Trusty reader Ira Glunts informs me of one of the supreme ironies of today’s news–a synchronistic moment that doesn’t happen often in life. Just as Jeff Halper was being arraigned before an Israeli court for civil disobedience on behalf of breaking Israel’s siege of Gaza, Abie Nathan, one of Israel’s most fearless peace activists was dying in a Tel Aviv hospital (Hebrew). For those of you who don’t know, Abie was a true Israeli original and represented the absolute best that Israel had to offer the world. He was an iconoclast who harbored grand ideas and was fearless in implementing them. He had the bold vision of a Don Quixote and the hubris to believe he could pull it off.
After serving in Israel’s first air force, he used his flying skills to travel to Egypt against Israeli law to urge Nasser to seek a peaceful solution to his conflict with Israel. Yediot Achronot’s description of the incident is descriptive:
He sought to meet with the leaders of the Arab world when such meetings were against the law. His first noted attempt came in 1966. Nathan, in a white Steerman plane, on which was painted the words “Shalom 1” in black, departed the small airfield outside Herzliya, his destination Cairo.
Upon his arrival, he greeted the airport manager saying he wanted to meet with Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Israel, they announced his death. But he was well-received in Egypt.
Before leaving, he parted with the Egyptian officers and journalists saying: “Shalom u-l’hitraot.” 33 hours later his plane appeared in the skies over the Tel Aviv airport.
In 1973, with the help of John Lennon, Nathan founded Israel’s most famous pirate radio station, Kol Shalom. It broadcast music and news in Hebrew and Arabic from a ship in the Mediterranean. It did this in a time when relations between Israel and the Arab world were frozen. This made Nathan’s venture both bold and dangerous to some. It also forever sealed him in the minds of all Israelis as a quixotic dreamer on behalf of peace. But to those on the political right, he was a meddlesome troublemaker and publicity seeker.
Nathan also worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Guatemala. In the 1980s, he met Yasser Arafat when contacts with the PLO were still illegal. In 1991, he went on a 40 day fast in protest of such laws. The same year he was prosecuted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for his trouble.
Yediot Achronot reports that Nathan was born in Iran and grew up in India. As an ethnic outsider in Ashkenazi dominated Israel, that might explain why his ideas were so outside the social consensus.
In later years, he was felled by several strokes which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Before he lost the power of speech he spoke bitterly in an interview of the cost he had paid for his devotion to peace:
Those who put me in jail wasted my life. I could have done much more for peace.
This is precisely the reason I have covered Jeff Halper’s legal predicament so intensively. I want to do my part to ensure that yet another peace activist doesn’t have to face the opprobrium that Nathan suffered, only to become a prophet in retrospect. Let’s honor our dreamers and heroes, not imprison them.
Just as Nathan flew his small plane to an enemy land to broach the subject of peace with Israel’s sworn enemy, so too Halper and the Free Gaza Movement activists have boldly penetrated Israel’s siege in an attempt to break through the barriers of Occupation Israel has imposed. And just as Nathan’s vision was redeemed with the Camp David Accords signed in 1979, so too someday Israel will achieve peace with its Palestinian neighbors. People like Nathan and Halper make such miracles possible.
Haaretz reports this moving testament to Nathan’s energy and vision:
When asked what he would want written on the stone, he replied “Nisiti” – (“I tried)”
Nathan’s website provides a more comprehensive view of his life and achievements. This is a true Israeli original who deserves to be celebrated. If there was an Israeli Hall of Fame, he should be in it.