Earlier this year, I happened to take part in an interesting research project which studied Israeli attitudes toward democratic values. One of the first questions of the study was: “Israel positions itself as a Jewish democratic nation. What do you consider as most important in that statement — Jewish or democratic?”

The vast majority of the Russian-speaking public responded that these two — Jewish and democratic — are equally important. Even in an attempt to select the most important — democracy or national identification — responders tried to retain the parity, Jewish and democratic. This instills hope, and if we look at the key principles of democracy — voting, the people as the source of power, self-government — we see that one way or another, all these principles are observed in Israel even better than in some universally-recognized developed democracies.

The following questions were more provocative, in the spirit of “do you believe that key questions concerning [safety, finance, government action overall, etc.] should be decided by the Jewish majority.” These questions are not simple, but double-edged in reality. On the one hand, it is quite logical for central issues in a Jewish nation to be decided by Jews, but, on the other hand, these questions explore contemporary democratic values. Then came the questions which directly determined discriminatory social attitudes. It is in this section that the vast majority demonstrated its absolutely undemocratic attitude toward other nationalities and religious denominations. When we look closely at the definition of democracy, within it we find an intrinsic layer of connected values: social equality, enforcement of rights for each member of society, freedom, the right to self-determination, among others.

Perhaps all these words about social equality and equal rights for each member of society are a mere utopia? Or, rather than a feature of current reality, is it something attainable to aim for, at least at this stage of social development? Even in the United States, where there is much talk, research, and law concerning discrimination, reality doesn’t fare so well.

An example from personal experience: I took part in a competition for a grant in my university. The topic of “positive social change” was interesting, and, having run out of funds to pay for courses, I really needed the grant. When the finalists were revealed, I discovered that my project did not make it. I looked at the winning projects and was surprised at how cursory and superficial were the grant-awarded proposals . I approached the dean to inquire, how did it so happen that the grant committee selected relatively weak projects? The candidness of his response shocked me: if we don’t give 30-50% of all grants to African Americans, they can easily sue us for discrimination, and the court will not evaluate the quality of their proposals. The more ardent the fight for equal rights, the more inequality it will result in. This is the case for government-job quotas and other such seemingly-positive initiatives.

What is discrimination? What are the roots of this phenomenon? In an attempt to simplify and generalize, we can turn to the study of animal behavior. In the animal kingdom, instead of equality, there is constant competition for the desired social role at the top of the social hierarchy. Although the hierarchical pyramid can be set up in a variety of ways, the essence of competition remains that while someone wins, someone else loses. Equalizing everyone by eliminating evolutionary competition, we also eliminate one of the fundamental laws of evolution — development.

It turns out that competition is good, while discrimination is bad. The goal of any business in competition is to drive other businesses out and thus monopolize the market. However, as physical laws dictate, any action triggers a counteraction. Excessively cutting off others’ access to the feeding bowl leads to a rise in aggression and tension in society. There are many vivid examples of this from recent history: the bombing of Grozny resulted in the seizure of hostages in Nord-Ost. Clampdowns towards Palestinians produce more flying stones. Perhaps the actual purpose of a developed democracy is the attribution of civilized forms to natural competition, the creation of clear and acceptable rules to replace the alternative of brute force as the deciding factor in transactions.

I recently stumbled upon a pretty good personal account about life in a kibbutz (in Russian). The founders, members of the Cha-noar cha-oved (Working Youth) movement, embedded all the basic democratic principles — elections, self-government, and popular spirit — and fundamental democratic values, such as social equality, human rights, etc. What an excellent example of an attempt to create an ideal Jewish democratic government! The kibbutz grew, people married, gave birth, got divorced, and ultimately got to the point where everyone was someone else’s brother, ex-wife’s sister-in-law, or second cousin once-removed. The kibbutz was essentially being managed by three head families. And, though issues continued to be formally decided via popular vote, in reality, the decisions were reached in behind-the-scenes coalitions. Read the article — sounds familiar?

In the animal kingdom, the form of government described by the kibbutz-article blogger is called gerontocracy, rule by elders. The dominant members who have tired of competitive battles attempt to maintain parity. This form of social organization is also present among humans: tribal relations. This is possibly the most ancient form of government, in contrast to democracy, which arose in classical times in several ancient Greek towns, and which, since then, has continuously occupied an uncertain position, constantly needing some theoretical justification or endorsement. Without this factitious approval, democratic initiatives regress to totalitarianism, or to communism, or to a dictatorship, or, as in Israel, building a developed Jewish democratic government has produced a Jewish gerontocracy.