Abe J. Nathan
Prizewinner 1997 together with Khémaïs Chammari
Abe J. Nathan was born on 29th April, 1927 in the Persian city of Abadan as the son of Jewish parents. He grew up in India, where his family had emigrated. There he spent his school time and during the Second World War joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot.
In 1948, he emigrated to Israel, serving first of all as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force for three years and then working as a flight captain for the Israeli airline EL-AL until 1959.
Being an eyewitness to all kinds of atrocious human suffering was a decisive experience for Abe Nathan and fundamentally changed his life: The former fighter pilot became a convinced pacifist who also felt that he had a personal duty to make his own contribution to the preservation of peace and of Human Rights. He dedicated the following years of his life to this task, with an enthusiasm which made the „good person of Tel Aviv“, as he was soon to be lovingly called, an Israeli legend in his lifetime. He consciously accepted the fact that his idealism - which knew no bounds in the truest sense of the word - his exceptionally imaginative commitment and his admirable courage would certainly involve high personal risk.
Abe Nathan committed himself to promoting understanding between Israelis and Arabs as early as the sixties. He was firmly convinced that only direct personal dialogue would help solve conflict and therefore in February 1966, when he was 38 years old, he flew his private plane „Shalom One“ to Egypt, in the hope of speaking to President Nasser about peace. This spectacular action (and numerous others) -supported by tens of thousands of Israelis and in clear violation of numerous state laws - attracted interest world-wide: On the one hand it was a form of protest against the official Near Eastern policies of the time which had reached a dead end. On the other hand these unusual means served as an attempt at shaking people out of their complacency in the face of a growing threat of war and thus inducing politicians to dialogue by his courageous example.
In the following years, Abe Nathan intensified his endeavours to bring the nations of the region closer together, in order to approach step by step the realization of his vision of peace and reconciliation between the hostile brother nations in the Near East.
Immediately after his flight to Egypt, Abe Nathan campaigned for peace in Europe, in the USA and the former Soviet Union, talking to many politicians and intellectuals from all walks of life appealing to them to support his campaign for a speedy end to hostilities between Arabs and Israelis. In June 1966, he organized the first Peace March from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where he also erected a Peace Monument in October of the same year. In February of the following year, he founded the „Shalom Peace Foundation“ which was meant to illustrate his firm conviction - that a peaceful and understanding coexistence of people and religions in this region is possible - by means of a project which was to set standards for the future: He attempted to institute an Arab-Jewish School in Nazareth, a project which was, however, not going to be crowned by success.
Immediately after the end of the June War in 1967, Nathan paid visits to refugee camps in the occupied territories and distributed goods to help more than 40,000 Arab children. In July of the same year, Abe Nathan decided to start another personal peace initiative on a political level. Again he flew to Egypt in the attempt to illustrate his personal peace plan for the Near East. Upon his return he was sentenced to a fine, or 40 days in prison as an alternative, because he had violated an Israeli law of the time which forbade all citizens of the Jewish state to travel to an Arab country. He decided to donate the fine to charity and go to prison. Also in 1969, risking a further term of imprisonment in Israel, he travelled to Cairo several times, mainly in the - unsuccessful - attempt to meet President Nasser in person.
In 1973, with the help of sponsors, Abe Nathan founded an offshore radio station, „The Voice of Peace“. For more than 20 years, until late 1993, a multinational crew - amongst them Arabs and Israelis - operated this pirate station located on the „Peace Ship“ in the Near Eastern Mediterranean coastal waters and broadcast its message of peace. In August 1978, during the war and the bombardment of Lebanon, the „Peace Ship“ transported medical supplies to Beirut in order to help the suffering victims of violence in this area. The assistance offered was declined, however, and Nathan distributed his goods to refugees in Cyprus. Between 1982 and 1991, Nathan had several meetings with Yassir Arafat and other PLO officials - not only in the untiring effort to persuade the parties to return to the negotiating table, but also for humanitarian reasons: He tried to obtain the release of an imprisoned Israeli pilot. Since these talks, yet again, violated Israeli law, Nathan was twice sentenced to prison, for an overall time of two years. Disregarding his state of health, Nathan went on hunger strike to protest against the planned Jewish settlements on the West Bank, as well as against the law which prohibited any contacts with the PLO which had caused him to spend several months in prison. True to his conviction - that conflict can only be ended by dialogue and that only thus Human Rights may be preserved - he kept questioning the sense of this restrictive regulation, which in his opinion did not allow for any peace talks in the first place: „If you don’t talk about peace with your enemies, who would you talk to?“
Throughout his life, Nathan was present in any region on earth where the misery of this world surpassed all comprehension - it was in these regions where he wanted to fulfill his dream of giving a more humane world a chance. He sacrificed his personal wealth, he did not tire of looking for new sources of finance, he chartered planes and lorries to transport food, medical supplies and clothing into the deprived areas of the world: He organized a great variety of support programmes for the starving people of Biafra (1968/69), for earthquake victims in Managua (1972), Guatemala (1976), Naples (1980), and Armenia (1989), as well as for Cambodian, Ethiopian, Kurd, Rwandan, Bosnian and Serbian refugees (1979 - 1995). He successfully campaigned for the immigration of Vietnamese „Boat People“ in Israel (1979).
Abe J. Nathan died after a long illness at a hospital in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at the age of 81.
What contribution can an individual make towards a more peaceful and humane world? Abe J. Nathan has given an answer.