The Peacenik Who Flew His Plane into Enemy Territory

The story of the rogue Israeli pilot, failed politician and hamburger-joint owner Abie Nathan, who decided to "hop over" to Egypt in the interests of promoting peace.

Abie Nathan and Peace 1, October 1965, the Dan Hadani Collection

Even before he embarked on the journey that would come to define his life, Abie Nathan could boast a remarkable life story: The former Israeli Air Force pilot had been born in Iran in 1927. He cheated his way into serving in the Indian military when he was only sixteen. He fought in Israel’s war of Independence and later worked as a commercial pilot for the national airline company, EL Al. By the late 1950s he had changed course completely: The aviator had become a restauranteur. His popular “California” diner had helped to introduce that most American of delicacies, the hamburger, to young, hip Tel Avivians.


Abie Nathan and “Peace 1”. October 2nd, 1965. Dan Hadani Collection

Nathan soon became a fixture of the Tel Aviv nightlife scene thanks to his restaurant and its central location at the corner of Dizengoff and Frishman, but he never forgot his first love: flying. From time to time he would spontaneously jet off to some random location in the world in his private plane without making prior arrangements. Abie Nathan was that kind of guy.

In 1965, with the Israeli elections approaching, the customers at Abie’s restaurant would often be disturbed by raucous arguments over the political climate and the lack of any diplomatic progress between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries. “If they refuse to come to us”, Abie asked a friend of his one day, “why should we not go to them?”

“Would you be ready to go yourself?” one of his customers asked provocatively. Nathan replied that he would, but his challenger was persistent: “So why don’t you run for a place in the Knesset in the elections?”

Abie was not deterred. Instead of taking a step back, he was now intrigued by the idea. Not only would he run for the Knesset, he told his listeners, but if he were elected he would fly “personally to Egypt to see (Egyptian President Gamal Abdel) Nasser, not as a citizen but as a member of the Knesset.”

Approaching the fifth decade of his life as a man of wealth and stature, Nathan decided to dedicate his entire being to a new initiative: peace between the two great enemy nations – Israel and Egypt.

This was an unconventional cause to take up, considering the venomous, hate-filled rhetoric that Nasser would direct time and again towards Israel and many of Nathan’s friends felt he was making a terrible mistake that could seriously damage his reputation by putting himself up for election. Nathan though, was more than a little stubborn.

Abie Nathan and “Peace 1”. October 2nd, 1965. Dan Hadani Collection

Conventional politics were not his forte, however. In the November election, his party, “Nes” (Miracle), received only 2,500 votes, a fraction of the amount needed to get a seat in the Knesset. Despite this failure, Nathan still felt he needed some measure of broad public support to carry out his bold mission. He prepared a petition and declared that if he could get a hundred thousand signatures he would fly to Egypt on his own and demand a meeting with President Nasser. He hung up posters, handed out hundreds of flyers, and took out ads in the paper. A buzz was generated and it even managed to reach the halls of power in Cairo. The Egyptian regime, however, was not impressed. The authorities there let it be known through the government controlled press that Abie’s plane would be shot down the minute it crossed the border.

The petition Abie Nathan asked Israelis to sign to show support for his flight. February 12th, 1966, Dan Hadani Collection

The plan was not popular in Israel at this stage either. Nathan was labelled a “fool” and a “weirdo.” More than a few people came to his diner to shout insults at him, but also to sneak a peek at his Stearman aircraft parked not far away, which Abie had recently painted white with the name “Peace 1” written in English, Hebrew and Arabic on the side.


Abie Nathan during a press conference several days before his historic flight to Egypt. February 12th, 1966, Dan Hadani Collection
“Peace 1”, ready for takeoff. February 12th, 1966, Dan Hadani Collection

Few believed that the Tel Aviv playboy would be true to his word. Only one photographer showed up on the chosen date of February 28th, 1966 at the tiny airfield in Herzliya. It was only after Nathan had taken off for Egypt that the ground crew realized the event was not just a staged photo opportunity.

