The Juniper Tree, Israel 2013

On the Death of Innocent Children


Dedicated to the memory of Imani, Madlene, Lama, Eden and Yahav, and the little boy and girl from Jerusalem.


Difficult stories are difficult to tell and difficult to hear.

Difficult stories make us want to look away and block our ears.

Difficult stories make us want to keep our distance. To tell ourselves that it won’t happen to us; that it’s a very extreme case… an exaggeration… the product of insanity.

Difficult stories expose us to unspoken and hidden aspects of the human soul.

Difficult stories are heartbreaking and frightening. They touch on problems for which we have yet to find a response.

Stories of children murdered by their own parents are so difficult story, indeed unbearable.  But they are stories that must not be neglected.

A few months ago, I happened to come across an old Irish folktale called The Juniper Tree. I read it breathlessly and with tremendous sorrow, aware that I would return to the tale again. The story tells of a woman who longs to have a child, dreaming of giving birth for many months as the seasons change under the juniper tree. She eventually delivers a wonderful son but dies in childbirth. The child’s mourning father buries her under the juniper tree. Some time later he takes another wife and together they bring a daughter into the world. The stepmother – the classic evil character in so many folktales – hates her stepson. With typically elegant cruelty, she slaughters him and serves him up to his own father as stew. Her little daughter watches her actions in horror and then gathers up the bones of her dead brother and buries them under the juniper tree alongside his mother. The slain boy is then miraculously reincarnated in the form of a talking bird who flies around the land, constantly repeating the same song:

“My mother she butchered me,

My father he ate me,

My sister, little Ann Marie,

She gathered up the bones of me

And tied them in a silken cloth

To lay under the juniper.

Tweet twee, what a pretty bird am I!”

And so the bird-boy flies through the land telling his story – the tale of a particularly cruel and despicable murder. As he does so, he collects treasures and becomes very rich. Eventually he returns home, kills his stepmother and is reunited with his father and sister to resume a happy family life.

(See the following link for the full story:

If you find this story cruel or shocking, you’re quite right. The product of the wisdom and experience embodied in folktales, this story stems from a period when many young children suffer an appalling death from hunger, cold and disease, and when many women died in childbirth. Long ago, when this story was passed on by word of mouth, it was intended to bring comfort or closure to those who heard it, since it carries the promise that the child will eventually find peace.

Perhaps unwittingly, this story also shows how complex the parent-child relationship can sometimes be. It exposes a wide range of emotions: from the powerful longing for a child and maternal sacrifice through to the profound and chillingly cruel hatred of a parent toward their child.

For me, the importance of this story lies in the fact that it is told from the child’s perspective – the child whose restless spirit continues to float through the world in the form a bird, singing its terrible rhyme so that more and more people can learn how his short life came to its end.

When a boy and girl are killed by their mother or father, the whole country is appalled for a few days. Experts discuss parental distress and crises and the desire for revenge that can follow separation. The welfare services and the police go on the defensive. We all look for someone to blame, some thread of logic, some kind of solution that can help prevent the next disaster.

For some of us, these stories heighten our own memories of the violence we suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to protect us, love us, and defend us from all evil. Too few of us dare to try and imagine what these innocent children experienced in the last moments of their lives. We rush to hug our children a little more firmly than usual in a silent promise to make sure to keep them safe and sound.

As the days pass, some new horror begins to dominate the news columns. We forget the children who may now be birds or may simply be completely alone in the soil that has become their home.


Illustration by: Daniel Gouri De Lima

Children are wonderful, funny, clever and mischievous. They make our hearts sing and brim to overflowing. They are also rebellious and disobedient; they make a mess and they get on our nerves. They say and do things that make them seem like little magicians. They inspire laughter and gentleness in us, and they also drive us to frustration. They are who we once were and who we might have been. They bring out the best in us, and sometimes they test the limits of our patience.

Children are our responsibility. As a society, we are judged by our ability to give them what they need in order to grow and manifest their full potential. They need our love, respect and care.

I come from a generation that grew up on the Israeli musical Spanish Garden. I can still remember the part in the musical where the mother sends her children to the neighbor to look after them. I guess they were getting on her nerves too much. And the neighbor always understood that the mother just needed a short break from her children, particularly on long days during the summer vacation. But all this was long ago when low-rise buildings opened onto shared courtyards. When you knew all your neighbors and could rely on them to help when things got tough.

What I’m trying to say is that we must also love the children’s parents. Particularly the mothers, since they are still usually the ones who do most of the childcare in the family. Maybe if we care more about the mothers’ wellbeing and security we can prevent at least some of the murders down the line. And such murders will happen again, because too many people are left without any solution when they plummet into distress and despair.

A new year is just beginning. We are a society that prides itself on our love of children. Maybe this year we can really love them.