At the funeral of Abie Nathan, I said to myself: the Israel-as-it-is takes its leave from the Israel-as-it-could-have-been.
From the state that we dreamed of when it was founded. A state where moral considerations govern both domestic and foreign policy. A state whose citizens take responsibility for their own actions and the actions of their country.
Abie Nathan symbolized these aspirations, not in theory, but in practice – by his own deeds.
* * *
I WAS an eye-witness to the birth of this Abie.
At the end of the 50s, coming home from a few days abroad, I heard the latest news from the Tel-Aviv scene: some members of the air-crew of El Al had opened a new café in the very center of the city, at the corner of Disengoff and Frishman.
We liked “California” from the beginning, not least because of the host, a pilot called Abie. It was said that he was born in Iran and had grown up in India, had joined the Royal Air Force there and had volunteered as one of our first pilots in the 1948 war.
Abie was 33 at the time, with a dark complexion and a broad smile. He spoke mostly English, or Hebrew with a marked English accent. He was a perfect host and knew how to make his guests feel special, as if they were his personal friends. Within a short time, the place became the meeting-point of Tel-Aviv’s Bohemians – the group of artists, writers, media people, celebrities and night-lifers who had turned Tel-Aviv into the center of the country’s social life. Politicians, too, were attracted by the liveliness of the place.
The restaurant ‘s life revolved around him: when he was absent for a few weeks, the clients, too, disappeared. He knew how to pamper people, offer drinks “on the house”, and prepare the special dishes people liked. There were also “regular tables”. (The table I joined on Friday afternoons still convenes to this very day.)
The young state of those days was optimistic, fermenting, a paradise for young people. The new Hebrew culture with its authors, poets, theaters and satirical programs was flourishing, and the Bohemians of Tel-Aviv set the tone. Their organ was “Haolam Hazeh”, a radically anti-establishment weekly magazine, whose editor I was.
One day in the summer of 1965 Abie took me aside and asked for my opinion. Some friends, he said, were urging him to run for the Knesset.
Frankly, my first reaction was that it was a practical joke. But after some days, I realized that he was deadly serious. Abie, who saw the politicians at his tables and listened to their conversations, asked himself: Why are they any better than I?
A small group of friends from among the clients of the restaurant gathered around him. They were “with it” people, and egged him on. What had started as a game was to have far-reaching consequences.
* * *
I MUST confess that it made me angry.
A short time before, the government had enacted a new press law that was quite openly intended to muzzle Haolam Hazeh. It mandated draconian punishments for newspapers that published “evil tongue” (Hebrew for libel), clearly intended to stop our revelations about government figures. In response, a group of peace and human rights activists founded a movement that represented the radical line of the magazine: peace with the Palestinians, the fight against corruption, separation between state and religion, social solidarity. They called it the “Haolam Hazeh – New Force Movement”. It was an audacious endeavor: until then, no one had ever succeeded in breaking into the Knesset with a new political force- at the time it an exclusive club of old-established parties and their splinter groups.
Our movement appealed to the young generation that had grown up in the country. Abie’s list was liable to attract to itself parts of this public, the size of which was uncertain and perhaps too small to satisfy the minimum percentage clause. It seemed to me an irresponsible game.
Abie’s friends, among them some public relations people, were looking for way to draw attention to his list. They hit upon a gimmick: some years before, Dwight Eisenhower had been elected after promising to “fly to Korea” in order to end the war there. Well, Abie was pilot, why not promise that he would fly to Egypt?
Egypt was then the main enemy of Israel. Nine years before, Israel had attacked it in collusion with two colonial powers, France and Britain. Everybody understood that going there was a very dangerous undertaking.
Abie acquired a small airplane, painted it white and named it “Peace 1”. It was displayed in an empty plot near the restaurant. One of his friends composed a popular jingle.
However, the gimmick did not work. Abie’s list got only 2135 votes, far from the minimum required. The Haolam Hazeh list attained 1.5% of the vote throughout the country, and I was elected. If we had had the support of all of Abie’s voters, we would have won a second seat.
That could have been the end of the story – but something had happened to Abie. The idea that had started as an election gimmick took hold of him. The extrovert, carefree restaurateur, the darling of the Bohemians, started to treat the matter of peace very seriously.
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.
* * *
WE DID not become partners. Abie had no partners. He paid no attention to the views of others, doing everything according to his own lights. Like the first flight, all his actions were intensely personal: he took the initiative, he made the decision, he implemented it. He took personal responsibility for everything and took the consequences upon himself. But he had a very important talent: to infect others with his driving enthusiasm, even for tasks that seemed impossible and altogether fantastical. Some of those who accompanied him then remained faithful to him to his last day.
