He's the man who brought ravioli to Israel. Also the hamburger. Recently he brought $250,000 in aid to Ethiopia and built a refugee camp there in eight days, a coup in a chaos of suffering.
The ravioli and the international relief are curiously related. The man, Abie Nathan, 57, made a million dollars with his Tel Aviv restaurant, called The Californian, before turning to charity.
"People said, 'This is Israel, we don't eat hamburgers,' " he says. "Ha!"
That same sense of assurance brought relief to 8,000 Ethiopians. Nathan just shrugs -- he has other projects in mind. He wears a black mohair suit, a bold two-tone tie and expensive-looking shoes as he sits at a vast table at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations on Massachusetts Avenue. He's in town to brief the Agency for International Development and the State Department, part of an effort to raise an additional $2.4 million for five more Ethiopian camps.
"I was here a few weeks ago," he says. "They didn't take me seriously. Now I think they do."
The first camp, according to reports, is the best in the country, with a doctor, shelter for the refugees, electricity, water and food. Nathan expects the others to be finished in three weeks. Quick in, quick out.
He decided to go to Ethiopia after seeing television coverage of the famine while sitting at home in Tel Aviv. The next day he was in London seeking a visa to go to Addis Ababa.
"The people at the embassy said, 'What can we do for you?' I said, 'No, it's what I can do for you.' "
He gave them $5,000 on the spot, a contribution from his offshore radio station, Voice of Peace. Soon he was in Ethiopia, flying around in a chartered plane. "The idea of the camps came to me when I saw how people were all huddled together in sheds, the sick with the healthy, all open to the wind. People shouldn't be treated like cattle."
He says he has not been involved with the Israeli airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
International relief is old hat to Nathan, a former bomber pilot with death on his mind. "I did a lot of killing in my time," he says of his service in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and adds, "Innocent people. Arabs." Most of the money he raises comes from donations in Israel, although he has ties with many charitable organizations in the United States and elsewhere.
In 1965 he ran for the Knesset, promising that if elected he would fly his own plane to Egypt and ask President Nasser for peace. He was not elected, but flew to Egypt anyway, an audacious act that earned him global notoriety, if no audience with the president.
"There was a joke in Tel Aviv," he says, "that I was the only candidate who kept his campaign promise. And I wasn't even elected."
There is a lot of flying in Nathan's bio.More flights into Arab territory with peace proposals and relief money, one of which earned him 40 days in an Israeli jail. Five trips to Biafra, for which he helped raise $1.5 million for food and medical aid. Later, there was a flight to the Cambodian border, and $1.5 million in Israeli donations for those refugees.
Nathan's base is the 570-ton freighter floating in the Mediterranean that houses his radio station. The Peace Ship was conceived to promote peace between Arabs and Jews. He bought it secondhand in Holland and sailed it to the United States in 1969. He spent three years trying to raise a mere $170,000, moored at "a rat-infested pier in New York. The city government told me we had to leave, that we represented a health hazard. A nice Jewish guy wrote me that letter.
"Then a priest got us a free pier in New Jersey."
Eventually the money was raised and the ship converted to a radio station. Nathan says the Voice of Peace now reaches about 30 million people in the Middle East, with music, commentary and canned news. He accepts just enough advertising to meet expenses, with some left over for charitable causes. He has flown to, and contributed to, earthquake victims in Central America and refugees from war in Beirut.
The cost of running Voice of Peace are low, since most of the workers are volunteers. They come from all over the world.
"We have a Dutch captain, a Chinese engineer, English disc jockeys and an Indian cook." He worries about charges of bias. "There are no Arabs, and no Israelis."
He has applied many times for a radio license, and currently has an application pending. "There are no private radio stations in the Middle East," he says, and he doesn't seem to care much. "As long as they don't bother me, I'm not worried."
Born in India, Nathan served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and immigrated to Israel in 1948. Which brings us back to ravioli. "I made a million dollars by the time I was 32," he says. "I realized that there would always be someone richer, so I decided to do something different."
He has run for several offices in Israel, but has been elected only to the city council of Tel Aviv, a job he dislikes. "I belong to the opposition, so all my suggestions are rejected . . . Politicians just screw things up."
He expects the Ethiopian venture to be a success. "It will save a lot of lives. There will be a lot of good will created between Israel and Ethiopia," he says, although Ethiopia broke diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Asked about peace between Arabs and Jews, he says, "We have no choice -- there must be peace. It used to be that people talked about world peace, world brotherhood. Now we know you have to mend fences with your neighbors first."