The Massacre of the Innocents and the War of Images

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Giotto, The Massacre of the Innocents, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy, ca. 1305 (source: Wikimedia)

This has been a desperate week. The ancient Christian community in Mosul (Northern Iraq) has been told to convert to Islam or face execution. Meanwhile the schools, hospitals, beaches, and shelters of Gaza have been battered by heart-breaking attacks. Save the Children characterises the Gaza situation in the following way: ‘Children, rather than combatants, are bearing the brunt of the ongoing conflict.’

There has been a resounding silence from the God of Abraham about whether this kind of mutually assured destruction among the sibling faiths is really what was intended. Everyone seems to agree on only one principle: don’t spare the women and children. How on earth has the world come to this?

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Chapel of the Massacre of the Innocents, Sacro Monte di Varallo, Italy 1583-87 (source:

One thing seems clear: whatever the claims of some of the leadership, this isn’t really ‘about’ religion. There have been countless deeply moving gestures of solidarity by members of different faith groups who want to dissociate themselves from the claims being made on their behalf. Pecaeable Muslims, Jews, and Christians tend to have more in common with one another than they do with the extremist leaders who claim to act on their behalf.

But there are careers to be made and power to be won by escalating conflict. Claiming to defend shared values is the oldest trick in the book where silencing critics is concerned. The key players have in common a single completely ecumenical, profound, and deadly serious belief, one shared by warriors of all races and creeds. It  is not about god or country: it is the belief that the lives  of women and children are less important than the political capital to be won in the game of war.

I don’t think we can dismiss the crimes against women and children as incidental. They are often part of the strategy. Historically, warriors have done anything and everything to unsettle the opposition. Getting at the women and children is one of oldest and most disturbing tactics for humiliating the person or group who claim to be their protector. The experience of the women and children themselves is seen as largely irrelevant – they are merely pawns in a psychological face-off between warriors.

A late first-century Jewish writer, the author of the (Christian) Gospel of Matthew, captures the way intentional violence targeted against children was used as a terror tactic in first-century Roman Judaea.

Matthew records that after the Three Wise Men visited Jesus and refused to betray him to Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of Judaea (d. 4 BC), Herod ordered that all the male children under the age of 2.  ‘Then Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”‘ [Matthew 2:16-18]

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Modern conflicts involve the rest of us. Israeli onlookers have been criticised for watching the spectacle from safety. At the same time, around the world, millions of people are also watching – in some mixture of horror, prayer, and solidarity –  as the tragedy unfolds.

I don’t know whether to be shocked or relieved by the fact that Matthew’s narrative moves away quite swiftly to Egypt, where Jesus had been taken to safety by his mother, Mary, and his earthly father Joseph. Soon afterward, an angel revealed to Joseph that Herod had died and it was safe for the family to return.  I suspect that the story was told in a sense of outrage, but that at the same time the writer knew that this was simply how the powerful had always treated the powerless.

How a story is told, and what one does or doesn’t bother to comment on is not a trivial matter. What you have to justify and what can be taken for granted often plays a decisive role in the battle for public opinion. Alongside every actual war being fought with spears and shields (or bombs and rockets), there is a deathly important propaganda war going on in parallel. In recent days, thousands of journalists, humanitarian and religious leaders have been working to get the word (and images) out of what is happening in Gaza –  resulting in a lifetime’s worth of images of children in various stages of dismemberment.  Their hope is to move the international community to take political action against the carnage. At the same time, the Israeli Defense Forces have had to make every effort to justify their actions to supporters at home and abroad.

One of the most contentious aspects of the ‘media war’ concerns the the claim Israel has the ‘right’ to attack civilian targets, including schools and hospitals, where large numbers of civilian women and children will be wounded or killed. The point being debated is whether or not these attacks can be claimed as bona fide self defence.  One of the key contentions is that Palestinian civilians are not really civilians because the Islamic Resistance Movement (known in English as Hamas) is using them as ‘human shields’. As a result, the Israeli Defense Forces claim to be absolved of moral responsibility for the effect of their actions.

