The historical inventions of CiF Belief columnist Scott Atran

The following is a guest post by By Elliott A. Green

(Green’s post is a response to an essay in the Belief section of CiF, 0n Nov. 29, by Scott Atran, titled: The Taliban’s Expat Jihadists. Among the many extraordinary claims made by Atran – in an essay which attempts to downplay and rationalize Taliban Islamic extremism – was was his allegation that “[ancient] Jewish partisans carried out suicide attacks to incite Roman retaliation against the civilian population and so increase popular support for the rebels’ cause.”)

The name “partisan”, which probably stems from the resistance of the Parthian people to Roman occupation 2,100 years ago, was first systematically applied to Jewish zealots and other “terrorists” just after the time of Jesus. Jewish partisans carried out suicide attacks to incite Roman retaliation against the civilian population and so increase popular support for the rebels’ cause. – Scott Atran

They say that paper is the most tolerant thing in the world; it will bear anything, including Scott Atran’s inventions. If Atran’s references to ancient history have no grounds and no weight, then what he writes about contemporary events concerning Israel should be seen as having similar unreliability. And the publication where he writes such fanciful tales ought to be likewise seen as unreliable.

To start with the word “partisan.” He claims that it comes from alleged ancient Parthian “resistance.” The respected Random House American College Dictionary tells us that the word means “an adherent or supporter of a person, party or cause,” or “a member of a party of light or irregular troops…,” and that it came into English from French and into French from the Italian partigiano. The  French Dictionnaire Pratique du Francais (Hachette 1987) agrees on the origin, while the French Le Petit Larousse does not indicate an origin but adds the meaning: “A voluntary combatant. . . fighting for a national, political or religious ideal.” Finally, Il Grande Italiano 2008 (Hoepli) basically concurs on the meanings, while telling us that partigiano comes from the word “parte” (= side, faction or party, as in a soccer match or lawsuit, among other meanings). No mention of Parthians.

Be that as it may, were the Parthians an oppressed people fighting colonial occupiers? Hardly. They were a dynasty of rulers emerging from what is now northern Iran. Most importantly, they were imperial rivals of Rome with which they fought several wars.

There was a competition between empires, not a struggle for self-determination or liberty on the part of Parthians.

It is interesting that in Emperor Trajan’s time, the Romans did conquer part of the Parthian empire, basically in Mesopotamia, east of Rome’s agreed eastern border, the Euphrates River. Now, in Mesopotamia, most people were not Parthians, but Babylonians and others, including many Jews. The Jews traditionally called the country Babel, Babylonia, although the common name today is the Arabic Iraq.

The Roman occupation, some 45 years after destruction of the Temple (70 CE), did provoke a revolt in Babylonia, a revolt against Rome led by Jews, according to the respected historian J B Bury.  And it more or less coincided with revolts by Jews in other parts of the Roman Empire, Egypt, Libya, and Cyprus, although not much in Judea. In short, the revolt in the former Parthian domain was not a revolt by Parthians but by peoples living in the occupied territory, who were not Parthians. Of course they may have preferred Parthian rule to Roman rule. Indeed, many Jews hoped that the Parthians might help free Israel from Rome. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai is quoted as saying: If you see a Parthian horse tethered in the Land of Israel, then hope for the arrival of the messiah.

Is it at all likely that the word “partisan” came from the name Parthian, based on the known history and accepted etymology?

Atran fails on his fanciful derivation of the word.

What about his claim that:

“Jewish partisans carried out suicide attacks to incite Roman retaliation against the civilian population and so increase popular support for the rebels’ cause”?

This invention is obviously  motivated by an attempt at moral equivalence. In other words, the Jews did it too when they were occupied. Yet, is it true?

When the Jews fought the Romans, they sometimes made what are commonly called “suicidal attacks.” That is, attacks in which the attacker knows that it is likely that he will be killed. For that matter, Roman legionaries too made such attacks at times, if we can rely on Josephus in The Jewish War. But studying a number of sources and authorities on the Jewish revolts against Rome, I find no suicide attacks by Jews on Roman troops in order to provoke them to kill Jewish civilians. First of all, explosives were not present among the ancient Mediterranean armies. Secondly, the Roman legions did not need much provocation to kill civilians. Mere resistance was enough.

