Friday, August 29, 2008

Abie Nathan, Israeli peace pioneer, dies aged 81

from Haaretz: Israeli peace pioneer Abie Nathan dies aged 81

Abie Nathan - Israeli peace pioneer, pirate radio station founder and former Royal Air Force pilot - has died in Tel Aviv at the age of 81, officials at the city's Ichilov Hospital said Wednesday.

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.

A short, dark man, he flew for Israel's national airline and ran an art gallery and restaurant that became the center of Tel Aviv's bohemian life. His American-style diner even helped pioneer the hamburger in Israel.

Convinced that people power could succeed where the diplomats had failed, Nathan bought a 188-foot, 570-ton freighter that was partially funded by John Lennon. He anchored it off the coast of Tel Aviv and turned it into a pirate radio station, The Voice of Peace, with a mix of pop songs and peace messages.

"Shalom, salaam and peace to all our listeners," Nathan declared in his maiden broadcast in 1973. "The Peace Ship is a project of the people. We hope through this station we will help relieve the pain and heal the wounds of many years of suffering of the people of the Middle East."

Over the next 20 years, 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.

In the 1970s, Nathan went on repeated hunger strikes to try to force the Israeli government to make concessions for peace with Egypt and talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He saw the first wish come true when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. But it would be years before Israel would reverse a law making meetings with the PLO a crime. Nathan broke the law several times by meeting with members of the PLO.

In recent years, he had been confined to a retirement home and had rarely been seen in public. In a 1996 interview with The Associated Press, Nathan said that during one of his prison hunger strikes, he was certain he was going to die. He bought a grave and a tombstone.

When asked what he would want written on the stone, he replied "Nisiti" - the Hebrew for "I tried."

from Haaretz: Abie Nathan laid to rest; Peres: 'he was greatest freedom fighter'

Hundreds of people attended the funeral, including President Shimon Peres who eulogized Nathan, saying "he was the greatest freedom fighter." Uri Avneri, a close friend of Nathan's said "Abie did not address people's minds, but rather their hearts. He wanted to bring peace, and did that through feeling."

from the Jerusalem Post: Abie Nathan - from right to left

Even Abie Nathan's detractors spoke warmly of him on Thursday, a day after the maverick peace activist passed away in Tel Aviv at 81 years of age.

Abie Nathan.

Abie Nathan.

I believe that he always meant well," said Pinchas Wallerstein, former head of the Binyamin Regional Council in northern Samaria. "And I was absolutely inspired by him and his tactics, just in the opposite direction. If it weren't for his radio station, we wouldn't have Arutz Sheva."

Others praised Nathan's global charity work, spanning from Guatemala to China.

"I was with Abie in Rwanda in 1995," said former Meretz MK Yossi Sarid. "We were there during the civil war delivering humanitarian aid, and Abie was told that a village full of sick children was out in the jungle. We made our way through the brush, and when we got there, the children were in their last moments of life - they were all suffering from cholera.

"And I remember seeing Abie take them in his hands, bringing them to our field hospital for help. They were all treated and every one of them survived."

"It's still unclear if the time he spent sitting in jail brought peace," said Meretz MK Yossi Beilin. "But that he traveled the world and helped so many different people, that can be said without a doubt. He made an enormous contribution to the world."

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."

1 comment:

Rob said...

Sounds my kind of guy. I shall link to your interesting post.


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