The Political Virtue of Hope: What America Can Learn From the Israeli Family

Israel 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 as a state. If that is not enough, 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 all sides, I have never seen a country with so many hopeful parents who have children happily running in the streets. When I look back to my experience at Israel, my happiest memories were my interactions with young families and the communities that grow out of them, for they are 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 their 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.

Part of this family security could be owing to the incredible intelligence resources the Israeli Defense Forces employ to keep terror at bay. I know little of Israeli intelligence, but they certainly have done the best they can in securing the conditions for a good life in Israel. But the IDF does not solve everything, as we all know. For although military security may provide the possibility of a good life, it is still up to the people of Israel to enhance the prospects of hope for the future generation through the establishment of a good family life.

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, they conduct their lives without letting terror penetrate the resolve to live in hope. This makes hope a political virtue for the Israelis, for hope informs how they conduct both private and public affairs.

Israel’s high fertility rates surely must discourage the surrounding groups that seek to terrorize them, for there is no greater response to the prospects of terror than demonstrating the belief that your children will inherit a world better than the one we live in now. But Israel can also teach Americans something far more important about how we conduct our own lives. No threat to security—economic or otherwise--should stop human beings from preserving the deep bonds that enrich our experience. Having a strong family 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, especially in the face of terror and other uncertainties. Israelis seem to understand this more than most, and we can learn from that. I believe living this way could unify the aims of our political life and provide us with clarity as to what the proper response is to terror in our world. 

The Israeli people have figured out that having reason to hope for the future is not something that arrives by favorable circumstances. Rather, hope is something that one must create through a strong belief in the family and other communities like the family. Although hope is strange virtue to discuss in politics, it seems to be lacking in the United States. Over 68% of Americans now think that our country is moving in the wrong direction. One could argue that as a result of this lack of confidence, only 31% of young people from the ages 18 to 34 cohabitate with, let alone marry, another human being. 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 the 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.

Some fellow students and I spent an afternoon at a Kibbutz near the Gaza Strip. The community of families living there were within rocket range of Hamas. Holes from rocket shrapnel were plastered on many of their buildings, even the nurseries. Next to many of the parks where the children play there was a rocket shelter for the kids to run to when a rocket alarm went off. What struck me was 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 the cloud of flames.* A sure reminder that the kids should smile and remind themselves everything is all right when the bombs begin to crash.

In spite of these horrors, 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.

*The painting described is the image for this article on our home page.

**Originally Published in the Ashbrook Center's "Res Publica"