His strength and his weakness was this “lone rider” style. He never founded a movement and never joined one. He never adopted a political program. These things did not interest him. He was not moved by the need for the creation of a political force that could have an impact on government policy. He left these tasks to others. He was a person of emotions, and all his actions appealed to emotions.
That was a new thing. The Israeli peace camp, with all its factions, always appeals to logic. It tries to persuade the Israeli public that peace is necessary for the existence, the future, the security and the well-being of the State of Israel. But politics is not only a matter of logic. Emotions play an important role. 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.
He also had another big advantage: he was an Oriental Jew. The Israeli peace camp is almost exclusively Ashkenazi (of European origin). In the annual 100,000 strong memorial demonstrations in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, the absence of the Oriental public is very obvious. Many Oriental people believe that the whole thing about peace is really only a matter for the “Ashkenazi elite”. And here comes a man born in Abadan, Iran, with a very pronounced Oriental appearance, and a down-to-earth approach.
Abie became an authentic Oriental hero. One can argue about how many people the admiration for the man Abie has really attracted to the struggle for peace. But for some years, “peace” (four letters in Hebrew) stopped being a four-letter word for this public.
* * *
MUCH HAS been written about his exploits, and I need not enumerate them here. His commitment to peace became wider and deeper. He sold his restaurant and bought a ship. It stood idle in New York harbor, was moved from pier to pier and rusted, until he had collected enough money to equip it, sail it to Israel and establish “The Voice of Peace”. It anchored off the shore of Tel-Aviv (and was for years the first sight I saw through my window in the morning). It became a part of Israeli life.
This, too, was a typical Abie enterprise. There was no editorial staff, nor any clear political-educational program. The voice of Peace was Abie, and Abie was the Voice of Peace. A large audience of young people listened regularly to the station’s excellent music, and incidentally absorbed Abie’s sermons in English or English-accented elementary Hebrew. He voiced his musings any time and any way the spirit moved him, interspersed with interviews with peace activists. His voice became familiar to every Israeli. When Big Money moved into the advertising field and he stopped getting advertisements, he almost went bankrupt. As a protest, he sunk his ship in a ceremonial act.
All along, Abie remained a very lonely person. Only after his death did I hear that he had parents and sisters in Israel and had broken off all communication with them. He also had two daughters from different women, but with them, too, his connection was fragile. Perhaps his character and stormy lifestyle did not allow him a family life, and perhaps the reason was that he had been sent as a child to a boarding school and until the end – as he told an interviewer – never forgave his parents.
He compensated for his loneliness by inviting lots of friends to the big parties he held at home, pampering his guests with exotic Indian food which he spent hours preparing himself with his faithful Indian helper, Rada. It was during one of these parties in 1977, on the roof of his apartment, that we heard the bitter news that the Likud had come to power.
* * *
AFTER THE Yom Kippur War he flew to Egypt again, this time on a commercial flight, hoping to meet the Egyptian President. Something in the preparations went wrong. On arrival at Cairo airport, he saw that there was nobody there to receive him. He made his way to a hotel in the center of the city, and, alone in his room, became more and more worried that he might be mistaken for a spy. He made a frantic call to Eric Rouleau, a well-connected French journalist in Paris who contacted his friends in the Egyptian government. Soon some senior Egyptian intelligence officers arrived, took Abie on a tour of the city and put him on a plane home.
His lone-rider actions became wider and more frequent. He started a hunger strike against the establishment of settlements in the occupied territories and put up a tent in the center of Tel Aviv. It became a focus for celebrities who came to express admiration. Only with great difficulty was he persuaded to stop before some irreparable harm should come to him.
He met with Yasser Arafat when this was absolutely forbidden and – unlike me – was twice sent to prison for this. The law under which he was condemned was enacted by the government of Shimon Peres, a fact that did not prevent Peres from eulogizing Abie last week with much emotion.
During the Nigerian civil war, when it became known that people were dying of hunger in Biafra, Abie went there and organized a salvation effort. When hunger broke out in Ethiopia, he set up a tent city there and brought relief. On his return, he complained bitterly about the big bureaucratic international aid organizations, which wasted so much money and brought so little relief, because of their condescending attitude towards the natives.
Another time he organized a children’s gathering, asking the children to give up their war toys in return for others. The tanks and warplanes were destroyed on the spot. His theatrical streak was in the foreground on all these occasions.
At the time when the Israeli government was cooperating with the South African apartheid regime, Abie was one of the few people in the country to protest loudly against this abhorrent policy.
All the actions that emanated from his fertile mind had much in common: they demanded personal courage, self-confidence, imagination and a gift for improvisation, and above all empathy with the suffering of others and a burning desire to help.
* * *
SOMEBODY ONCE told me: But Abie is crazy!
Better crazy for peace, was my answer, than crazy for war!
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.