. He befriended many civilians, including one Arab woman who regularly visited him after his 1996 stroke.


By 1972 his Voice of Peace, which would be staffed by a mixture of Jewish and Arab Israelis, Filipinos, English, Dutch and Americans, began broadcasting to nearly 30 million listeners in English, French, Hebrew and Arabic. It even urged Israeli and Arab forces to lay down their arms during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. In 1993 Nathan shut the Voice down, convinced that the signing of the Oslo Accords meant peace was on its way.

He was a deeply spiritual man, but not strictly Orthodox – rabbis berated him for broadcasting over the Sabbath and, in 1978, he went on hunger strike against nationalist religious Jews building West Bank and Gaza settlements. He carried a miniature Bible and used the scriptures to explain his leftwing views.

[…] In the late 1960s he raised funds for starving Biafrans and was the first foreign pilot to fly sustenance into the Nigerian war zone; in 1972 he sailed to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua; in 1978 he donated toys and medicines to a Beirut refugee camp. He flew to a Northern Irish peace summit in 1982; visited Ethiopia to publicise the 1984 famine; and in 1991 airlifted aid to Kurdish war refugees in Iraq. Ten years later he spearheaded a team of 14 Israelis and four American Jews who helped alleviate conditions for 300,000 Rwandans stranded in a refugee camp in what was then Zaire. He made mercy dashes to Somalia, Guatemala, flood-stricken Bihar in India, and unsuccessful representations in Moscow for Jewish prisoners of conscience.

[…] Paradoxically, Nathan’s example inspired rightwingers in 1978 to moor their own pirate station alongside the Voice of Peace. It was shut down by the government, prompting protests that Nathan had never suffered such ignominy. The Israeli Davar newspaper countered that Nathan had never spread racism, but “preached peace between nations and peoples”. Perhaps that should be his epitaph.



  1. Uri Avnery has an article on Abie Nathan. He tells how Nathan’s flight to Egypt started as a political slogan along the lines of Eisenhower’s promise to fly to Korea.

    A few months after the elections, in the middle of a meeting in the Knesset, somebody brought me the startling news: Abie was on his way to Egypt. In the morning he had climbed into his plane and just taken off. The whole country was holding its breath. And than the blow fell: the radio announced that his plane had been shot down, and that it was unclear whether Abie had survived.

    The public was shattered. Agitated people, some of them weeping openly, were glued to the radios. And then came another exciting announcement: Abie had not been shot down after all, but had landed safely in Port Said and been cordially received by the Egyptian governor.

    A brilliant playwright could not have wrung the public heart more effectively. True, the Egyptians did not take Abie to meet Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the already legendary Egyptian leader, but they refueled his plane and sent him home with all respect.

    Nobody who lived through that day in Israel will ever forget the experience. As for myself, I stopped doubting Abie’s sincerity and started to see his actions in a new light.

    […] As I insist again and again: in politics it is not rational to ignore the irrational. Abie acted from the heart, and thus touched the hearts of people.

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