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Abie Nathan - Abu Salaam

08/28/2008

Yesterday the world lost a friend, the Jewish people lost a great man, the Middle East lost an institution and Israel lost a great cultural asset. Abie Nathan, hero of peace, died at the age of 81. In a very real way, Abie Nathan was the cultural "Abu Salaam" - the father of Middle East peace culture for much of our generation. His example should have also pointed the way to a new generation of activists for peace throughout the Middle East, for his "religion" was truly the religion of peace. Regrettably, that has not happened yet.

Abie Nathan was not really about politics, any more than Mother Teresa was a politician. He was above politics or perhaps in a different plane, and what he was trying to do was not directly related to political views. Therefore, criticism of the political content of his ideas is like discussing how to implement the Sermon on the Mount in foreign policy. In fact, that quixotic idea may have been precisely what Abie Nathan was about. It was not a mission to be accomplished, but a goal worthy of human aspiration.

Those Israelis and foreign Zionists who are liable to disparage Abie Nathan as a "leftist" should remember that Abie was an Israeli patriot. He came to Israel to volunteer for the Israeli air force in 1948. For many years, he ran his business more or less quietly until he resolved to do something for peace - and to keep doing and not give up. Abie's will to peace was an expression of his patriotism, not a contradiction to it. While Nasser was rattling sabers, Nathan ran for the Knesset in 1965 promising to fly to Egypt. He was not elected, but he flew to Egypt anyhow in 1966 and again in 1967, each time being turned away. He tried again and again with commercial flights as well. "Not practical," "a dreamer," "an eccentric" we all said. Of course, if Nasser had listened to Abie, there would have been no Six Day War, but such considerations are hardly appropriate for practical people, right?

Abie Nathan was a real patriot, not only of Israel but of the Middle East, and at the same time a friend of humanity, who understood what must happen in order for Israel to survive, and in order to save the lives of tens of thousands of young people, and he sought by every means to make it happen.

Beginning in 1973, his ship, The Voice of Peace, brought a different culture and a different view of their neighbors and a different view of life to many young listeners throughout the near east. In his first broadcast, Abie Nathan declared:

''Shalom, salaam and peace to all our listeners. 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.''

For the first time, young people in several countries in the Middle East began to think of peace as a positive value, and got the first inklings of the idea that not all their neighbors may have horns and tails. Nathan went on hunger strikes to pressure the Israeli government to make concessions for peace with Egypt and to attempt a rapprochement with the PLO. For his contacts with the PLO, he was awarded with jail sentences, only to have Israeli diplomats follow in his footsteps a few years later. When he nearly died during one of his hunger strikes, he asked that his epitaph be "Nissiti" - I tried.

Nathan also organized aid to Biafra, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Lebanon and the former Zaire among other countries, and the foundation he created continued to aid disaster victims even after he was silenced by a stroke in 1996. Everything he did was symbolic of a life devoted to helping humanity.

But what if all of Abie Nathan's efforts were really quixotic and needless, and made not the slightest contribution to peace with Egypt and Jordan? Suppose there is really, in the end no hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Abie's quest was not about that. It was a moral quest, that needs no practical justification. One person may not be able to accomplish much, but he is morally obligated to do what he can. He must be able to say "Nissiti" - I tried. What a pity that the Nobel Prize was not awarded for such efforts! Do you think it is absurd? Is Abie Nathan really less deserving of the prize than some of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates? Did he contribute less to lasting peace than Le Duc Tho, for example?

Every person who works for peace in the Middle East, every dialog organization, all of us, are all the students and followers of Abie Nathan. Thought it is certainly difficult to do so, we must try in our own inadequate ways to continue what he started, in his spirit.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000712.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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