TEL AVIV (JTA) – Abie Nathan, the man who broadcast hope for a different Middle East from a rickety secondhand freighter ship in the Mediterranean Sea with his “Voice of Peace” pirate radio station, died Wednesday at the age of 81.
For two decades, an announcer’s voice on Nathan’s station could be heard on radio dials across the Middle East intoning: “From somewhere in the Mediterranean, the Voice of Peace is your voice.”
The ship gave voice to Nathan’s vision – one in which the peoples of the region would find a way to heal from their wounds and come together in common sense to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“His actions were like a beacon of light, of peace, in dark days of war and enmity,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said on Thursday. “He did not compromise. He did what he believed in.”
“He was ahead of his time,” said another friend and admirer, Yossi Sarid, former head of the Meretz Party.
Nathan sank his ship in 1993 after the launch of the Olso Peace Accords, hoping his mission was done but also heavily saddled with debt from running the station.
His friends say it was then that the maverick Jewish peace activist, who came to Israel as a volunteer pilot during the 1948 War of Independence, began to fade from public view. Nathan spent his final years partially paralyzed from a stroke and in a wheelchair.
Born Abraham Jacob Nathan in Iran and educated in India, he first burst onto the international stage in 1966 when he took off from Israel and flew a small, single-engine plane to Egypt that he dubbed Shalom One. His plan was to meet Gamal Abdel Nasser, then Egypt’s president, in a bid to accelerate peace between Israel and the Arab world through a daring act of people power.
Nathan was sent back to Israel with no meeting to show for it, but that didn’t stop him from trying again the following year. He again returned home without a meeting, and this time he was jailed in Israel for illegally visiting an enemy country.
But the stunt made Nathan a household name in Israel and fueled his ambitions for other off-beat adventures in peace activism. The launch of the Voice of Peace, whose boat was partially funded by John Lennon, was his signature effort.
Remembering Nathan’s first trip to Egypt, Uri Avineri, a fellow long-time peace activist, told Israel’s Channel 10, “We all held our collective breath when we heard he would be landing at Port Said,” an Egyptian city.
“All this work he did totally alone. He understood the importance of emotion and had the ability to influence people on an emotional level,” Avineri said.
In 1977, Nathan sailed through the Suez Canal after several failed attempts, passing out chocolates and toys for children.
The following year, in 1978, Nathan began a hunger strike at a tent in a major Tel Aviv square as a protest against Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza. The strike lasted 45 days. At its end, Nathan looked like a skeletal shadow of himself, friends recalled.
Nathan also made headlines and found his way to more jail time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he met with Yasser Arafat and other PLO members at a time when it was still against the law for Israelis to do so.
“Today I feel stronger, taller and I will not stop the path I have begun,” Nathan told reporters after emerging from jail following one of those prison sentences.
Nathan also met with other leaders around the world, including Pope Paul VI and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Gideon Levy, a columnist at Israel’s daily Ha’aretz, remembered Nathan from the bohemian days of his own youth in the 1960s and 1970s. Levy was among those who spent long hours at Nathan’s parties and at his Tel Aviv hamburger joint, “California,” known as a center for the city’s hip intelligentsia scene.
He remembered Nathan as an excellent host, always happy to cook for a crowd and throw another party.
But in the background was always politics, which Nathan took very seriously.
“Abie Nathan was perhaps the only Israeli who felt guilty about 1948,” Levy wrote on Thursday. “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.”
Nathan was also active beyond the Israeli-Arab conflict. He helped set up refugee camps for victims of famine and war in Africa, and earthquakes and fighting in other parts of the world, including South America and Cambodia.
After Nathan’s death this week, TV stations showed a clip of Nathan in his later years, wheelchair-bound and unable to speak.
In the clip, he is visited by an older Israeli Arab woman, also in a wheelchair, who calls out to him in a sing-song voice, “Where is Abie Nathan?”
Unable to speak, he stares back in silence.
But when she says, “Hold out your hand, we will say, ‘Shalom, Shalom,’” the camera catches his hand clasping hers.