Pyjamas in Egypt

On the political Left, Abie Nathan was championed as a man of peace, and on the political Right, he was deemed “a bit of a weirdo.” Whatever or whoever he really was, Abie Nathan lived a life committed to his cause. 

Born in 1927 to a Jewish family in Persia, when Israel’s War of Independence broke out, Abie Nathan came to British Mandate Palestine to volunteer to fly planes. Following the victory of the Jewish people and the establishment of the new state, Nathan’s most influential career move was not becoming a commercial pilot for El Al but rather starting up a new California diner in the heart of Tel Aviv. Serving novelty American cuisine (which was rare in those days) brought him great popularity and financial success. After a hard days work slogging over a hot stove, Nathan sometimes hopped into his private plane and flew to some random location in the world. 

With the Israeli elections approaching in 1965, he heard the customers’ frustrations at the lack of diplomatic progress between Israel and her neighboring Arab countries. When Abie causally remarked that if the Arabs refuse to come to Israel, than Israel should go to them, he could not have known that this sentence would turn into one of the most daring escapades in modern Israel’s short history. 

Ignoring the war-mongering rhetoric spewing from Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, Nathan decided to dedicate the rest of his life to try to create peace between Israel and the Arabs.

He declared that if he could get a hundred thousand signatures on a petition, he would personally fly his plane to Egypt and demand a meeting with Nasser. His campaign created such a stir that it even managed to reach the ears of the Egyptian regime. Nasser was not impressed. He ordered his army to shoot down the Israeli plane should it cross the border. 

Many Israelis were also not impressed. Some people boycotted his restaurant although they could not resist a peek at his plane parked not too far away, which he had painted with the name “Peace 1” in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Few took him seriously. On the chosen date of February 28th, 1966 only one photographer showed up. It was only after Nathan had taken off that people actually realized he meant what he said!

He reached Port Said and with not much fuel left, decided to land at the local Egyptian airfield. It was with great difficulty that he convinced the stunned Egyptian air traffic controllers that he had come from Tel Aviv. They, at least, had not heard about the Jew who wanted to meet Nasser. The governor of the city who had been warned about it, told Nathan that they would refuel his plane and send him back to Israel, adding that they would need to deny he was ever in Egypt. They also added  quite thoughtfully that to do so, would help Nathan avoid troubles in Israel. 

Nathan was not giving up. He attempted to buy time, saying he was hungry and it was too late in the day to fly back to Israel. In the control tower, he even played cards while the bored Egyptians waited for further orders. With all their money that he won he and the city governor drove into the city to buy some pajamas so Abie could spend the night in Egypt! 

In the morning, he flew back to Tel Aviv where crowds greeted him with songs and sprayed their hero with champagne. He was only detained for a few hours and released on bail. 

Years later, Abie set up a radio station on a ship he brought with the help of John Lennon. He named the ship the Voice of Peace and broadcast Western music outside of Israel’s territorial waters. In 1993, following the signing of the Oslo Accords, believing he had achieved a step towards peace between the Arabs and Jews, Abie decided to scuttle the ship. 

Everyone is wiser in hindsight, and the Palestinian violence that followed the Accords was something that he could not have foreseen. But by his sheer determination and the inability to see anything as impossible, Abie Nathan was a shining example of someone who invested his entire time and energy, all for the sake of peace.