This past summer, some fellow Ashbrooks and I took a trip to the country of Israel. Throughout the journey, I had one common experience: no matter where I went – be it the booming cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, or the smaller areas around the Sea of Galilee – there were swarms of children laughing in the streets followed by happy parents joined hand in hand. This was the case even in the most dangerous regions of Israel. When we got the chance to spend an afternoon at a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, all of the parks were filled with young girls and boys playing hopscotch, basketball, and rocking on teeter-totters. The community of families living near Gaza was within rocket range of Hamas. Holes from the shrapnel of bombs were plastered on many of their buildings, even the nurseries. They are still getting bombed today.
No area in Israel is safe. It has enemies on every side of its border. The Islamic State has declared that, “Soon there won’t be even one Jew in Jerusalem,” while Hamas in the Gaza Strip continues to launch missiles across the southern border, refusing to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty. Hezbollah, the military organization operating out of Lebanon, has missiles they can launch into the heart of the country. Iran is also developing nuclear capacities that could prove devastating to both Israel and the surrounding region.
In spite of these terrors coming from every angle, I have never seen a country with so many hopeful parents who have children happily running in the streets. When I reflect on my experience in Israel, my happiest memories were my interactions with the young families and the communities that grew out of them, for they were filled with children awaiting the prospects of a happy future. I soon found that this experience of mine was no anecdote. The average Israeli woman will give birth to almost three children in her lifetime, giving Israel the highest fertility rate in the developed world. In all of these families, only about 5% of the marriages will end in divorce. When I look at the dangerous prospects that constantly threaten Israel, it is puzzling to see the family flourishing amid the potential horrors.
When strong families have many children, it is an indicator that the parents have lots of hope for the future generation. This makes sense, for what kind of parent wants to bring so many children into a world they believe is going to hell? The paradox of Israel is that in a place where hell is such a possibility, Israelis conduct their lives without letting terror penetrate their resolve to live a full and happy life. Israel’s high fertility rates certainly discourage the surrounding countries that seek to terrorize them, for there is no greater response to terror than having the belief that your children will inherit a world better than the one you live in now. The Israeli people know that having hope for the future is not something that arrives by favorable circumstances. Hope is something that is purposed, for it comes about when married couples make the decision to bring children into the world and raise them in a strong family. This makes hope a political virtue for Israel, for it informs how they conduct both private and public affairs.
It seems that Israel can teach Americans something important about how we conduct our own lives. Although hope is, perhaps, a strange virtue to discussion of politics, it seems to be lacking in the United States where, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, less than a third of Americans from the ages 18 to 34 live with a spouse or partner. Families are becoming more and more rare. Fertility rates are declining, and divorce is rampant all throughout the states. These numbers should challenge us and make us look to Israel as an example. We must realize that hope for our political life is something that is in our hands to create. This is regardless of any grim outlook we may have for the future of our country, and it would seem that this hope begins with the resolve to have a strong and happy family.
No threat to our own security should stop us from preserving the deep bonds that enrich our experience. Hope is grounded in purposed action. It does not arrive out of a vacuum. “Hope and change” is good, but hope with purpose is better. It comes from having a strong sense of purpose and a belief that you can accomplish your goal. You need it most when circumstances are worst. Having a strong family, then, is not merely a luxury to partake in when conditions are good, for it is a constant resource of hope that is grounded in a community of love. Placing more value in family life could unify the aims of our political life and provide us with clarity as to what the proper response is to the terrors of this world. We can look to Israel as an example of this.
By the parks in the Gaza kibbutz, there is a rocket shelter for the kids to run to when a rocket alarm goes off. At the entrance of one of the shelters there was the painting of a little boy sitting atop a mushroom cloud from an explosion, smiling. “Boom!” it said on a cloud of flames. A sure reminder that the kids should smile and remind themselves everything is all right when the rockets begin to crash. Yet the kids of the kibbutz still run around the village laughing and playing. The nursery with shrapnel blown into its walls is still filled with little children getting ready for the world. The world that awaits them does not seem to be very hopeful. Yet the very presence of these children makes it so. And that might be enough.