The First Casualty of the War of Independence

Esther Zakai remembers it differently / Saving Ehud Olmert's father / Orientalism isn't dead.

It's commonly thought that Israel's War of Independence broke out the day after the UN Resolution of November 29, 1947. One of many sources to say so is Ze'ev Schiff and Eitan Haber's "Leksikon Lebitahon Yisrael"("A Lexicon of Israel's Defense"): "On November 30, Arabs fired upon a Jewish public bus on its way from Netanya to Jerusalem. Five Jews were killed. And thus the war erupted..."

For 60 years, Esther Zakai has been hearing this account of events, and each time she is angered all over again. Because it's not correct, she said this week, and accuracy counts. Zakai, 78, lives in Omer, near Be'er Sheva, and remembers everything.

She spent that weekend 60 years ago in Hadera, with a friend. On Saturday night she went out, like everyone else, to dance in the streets. The next day she set off for Jerusalem. The bus from Hadera that Zakai rode passed the bus from Netanya, and was hit first. It continued, and then the bus from Netanya came and was also attacked.

Zakai is absolutely certain of this and vividly remembers every detail of the attack. When she got on the bus, she had planned to sit near the driver, but she changed her mind and sat further down. This trivial-seeming change of heart may well have saved her life: The woman who sat in the other seat was killed. Her name was Netka (Nehama) Hacohen. She, too, had not sat in that seat at first: A man asked her to switch places with him, and his life may have been saved because of it. His name was Mordechai Olmert; his son Ehud was two years old at the time.

The fact that a woman, a civilian, was killed before all the other casualties of the War of Independence, could symbolize the civilian tragedy of that war. There is also something symbolic about the family connection of the woman who died: She was married to the son of Mordechai Ben-Hillel Hacohen, a founder of Tel Aviv and a prominent figure in the young country. One of his daughters married Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg); another married Arthur Ruppin. His granddaughter married Yigael Yadin. The family's descendants include politicians and Israel Defense Forces generals. His son was a leading figure in Mapai, and his niece was the mother of Yitzhak Rabin.

Five passengers were killed in the attack on the bus from Netanya, three women and two men.

The Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel (MEISAI) owes its name to the late Edward Said. It was formerly known as the Israel Oriental Society, until Said gave Orientalism a bad name. "In English, no one would call himself an 'Orientalist' anymore, and that's a good thing," Dror Zeevi, the association's president, wrote recently. MEISAI members may still call themselves, in Hebrew at least, "mizrahanim," but nearly 30 years after Said published his book "Orientalism," a debate is currently raging among them. It's been going on for a few months now and appears to be partly of a political nature.

It all started when Yaniv Ronen, a doctoral candidate in Middle East History at Bar-Ilan University, entered the association's Web site and informed his teachers and colleagues that he had no desire to become a mizrahan. That this was one of the lessons he came away with from Said's book.

"Many of us still dream, as did Theodore Herzl in his time, of a petit-bourgeoisie Central European colony that just happens to be located in the Levant," Ronen wrote. "A few years ago this vision was updated when Israel was likened to 'a villa in the jungle.' In the 'villa in the jungle' model, the role of the 'mizrahan' is to stand atop the walls and continually observe the actions of the jungle savages who constantly threaten the well-being of the villa's inhabitants. Since mizrahanut [the Hebrew term for Orientalism] is basically a tool for defining identities, it enables us to imagine ourselves as part of the 'Western, democratic, enlightened' world, which is locked in constant and irresolvable confrontation with the 'Eastern, Islamic and primitive' world and thereby entrenches itself and justifies the surrounding of Israel with walls that isolate and separate it from its immediate surroundings."

Therefore, Ronen wrote, he does not wish to be a "mizrahan": Rather, he is preparing to become a historian who researches the history of the region in which he lives, and will be quite satisfied to leave it at that.

One of Ronen's teachers, Mordechai Kedar, hastened to try to pull his wayward student back onto the straight and narrow. He addressed him as "My dear Yaniv," praised him for "thinking big" and for being a "caring person" and also urged him to be wary of the fashion of political correctness.

"I do not say that research must be Western in spirit and Zionist in tendency, but at the same time, I do not say that the - Arab or Islamic - East is the epitome of perfection, a paradise of human rights, women's rights and minority rights, and that the West and Zionism are to blame for all its ills," Kedar wrote. "As fate, geography, the army and the neighbors would have it, in Israel there are many people who've studied Arabic, many who've served in the army and the security forces, and many who are interested in their immediate surroundings. So are we to blame for Israel having become a stronghold of knowledge about the Arab world?" Kedar assured his student that there was no shame in being an Israeli Orientalist and wished him "continued success."

Ronen did not reply to his teacher on the Internet, but their exchange ignited a debate that, as of now, has drawn in Orientalists from four universities. Not surprisingly, they soon abandoned the theoretical debate about Said and moved on to the question of whether there is a chance for dialogue with the Arabs.

Eliezer Tauber of Bar-Ilan wrote: "It is my recollection that after Yasser Arafat's famous speech in Johannesburg, an eminent Orientalist in our country was asked in an interview about the implications of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah for our time. 'Forget about it,' the Orientalist told the interviewer. 'That was 1,400 years ago.' As if to say: Times have changed, circumstances have changed, what happened then has no relevance to our times.

"I am a devout Jew who lives by a text that was given 4,000 years ago, the Torah.... Everything I do in my life I examine through the prism of whether it accords with what this ancient text requires of me. Why shouldn't I give the believing Muslim credit for living and behaving in accordance with a text that was composed 1,400 years ago?"

Tauber chided his colleagues who refused to see that the clash between Islam and Zionism is irresolvable: "Because such a conclusion is intolerable to some of these learned people, they invent, as a defense mechanism, an imaginary reality in which ancient texts have no influence on our current reality."

The response came from Tel Aviv University: "Captains of Muslim industry are not marionettes of the Prophet," Ehud Toledano wrote. He also sees Arab leaders as being motivated by numerous considerations - political, economic, social, psychological, personal and cultural, as well as by their religious faith.

The impression is that this debate is colored by a good bit of internal politics that isn't easy for on outsider to decipher. Toledano wrote: "The group that insists on the supremacy of the cultural-textual explanations grounded in ancient sources is the one that is interested in perpetuating its standing as the sole, legitimate and authentic interpreter of all that is Arab or Muslim. It is not open to the research trends of the past quarter-century; and unfortunately, it continues to feed an anxious, analysis-hungry public explanations that are laced with threatening code words that only heighten anxiety and do not improve the quality of decision-making on Middle East affairs in our country."