When Parents Kill Their Children

Everyone goes a little crazy over the holidays, and some people do the unthinkable. But that’s no excuse for bloodthirsty revenge fantasies.

There’s no doubt that child murder is the most shocking, frightening and menacing crime of all. Even killing a child by accident, due to distraction or for any other reason, constitutes a form of criminal neglect that must shock every person and every society. The question is how society deals with such incidents – what it does to prevent them and what it learns from them about itself and its character.

It seems to be more than coincidence that the two most recent such crimes took place during the holiday period. These are days when the levels of loneliness and insanity rise dramatically. It’s hard to find anyone, even the sanest person, who doesn’t find himself confronting the gap between the wonderful image of family life that the agents of the bourgeoisie, secular and religious alike, sell us in various ways (from television advertisements to rabbinic pronouncements) and the real, painful complications created by that modern invention called the family – every family. Especially the Jewish family, and even more so, the Israeli one.

After a frightening wave of incidents in which children were forgotten in locked cars, which sparked a panicked debate over weighty questions such as “What sophisticated electronic device can remind us not to leave a baby in the car?” and “Is it true that only men/religious people/settlers forget their babies in cars?” along came the two horrifying murders.

In the first, a mother slaughtered her children with a knife and then tried to kill herself, and immediately, everyone began searching for someone to blame. The main debate was over the question of how a mother could possibly kill the fruit of her womb, and these were the answers proposed: She was crazy, depressed, mentally ill or unstable; or she immigrated only recently, and who knows what her background was (or in less euphemistic language, perhaps she wasn’t Jewish; it’s inconceivable that a Jew could murder her children). Nor, as usual, were “the authorities” omitted from the blame game: the police and social workers who didn’t know about the problem, didn’t deal with her properly or didn’t prevent the crime.

Then, while everyone was still busy trying to figure out who to execute publicly this time, a father killed himself by jumping off a roof with his two children. Lawyers hastened to explain that disputes arising from divorces are liable to create terrible frustrations for fathers (warning to mothers: Better not get divorced!). Psychiatrists defended themselves with justified panic against the demand that they identify, arrest and hospitalize any father suspected of suicidal tendencies or uncontrolled anger. And the social networks boiled over with proposals for draconian laws that would be written in blood.

It’s interesting that this emotional outburst was immediately transposed onto the legal plane. Israel’s perplexed society is apparently searching for an old order that has disappeared. Now it tells itself that children are the center of its world, but at the same time, it is apathetic to developments that intensify violence and neglect, like the extensive changes in the institution of the family and the roles of both women and men in it and the loss of socioeconomic security. Like the disintegration of the welfare state, including education and health care (especially mental health care), like the creation of isolated and alienated residential compounds, and like an overworked law-enforcement system and clogged courts.

The expectation that “the legal authorities” can locate and catch depressed mothers, forcibly separate fathers from their children, or prevent people liable to forget their babies in the car from becoming parents in the first place also stands in absurd contradiction to Israelis’ worship of individual rights and personal autonomy and their loathing of state intervention. And here’s another problem: For those who believe the solution is to come down harder on violent fathers, what do we do about mothers who drown their children or slit their throats?

The thing we find it hardest to accept is human nature. As far back as the Bible and ancient mythology, we find parents who loved their children and yet killed them, in wars or with their own hands, and men and women who loved each other unto death and murder. This obviously doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it, but it does mean we must be very careful lest a frustrated hunger for vengeance or thirst for blood becomes a substitute for taking action.