I was heading for the final leg of my flight to Tel Aviv when something curious happened. As I crossed the Brussels airport, I was joined by other travelers. At each corridor, the crew swelled in size. Kippah-capped men carrying heavy briefcases, young couples wearing Star-of-David embroidered backpacks, older Hasidic rabbis who looked like Moses, families with infants in strollers and several toddlers trudging behind—we were all heading to the same place.
At the gate, I felt as if I’d crashed a family party. A couple of young boys zipped through the crowd on scooters like dive-bombers on a mission, with tzitzis (knotted fringes) and peyes(long side-curls) flying in the air.
Where I had started, the airport was hushed and gray, a space designed for efficiency. Its unadorned industrial motif was utilitarian, if not nihilistic. At my departure gate, I found a vibrant and chaotic scene, alive with color, noise and frolicking kids. I relaxed. As a pediatrician, I recognized the messiness; I work in that universe each day.
My experience vividly displayed how two countries, Belgium and Israel, view children. Israel treasures them. According to a 2018 report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the fertility rate for Israeli women stands at a robust 3.1, nearly double the level of most European nations. The Belgian fertility rate is 1.7, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
Israel’s high fertility is a complex phenomenon, but it seems to arise from cultural norms sustained by religion. The Israeli Democracy Institute reported in 2017 that ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish women bear an average of 6.9 children. But at only 12% of the population, Haredi fecundity cannot explain the entire story. In fact, the rise in the Israeli birthrate since the late 1990s has been driven by the non-Haredi population. Orthodox women have a fertility rate of 4.2. The rates for “traditional religious” and “traditional not so religious” Israel women are, respectively, 3 and 2.6. Even secular ones exceed 2.1, up 15% in the past 15 years. Arab Israelis likewise have a high fertility rate, around 3.1, but by 2017 Israel’s overall Jewish fertility rate had surpassed it.
This norm of childbearing reflects a consensus among Israel’s communities. Collective beliefs about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness inform each citizen’s personal choices, and inevitably affect the nation’s demography.
Nations that don’t recognize children as central to a good life will face serious economic consequences. Without enough young workers, aging societies will struggle to support the sick and elderly. These troubles await not only Belgium but also Japan, China, most of Europe and even the U.S.
My experience in Brussels was a glimpse into tomorrow. Despite the political challenges Israel faces, I’m bullish on its future. It celebrates life. Belgium, on the other hand, looks old and fading. As a Jewish sage once put it, “A child without parents is an orphan, but a nation without children is an orphan people.”
Dr. Hamilton practices pediatrics in Santa Monica, Calif., and is author of “7 Secrets of the Newborn” (St. Martin’s, 2018).