Last week, in the wake of the appalling disaster in Beirut, Tel Aviv city hall was illuminated with the colours of the Lebanese flag. Mayor Ron Huldai declared, ‘Humanity comes before any conflict, and our heart is with the Lebanese people.’ In response, a well-known Twitter commentator who happens to be the son of the current Prime Minister, expressed predictable outrage. The city hall gesture was ‘crazy’ and – according to him – flying the flag of an enemy state is a criminal offence.
A few days later, in an opinion piece in Haaretz headlined, ‘Israelis, leave Lebanon alone’, writer and activist Odeh Bisharat criticised the hypocrisy of such gestures in the context of regular violations of Lebanese sovereignty and the not easily forgotten history of invasion. He hoped that no victims of Israeli airstrikes witnessed ‘the show in Tel Aviv’. Whilst many were proud to see city hall lit up in such a way, it seems clear that acts signalling solidarity with neighbouring states can attract critical readings on both sides of the political divide.
A more original and perhaps more courageous example of Lebanese flag-bearing by Israelis comes to mind. Over 40 years ago, during heavy fighting in the Lebanese Civil War, veteran campaigner and humanitarian Abie Nathan sailed to Beirut with his ship, the MV Peace. The vessel was the broadcasting base of his legendary ‘Voice of Peace’ offshore radio station and this unusual voyage was part of his ‘Children of Lebanon Appeal’. In a newsreel from the time, the Lebanese flag can be seen fluttering on the ship’s mast. Loaded with an ambulance, medical supplies and toys, and broadcasting Arabic music and messages of peace, the ship arrived on the 9th of August, 1978, and dropped anchor half a mile off the Lebanese capital: ‘we are here not as Israelis,’ Nathan said, ‘we are here as people.’
The mission was, by all accounts, a failure. Nobody wanted the gifts – the magnanimity, as Nathan thought of it – and no help (from the Lebanese authorities, Syrian peacekeepers, the Red Cross) was made available. After a few days, the ship left and sailed to Cyprus where the supplies were offloaded. Nathan was depressed: “I’m finished doing favours and…forcing assistance on people who don’t want it. From now on, only when somebody asks for help, we will give it.”
Fifteen years later in 1993, the Ship of Peace was scuttled several miles out to sea in a theatrical gesture which was emblematic of the radio station’s redundancy in the wake of Oslo, or so Nathan claimed. But the sinking had probably more to do with a frustration with authorities, mounting debt and the deteriorating condition of the MV Peace. It took a less-than-dramatic seven hours for the vessel to sink and the scuttling led to complaints from fishermen in Ashdod about waters being rendered perilous. Someone managed to snap an iconic final picture just before she disappeared under a wave of anti-climax. Today, the MV Peace lies on the floor of the Mediterranean, a barnacle-encrusted dive site for the adventurous.
It’s tempting to read this wreckage at the bottom of the sea as a symbol indicating that all compassionate gestures to ‘the enemy’, as Netanyahu Junior would put it, are futile or counterproductive. In the case of city hall last week, Odeh Bisharat has a point. The Tel Aviv light show was visually impressive, and I do not doubt that the intention was sincere, but it was also hypocritical and self-serving in terms of making us feel good about ourselves. The power of social media can be overstated; you can’t erase years of cross-border history with a tweet. However, the Peace Ship’s flag-flying back in 1978 was different. Whilst Abie Nathan can be accused of being a self-publicist and egotist, a naïve playboy who built a cosy consensus around a vague longing for universal peace, he was no hypocrite.
Nathan was a man of heroic failure and elaborate gesture: consider the Peace Flight to Egypt, the sailing down the Suez Canal, the hunger striking, the radio station. But we remember him and his actions – stunts if you like – for good reason. His raising of the Lebanese flag on the voyage to Beirut took a lot more commitment than a light show and a tweet. His activism was not easily achieved; it was continuously creative and was sustained over a lifetime of campaigning. The voyage to Beirut was no one-off. Here, at the very least, was a man committed to communicating with ‘the other’, a man who risked his own liberty and life in fighting violence and oppression in his own unique fashion. Some actions resound longer than others throughout history, perhaps because they are outlandish and flirt with failure. Nathan made a career of such activism. You can argue that the gestures are all he achieved – but we remember them and the hope they embodied. They will outlast the ephemera of Instagram and Twitter.
Apart from the shipwreck, little else concrete associated with Abie Nathan remains. Prior to the scuttling there was talk of a ‘peace museum’ where the Voice of Peace ship would be permanently moored in Tel Aviv harbour. We were spared that and what we do have is the quirky interactive memorial on Gordon beach. Press the button and listen; it’s worth the trip.
During one of the darker moments of a hunger strike, Nathan was asked what he would want as an epitaph. ‘I tried’, was his choice. And so he did. He could equally have taken lines from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata which Nathan inflicted on listeners most nights on the Voice of Peace. Let us not, he would urge, ‘be blind to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.’