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This is one of a number of info-graphics that have been circulated by the Israeli Defense Forces as part of an effort to account for their actions to allies in other countries..

It should be obvious to the reader that I am not in a position to judge the truth of the ‘human shield’ claim. But one can and should look at what the logic of  the debate takes for granted. The idea seems to be that if one adult uses a child as a ‘human shield’, other adults have no obligation to try to protect the child from the abuse. Instead, the abuse disqualifies the child from its right to humane treatment, creating the ‘right’ to kill the child. Obviously, this logic only works if you believe that adults have no basic moral responsibility toward children.

A series of ‘viral’ images aimed at the international community illustrate the argument in graphic terms. They offer a cut-away of houses and civilian buildings – sometimes one, sometimes more than one – representing them as store-houses for weapons. (I have seen these images shared by thoughtful and generous people, but the illustration to the right is taken from a propaganda site)  The houses or other buildings are in a dark landscape, suggesting not only night, but the night-vision cameras used by the military. One of the images bears a legend designed to call into question any residual respect for domestic tranquility. ‘When is a house a home? And when does it become a legitimate military target? Hamas uses Palestinian homes in Gaza for military purposes.’

I found the image entitled ‘Inside Shuja’iya’ particularly compelling for an unexpected reason. I recently made a visit to the house in Amsterdam where the Jewish writer Anne Frank lived in hiding from June of 1942 to August of 1944. Visiting the rooms where the Frank and Van Pels families waited to meet their fate is a deeply moving experience. Unexpectedly, toward the end of the visit, you encounter a luxury-dolls-house-sized model of the house that you are standing in. At first, you think it is somehow trivial, a an oversized toy. And then you end up standing in front of it for far longer than you intended, trying to make sense of how the confusion of stairways and secret passages add up to a ‘whole’.


Model of the Anne Frank House on display at the Anne Frank House (source:

And so, disturbingly, when I saw the night-image of the Shuja’iya buildings, my mind immediately jumped to Anne Frank. One of the many moving stories told in the Anne Frank House exhibitions is that of Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who was the only member of the family to survive the war. After Auschwitz, he returned to Amsterdam to find that a Christian friend, Miep Gies, had found and saved Anne’s diary. Both worked tirelessly to raise awareness of Anne’s legacy.

So, unexpectedly, the Shuja’iya image triggered not only compassion but even a small stirring of hope. What is it like to wait though the night in those houses? In one of those crowded rooms is there a thirteen-year-old girl sitting in a corner and trying, somehow, despite the noise and fear and boredom, to create an enduring testament of the human spirit? I am fairly sure that is not what the IDF intended to call to mind.

As I look at the beautiful and compelling medieval and early modern images of the Massacre of the Innocents, I wonder whether those images, too, are doing what they ought to be doing. The suffering of those families two thousand years ago has been  commemorated fulsomely. And yet it has also become part of the mental furniture, only a familiar instance of how the powerful treat the powerless. The images are moving and beautiful. But their silence can be misinterpreted as a message that things have always been this way, so why should we expect that the future could be any different?

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Image by the Israeli artist Amir Schiby commemorating the deaths of four Palsetinian children while playing on the beach in Gaza, 16 July 2014 (source:





One comment

  1. Michael Gleenberg · · Reply

    Are you serious?? Talking about propaganda site and doing the same for Hamas? You compare Anne Frank house to Gaza houses? Was Otto Frank Jewish militant (“Resistance fighter” for you), firing mortar shells on Nazis from his family backyard? Or digging tunnels to attack German civilian villages?
    What about Israeli families (Jews and Arabs) who run to the their inner rooms to take cover from Hamas rockets, they don’t resemble you somebody from that period? (The word “blitz” comes to my mind but what do I understand in historical comparison).
    You right in one point – the killing of women and children in this conflict in the part of the strategy.
    The Hamas’s strategy. I don’t expect from you to admit (I think you do understand just don’t willing to admit the facts that don’t fit your theory) but may be few of your innocent readers will understand – as Romans said “Cui bono”, who makes the profit of those horrid pictures of dead women and children? It’s certainly not Israel.

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