The Never-ending Story of Israel’s Voice of Peace

In the '70s' Abie Nathan launched a legendary pirate radio station. A documentary at New York’s Other Israel Film Festival explores his lasting influence on politics.

A still from 'The Voice of Peace,' a documentary on Israeli peacenik Abie Nathan.
'The Voice of Peace'

"I can’t think of him without laughing and crying at the same time,” says a tearful Zubin Mehta in a scene from “The Voice of Peace,” a new documentary that paints a glowing portrait of pirate-radio-station founder Abie Nathan.

The nostalgic tribute, which had its U.S. premiere Friday at New York’s Other Israel Film Festival, feels like a flashback to Israel’s pre-settlement days. It depicts a man who was part Forrest Gump, part Hugh Hefner, part Mother Teresa and part Bill Graham.

He was a playboy, peacenik, hunger-striking humanitarian, surrounded by girls and glamorous types, capturing the era’s anti-Vietnam zeitgeist. He set his dreams of a Middle Eastern Woodstock afloat on his version of an arc, living by Gandhi’s maxim “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

To most, the Persian-born, Bombay-raised former army and El Al pilot brought burgers, a Beatles-sponsored boat and an air of cool to Israel. At the start of the film, we hear how Marseilles prostitutes were so taken by his charm and goodwill they donated part of their earnings to his “peace boat.”

We hear how this head-turner’s California Café on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street was the place to be seen, how this dapper gent was quite the womanizer.

The director, Eric Friedler, is an award-winning German-Australian broadcast journalist who produced the film for German television. His credits include books and documentaries on the Holocaust, the Kremlin and global political issues.

Friedler’s movie shows that Nathan was far more than a smooth-talking ladies’ man and impresario.

He intersperses what looks like Super 8 footage with current interviews with the likes of Yoko Ono, who calls Nathan an activist who was “actually grounded” in the age of bed-ins and acid. Then there’s Michael Caine, who laughs about how he gave Nathan money because he had no time to partake in his charitable endeavors.

There’s also Daniel Barenboim, who refers to Nathan as a “mensch,” and Shimon Peres, who says he was “stubborn” to a fault. What emerges is a self-made man unafraid to live outside the box.

While just a restaurateur in late-60s Tel Aviv, Nathan organized emergency relief trips to Nigeria’s war-torn breakaway Biafra region, appealing to the conscience of his fellow Israelis and the memory of the Holocaust. He chartered a ship from the Netherlands to Britain and New York from where he collected 900 tons of medical and food supplies for the needy.

John and George

Soon the “peace pilot,” as he was known for risking his life on two solo flights to Egypt, got the idea to launch a radio station on a boat.

Once again, he sought the vessel in the Netherlands, docked it in New York Harbor and collected donations from the likes of John Lennon, who mentioned Nathan in a live performance of “Give Peace a Chance,” and George Harrison, who bought and installed the radio equipment.

Then Nathan sailed back to Israel. The point, says former Voice of Peace DJ Robbie Owen, was to make the station commercially successful and give away all the money to charity.

To listeners, Nathan was the charismatic captain of a rudderless ship that broadcast messages of love, unity and harmony “from somewhere in the Mediterranean.”

From 1973 to 1993, his signature mellow voice echoed from every taxi to every army base, from Tel Aviv’s Gordon Beach to Beirut’s Corniche. Nathan planted the seeds of peace with the drop of a needle on a groovy record, while refusing to drop anchor or ally himself with a particular regime.

Afloat he famously entertained Gloria Gaynor, took requests, sometimes from navy ships asking to hear the Bee Gees, and hit back at companies that refused to advertise with him. After Coca-Cola resisted a chance to air a commercial on the network, Nathan called on listeners to drink water.

According to the documentary, so powerful was his reach — which at that point was 8 million people — that he stung Coke’s earnings. Eventually the soda giant caved and advertised on his station.

Arafat and Golda

Nathan also tied his mast to controversial political causes, steering through the Suez Canal to engage in talks with Anwar Sadat, or conducting his own peace talks with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, years before the Oslo Accords. The latter got him imprisoned twice in Israel, a sacrifice he was willing to make.

His credo was peace at all costs. His agenda was unvarnished by national loyalty or party politics, a move that didn’t earn him points with the likes of Golda Meir or Moshe Dayan, who felt he should have been locked up.

But fear and threats hardly stopped Nathan from speaking out, whether appealing on behalf of Vietnamese boat people or launching near-fatal hunger strikes to protest the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

He famously dedicated 13 seconds of silence at dusk to victims of violence throughout the Middle East, breaking his musical moratorium with the Eagles’ “I Wish You Peace,” which was cued to start as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. It was a poetic end to each day and eventually his fabled career.

After 20 years of 24-hour broadcasts and death-defying and life-saving missions, and right after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Nathan sank his beloved Peace Ship, his mission reportedly complete.

As “The Voice of Peace” contends, Nathan was perhaps more heroic and a more significant broker of peace than Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. But did he effect the change he wanted to see?

“No,” said Other Israel Film Festival founder Carole Zabar, fielding questions after a screening of the film Monday.

“He brought cool to Israel, which had been a stodgy place until he rode in on his white horse,” she said, recalling her own heady days at the California Café when she was an undergraduate in Tel Aviv. “He definitely lit a spark, but he didn’t build a fire.”

And that’s the ironic conclusion of the film, which explores the myth of Nathan more than the man, whose personal details are largely spared from the narrative. (We hear nothing of his wife and daughter, and little on his family or even lovers.)

For all the millions he raised, for all the women he wooed and celebrities he befriended, Nathan died a pauper, having given away his fortune in philanthropy. He lived his last days in a nursing home, haunted by the specter of religious extremism and nationalism that he presciently saw could unmoor his peace efforts and Israeli society.

Adrift in a Middle East increasingly plagued by violence, Nathan, partially paralyzed by a stroke, died in 2008. His epitaph was “I tried.”

Was he a prophet, an outlier who lived outside the frame of political convention and without whom Camp David and Oslo would never have occurred, or a Don Quixote? Time can only tell.

But for now, his legacy is best summed up by Peres, his political foe but personal admirer, likening him to a flame. “Do you extinguish a flame?” he asks. “No, but you also must contain it.”