The day after the flight, the Associated Press reported that “Peace 1” had crashed en route to its destination. This mistake was apparently caused by Abie’s radar-evading flight pattern. “I must admit that as a pilot, I’m usually quite cautious and don’t take unnecessary risks,” he wrote in his memoirs, “but the urge to avoid detection was what pushed me to fly the way I did.” At first he turned sharply towards the sea, “nearly grazing the rooftops” of Tel Aviv.

Air Force planes were scrambled to convince him to turn back, but as he had no radio on board, Nathan had no way of communicating to them that he was determined to push on towards his destination. Within a few hours he reached the Egyptian city of Port Said in the Sinai Peninsula. Noticing his rapidly decreasing fuel levels, he decided to land at the local airfield. Once on the ground, it took Nathan some time before he was able to convince the stunned air traffic controllers that the man facing them had indeed just taken off from Tel Aviv. And no, they had not heard about the Israeli pilot who had promised to meet with Nasser.

The governor of the city had heard of him though: He notified Nathan that the Israeli press had rushed to report his death, and that after consultation with the authorities in Cairo, it had been decided to refuel his plane and send him on his way back to Israel. “If anybody asks, we will deny you were ever here, and you will be able avoid legal troubles in Israel” he promised.

Facing the failure of his elaborate plans, Nathan was not giving up so soon. Now, all he wanted was to spend a night in the land of the enemy. He attempted all manner of tricks to buy some time. At first he said he was hungry. Once he had consumed the meal prepared by his hosts, he made his way slowly back to the airfield, making sure to stall for time whenever possible. Once there, he slowly and clearly explained to the ground crews that it was much too late in the day to fly black to Israel.

In the control tower, Nathan played a few rounds of cards with the bored air traffic controllers as they all waited for further orders from above. After he had won all their money, he welcomed back the city governor who had returned for a visit. The two then drove into the city to purchase some pajamas so that Abie could spend the night. The owner of a local store was called back from home, to reopen specially for Nathan. As the shop’s first ever Israeli customer, he was provided with a handful of souvenirs to show people back home. In the morning, Abie was on his way back to Tel Aviv.

The news of Abie Nathan’s return became the talk of the town in Israel, and thousands gathered to welcome him back. The crowd picked him up and carried him around the airfield, singing songs of praise and spraying their hero with champagne. A police car had also arrived on the scene, but after being detained for a short series of questions, Nathan was released on bail.

Beyond this excited reception, Nathan’s historic flight had little actual impact. Little more than a year later, the Six Day War broke out, and the enemy territory that Nathan had landed in, at great personal risk, came under Israeli control. It was only well after the Yom Kippur War that both Israel and Egypt decided the time had come to find a solution to the conflict between them.

One contribution can be chalked up to the brave pilot who would go on to attempt to meet Nasser two more times: By strength of personality and deed, Abie Nathan was able to define and, to some degree, even invent a new type of figure in the Middle East – that of a celebrity willing to drop everything and invest all of his energy and talents, in the cause of peace.

How Israel Advertized Aliyah in 1948

In 1948, Israel sought to encourage Aliyah to Israel by promoting a strong work ethic, Jewish identity, and showcasing that the newcomers would not be alone.

Tenacity and determination were always part of the story of Aliyah but once the State of Israel was established, the narrative had to change as well. No longer was it about fighting against the British who quashed Aliyah. It quickly became about the pioneering Olim who would become part of the Israeli collective.

In 1948, the newly minted State of Israel was recovering from war while absorbing an influx of refugees from Europe and working to make sure every citizen was provided with what they needed on a day to day basis.

During this time, the fledgling state began encouraging immigration to Israel from English speaking countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Previously, immigration to the Land of Israel had been about circumventing the British Mandate’s cap on Jewish immigration while escaping the horrors of Europe after the Holocaust all before the creation of the State of Israel.  Now it was about drawing in a different demographic that would keep the Jewish State going.  In order to accomplish their goals, they published an informational pamphlet with the goal of inspiring people to make the move.

Cover of the Pamphlet

The pamphlet titled, “Aliyah Olim” (Immigration Immigrants) boasted that “In 1948 we had 125,000. In 1949 we shall have 250,000,” referring to their goal number of new immigrants.

The pamphlet contained various and sundry propaganda images and slogans, telling the new Olim that the Jewish State needs hard working hands to help build a country and boasted that every third Jewish citizen in Israel is a newcomer.

