‘A bunch of thugs,” General Tommy Franks has called the irregular forces fighting against the coalition army in Iraq. The Iraqi regime and much of the Muslim world, on the other hand, calls them shuhada, “martyrs,” and feda’in, “redeemers” or “self-sacrificers,” i.e., Islamic commandos.
This is hardly the first time in history that irregulars have been referred to differently by opposing sides in a conflict. Uniformed soldiers are generally called “soldiers” even when they are the enemy’s, but out of uniform it’s a different story. In conflicts all over the world today, one side’s “freedom fighters” and “resistance forces” are the other side’s “terrorists” and “criminals.” The media, meanwhile, trying to appear neutral, resort to such terms as “militants” or “gunmen,” which usually satisfy neither party while making both feel that they are the victims of bias.
It’s an old story. During World War II, underground fighters in various countries called themselves “partisans” and were labeled “bandits” by the Germans, while Napoleon’s French forces in Spain termed “brigands” the Spanish irregulars who coined for themselves the term “guerrillas” — from guerrilla, “little war.” Already in 1870, the English historian Edward Freeman observed in his “History of the Norman Conquest” that, even back in the days of the Battle of Hastings, “Such names as ‘brigands’ and ‘murderers’ were regularly used by established governments to describe those who were in revolt against their authority.”
It’s older even that that, as Jewish history testifies. Indeed, the oldest well-documented case of the relativity of the language of irregular warfare may well be that of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 67-70 C.E.
Nearly all of what we know about this revolt comes from the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, or Yosef Ben-Matityahu, to cite his Hebrew name. While Josephus, a Jewish commander who deserted and went over to the Romans, is a problematic source, parts of what he wrote being self-exculpatory, his “The Jewish War,” written in Greek shortly after the end of the conflict, is a highly detailed account. It is one motivated, however, by great animus toward the rebels, whom Josephus viewed as a fanatical riffraff that drove the Jewish population of Palestine into a hopeless war against the world’s greatest military power. Thus, in discussing their name for themselves, he writes: “For ‘Zealots’ they called themselves, as if they were zealous for a good cause and not for all that was evil beyond belief.”
Although, were it not for Josephus, we would never know that this was how the Jewish rebels spoke of themselves, it is immediately apparent that the Greek term translated as “Zealots,” zelotes, is itself a translation of the Hebrew word kana’im. Deriving from the verb kanei, “to be jealous” (which is also the meaning of the Greek verb zeloun, “jealous” and “zealous” being two forms of the same word), kana’im was a term that alluded to the story of Pinchas in the book of Numbers. There we read how Pinchas the son of Eleazar, having slain the Israelites who “committed whoredom with the daughters of Moab,” is praised by God for being “zealous for my sake” (be’kan’o et kin’ati). A “Zealot” or kana’i was thus a freedom fighter, someone who, in the tradition of Pinchas, took up arms in order to combat assimilation and collaboration with foreign powers of occupation.
Josephus, though, rarely calls the rebels “Zealots” and always prefaces it with the qualifier “so-called” when he does. His preferred word for them is lysotes, “bandits” or “freebooters,” which may in part represent a pun on zelotes. (It is also probably a learned allusion to the tradition, also found in the talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin, that Pinchas was called by the Moabites lista’a, “the bandit.”) No doubt the Roman soldiers who fought the Zealots had a similar word for them in Latin.
The rabbis of the Talmud, who agreed with Josephus that the rebels were a disaster for the Jews, also avoided calling them kana’im. Their common term for them was baryonim, “outlaws” or — anticipating General Franks — “thugs.” This is a word that the great Hebrew lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda demonstrated to have come, ironically, from the Latin praetorianus, the “praetorian” of the Praetorian Guard of the Caesars — a body of troops famed for its ruffianism.
And what would the media, had it existed in those days, called the Zealots? Perhaps it would have used, like the English “gunmen” today, the term sicarii, or “knife wielders” — which, Josephus tells us, the Zealots were known as because “they used to mingle with the crowd, especially during festivals, carrying a short dagger [sica] concealed under their clothing, with which they stabbed their opponents.” The rabbis, too, used the word sikari or sikarikon for the Zealots — who, it appeared, did not mind it themselves, since they nicknamed one of their own leaders “Abba Sikra” or “Daddy Knife.” A word so accepted by everyone might have been deemed fit to print in The Times of Rome.