Like it or not, killing civilians in war was common in ancient times and not considered especially reprehensible. Sometimes the commanders of besieging forces would promise to spare the civilians –sometimes the fighting men too– in a city, if the city would only surrender and open its gates. The Romans did that in the Jewish war, as Josephus reports, but often did not keep their word. Likewise, in a later period, the Arab historian al-Baladhuri relates that Arab-Muslim forces slaughtered the population in a number of conquered cities, although this varied from town to town. One of the Roman purposes in killing masses of civilians was to intimidate, to discourage any resistance whatsoever to themselves. Therefore, rebels would want to avoid having civilians on their side killed because that would be likely to discourage them from supporting the struggle. Indeed, rebels sometimes killed their own civilians whom they suspected of intending to desert. Reality was the opposite of Atran’s argument.

To be sure, mass suicides of Jews took place at Masada and Gamla. But these were not attacks. They were to avoid being captured and enslaved. Only about 200 years ago the Greek Suliot women did this in a famous episode in order not to fall into Turkish hands. And one report has Jewish women doing this at Hasbaya in Lebanon about 1840. By the way, the Roman commander Titus praised suicidal attacks by his own men (Josephus, Jewish War, 6:1:5, also 6:3:2).

Atran’s claim about ancient “Jewish partisans” turns out to be another groundless invention. The burden is on him to prove his assertions. But let’s at least credit Atran for having an imagination. Yet if Atran invents so easily, so blithely, in such cavalier fashion about ancient history, then what weight can we give to anything he says about contemporary events? Moreover, what weight can we give to the Guardian, which claims to be serious yet gives space to the fancies of an Atran?


J B Bury, A History of the Roman Empire from Its Foundation (chap. 24).

Cassius Dion, Roman History (Book 69:11-14).

Giulio Firpo, Le Rivolte Giudaiche (Roma-Bari: Laterza 1999).

Tacitus, Histories, Book V:1-13.

7 replies »

  1. On a par with similar “invented history” like ” Jesus was a Palestinian” and the “Palastinians are the descendents of the Canaanites.” A whole industry of pseudo- history is growing up in this way, but no rational people are fooled by it, any more than they are fooled by all the “troofers” seeking to exonerate the Islamic terrorists from their crimes.

  2. “When the Jews fought the Romans, they sometimes made what are commonly called “suicidal attacks.””

    Was it all that common? I don’t remember much mention of it in Josephus.

    Elliott’s excellent article raises a larger question: Does the journalistic community have any responsibility for standards? After all, the press positions itself as the monitor of government and thus nearly as powerful.

    So, should there be any penalty upon the Guardian for such repeated and flagrant fabrications with a view to demonising Jews or Israel? Should the PCC examine the pattern? Should the Guardian be prosecuted under local and international principles opposing hate speech and racial incitement?

    Should journalism schools use the Guardian as an examle of consistently incompetent journalism?

  3. The journalism schools are part of the Guardian’s outreach programme… Their journalists already teach there…

  4. To answer my own question: Not to Time magazine!

    No wonder Western societies get sicker every day. Hardly a word of truth gets out.

  5. There’s a video clip at the MEMRI site that shows that Scott Atran has good companion in the Egyptian film-making community. Just as Atran invented a story about ancient Jews making suicide attacks in order to provoke attacks on their own civilians, here’s the Egyptian filmaker or propagandist explaining that ancient Jews conspired to have ancient Rome attack Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. To be sure, Atran seems to be aware that the ancient Jews fought Rome. His Egyptian partner in inventions, on the other hand, would have the 21st century Arab audience believe that Jews controlled ancient Rome, and manipulated its policies (Sound like Walt and Mearsheimer?), pushing the Roman simpletons into war with Egypt that only the Jews wanted.

    The Egyptian filmaker with magical insight into the past is one Wael Ramadhan. Give him credit for having an imagination so powerful that it outstrips that of Scott Atran.