Images From the Pamphlet

Have things changed all that much since 1948 when it comes to advertising Aliyah?

“Burn them, as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium”

Yehiel De-Nur felt that "Yehiel Feiner" was destroyed in the Holocaust, and so he wished to destroy the book he published before the Holocaust

Author Yehiel Feiner, born in 1909, is known as one of the greatest authors to write about the Holocaust and its aftermath. Feiner renamed himself Yehiel De-nur and later chose a pen name imbued with meaning: Ka-Tsetnik 135633, taken from KZ – the short form the Nazis used for “Konzentrationslager,” German for concentration camp. The name therefore literally meant – “Concentration camp prisoner number 135633”

Before the Holocaust, in 1931, Yehiel Feiner published a book of Yiddish poetry titled “Twenty-Two” (צווייאונצוואנציק in Yiddish). After the war, any time he heard there was a copy of the book available at the National Library of Israel, Ka-Tsetnik would come to the Library, borrow out the book, and destroy it. Ka-Tsetnik did this three times between 1953 and 1993.

Ka-Tsetnik’s letter to Shlomo Goldberg, 1993

In 1953 and 1964 he burned the available copies of his book. In 1993, he wrote a letter to Shlomo Goldberg, the manager of the library stacks at the time, about the third and last time he destroyed the book. He shredded the publication and sent the remains of the book together with the letter in an envelope to Goldberg.

Pieces of the copy shredded by Ka-Tsetnik

“I have another request: I placed here the remains of the ‘book.’ Please, burn them as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium.”

It seems that Yehiel De-Nur felt that Yehiel Feiner had been destroyed in the Holocaust, along with everything dear to him. Moreover, De-Nur viewed everything Feiner created before the Holocaust as meaningless. As far as he was concerned, the Holocaust had utterly destroyed the world that existed before. Ka-Tsetnik, writing after the Holocaust, had nothing to do with Feiner and the work he created and published.

Ka-Tsetnik collapses during Adolf Eichmann’s trial, 1961. Photo credit: GPO

During Eichmann’s trial where De-Nur was a witness, Ka-Tsetnik called Auschwitz “another planet”. For Ka-Tsetnik there were three distinct worlds, before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust and everything that he had created before the Holocaust could not be tolerated.

Yehiel De-Nur passed away on July 17, 2001. The Library still holds an intact copy of the book De-Nur tried so hard to destroy.

Hannah Senesh’s Final Letter

The letter addressed to her brother George was written in English to ensure it would pass through the British military censors.

Hannah Senesh at Kibbutz Sdot Yam

My dear George!

I send to you again a short letter to make you know, that we are quite ‘O-K,’ and that’s all. I guess all my acquaintances and relations are cross with me, that I never wrote and are perhaps even angry with me. Please try to explain the situation, if possible, if not they will forgive me later.

Hannah and George Senesh (Szenes), from the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

To mother I do not write now either and your letters must replace the mine. For this reason, I give you the right even to forge my signature, hoping you will not use it for “high financial obligations.”

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections

No use writing that I would like to see you, to talk to you and at least to write more detailed letters. I hope you know that very well, and I get your letters with great delay but sooner or later they reach me, and I am always ever so glad to hear about you. Thousand kisses to you and warm greetings to your friends from home.

From Hannah

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections.

On May 20th, 1944, the Jewish paratrooper Hannah Senesh found herself in Croatia, not far from the Hungarian border. Two months earlier she had been parachuted into the region by the British Royal Air Force, in a desperate attempt to save Jews of neighboring Hungary from the Nazi death camps. On this day, Hannah Senesh sat down to write what would become the last letter she ever sent to her beloved brother George. At the time of writing, she had joined up with a group of local partisan resistance fighters.

In just a few short weeks, they would be be captured and tortured by Hungarian forces loyal to the Nazi regime. Six months later, Hannah would be executed by firing squad.

Hannah Senesh and her brother George Senesh . From the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

Hannah Senesh’s last letter was written in English. This was because all letters were required to go through the British army censor before they were sent on to their intended recipients. Senesh wanted to be sure the letter would be approved without any issues so that it would make it to her brother.

Hannah Senesh was executed on November 7, 1944.


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