The Million-Life Idea

“A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
Sean Parker, The Social Network

Entrepreneurs aim high. Startup founders and venture capitalists (VCs) are often looking for the next billion-dollar idea. This makes sense — a VC’s best investment will often outweigh the profits on all their other bets combined. If you’re not shooting for a billion-dollar idea, you’re leaving most of the potential value off the table.


Startup founders often talk about wanting to change the world, so this aim-high mentality seems to be well-aligned. But does creating a billion-dollar company truly change the world in a way that matters?

Dropbox and Snapchat are both valued at around $10 billion — undeniably huge monetary successes. But ask yourself this key question: would your life, or the life of anyone you know, be seriously changed for the worse if Dropbox or Snapchat ceased to exist tomorrow? If you had to share your files via email attachments, or send your risqué selfies the old fashioned way via texting? I’m a big Dropbox fan, but I could switch to something else, and I don’t think anybody depends on Snapchat that much (except for some lewd politicians, perhaps).

A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A million lives — deeply and positively impacted.

If you’re an entrepreneur with a heart, thinking of startup ideas, ask yourself this key question: if your idea is successful, could it potentially have a deep, positive impact on the lives of a million people? If so, then I believe that’s a risk worth taking, worth sacrificing for, worth devoting your life to. And while everyone in Silicon Valley is chasing the next billion-dollar idea, you could be chasing one of the many million-life ideas they’ve left on the table.

It doesn’t matter if you want to accomplish this via the for-profit, non-profit, or social enterprise model. Opportunities abound.

Don’t believe me? Here are examples that have deeply and positively impacted over a million lives:

2016-02-01-1454356181-2830819-AravindClinicinIndia.jpg(Photo: Aravind Eye Care System)

Social Enterprise: Aravind Eye Care System

According to founder Dr. V, Aravind Eye Care System was established to offer an alternative health care model to individuals coming from all economic backgrounds in India. Dr. V wanted to address the problem of treatable blindness by developing a low-cost, high-throughput system for eye surgeries, replicating the efficiency normally reserved for the fast food industry. Dr. V created a for-profit healthcare and hospital system business, with a social mission of catering to the poor. He used the profits from the business to cross-subsidize free services and surgeries for those that could not afford healthcare. To date, Aravind has performed over 4 million eye surgeries, the majority of which have either been extremely subsidized by paying patients or offered free of charge, allowing over two million people to see who likely wouldn’t have been able to afford care elsewhere.

2016-02-01-1454356242-2916580-Deworming.jpg(Photo credit Sabin Vaccine Institute/Esther Havens)

Non-Profit: Schistosomiasis Control Initiative

Schistosomiasis is a tropical disease caused by parasitic worms, causing pain and developmental problems in children. Schistosomiasis Control Initiative helps run school-based mass drug administration programs which have reached ~100 million children. Studies indicate about 5-20 percent of children in problem areas have serious infections, deeply impacting their lives in ways that extend beyond healthcare. Deworming kids not only improves their health, but also their educational achievements and long-term earnings. SCI has probably deeply impacted the lives of over 5 million children.


For-Profit (Biotech): Gilead Sciences

An American biotech company, Gilead Sciences is one of the industry leaders for developing and commercializing antiviral drugs. Many of the drugs Gilead has developed are on the WHO List of Essential Medicines, and four in particular have been crucial to saving lives: sofosbuvir, ledipasvir, tenofovir, and emtricitabine. In the U.S. alone, sofosbuvir/ledipasvir have been used to treat over 140,000 patients for Hepatitis C, which would otherwise lead to fatal liver damage. Tenofovir and emtricitabine have been used in antiretroviral cocktails to treat over eight million patients with HIV worldwide, often completely stopping the progression to AIDS.

The stories of these organizations are incredibly inspiring, but I believe there are many more opportunities like these waiting for teams with the will to take them on. Not all of the opportunities are in healthcare or the developing world, either. For example, self-driving cars have the potential to prevent millions of traffic accidents and injuries in developed countries. In future posts, I’ll profile new startups on track to being million-life companies, and offer advice on where to look for ideas.

The philosophical framework of Effective Altruism (EA) can be used not only to evaluate charities or choose a career path, but also to help guide an entrepreneurial venture to be maximally beneficial to the world. I recommend the book Doing Good Better for anyone interested in social entrepreneurship as an introduction to EA principles, which can help you make the greatest social impact possible.

Startups take immense time, effort and resources to build, so it would be wise to think carefully about what kind of impact you want to have. Keep an eye out for the next million-life idea!

90% of all the Scientists who Ever Lived are Alive Today

This was originally published on the Future of Life Institute blog.

This simple statistic captures the power of the exponential growth in science that has been taking place over the past century. It is attributable to Derek de Solla Price, the father of scientometrics (i.e., the science of studying science), in his 1961 book Science Since Babylon. If science is growing exponentially, then the major technological advancements and upheavals of the past 200 years are only the tip of the iceberg.

Image above from:

The implications of exponential growth are notoriously difficult for us humans to wrap our minds around. Legend has itthat when the game of chess was invented, the king of India was so taken with the game that he offered the game’s inventor any reward he wished for. The inventor asked for grains of rice – specifically, one grain for the first square of the chessboard, two grains for the second square, four grains for the fourth square, and so on doubling for each of the 63 squares. The king laughed and granted this request, considering it to be a meager request for so grand an achievement. The king, along with any schoolchild who has heard this story, was surprised to learn that to fulfill this request would require 1,000 times more rice than exists in the world, and would be the size of Mt. Everest. Our intuition is not built to handle the concept of exponential growth.

Luckily, unlimited exponential growth is impossible on Earth (otherwise, we’d be left with no Earth). Although we still hear de Solla Price’s statistic repeated today, we need to ask, does this fact from over 50 years ago still hold true? Is science still increasing exponentially?

tl;dr: Yes and yes.

Price correctly argued that the trend could not continue indefinitely, or we would have more scientists than people (zombie scientists?). However, he also thought that science was already reaching “saturation” in 1961. David Goodstein, a physicist at Caltech, gave a speech in 1994 arguing that The Price Was Right and we had already hit “The Big Crunch” where progress in science slows down, based primarily on data from the US.

In order to investigate this question, I gathered data on 3 indicators of the growth of science: the number of PhD’s granted per year, the number of patents issued, and the number of papers published. For all of these, I have sought to get worldwide data, or at least data from the major countries.

Data for patents and PhD’s (xlsx)

The benefit of using the PhD as the yardstick for number of scientists is that it has a more standard definition across countries than measures such as the number of professional researchers and engineers.

PhD’s Granted: The benefit of using the PhD as the yardstick for number of scientists is that it has a more standard definition across countries than measures such as the number of professional researchers and engineers.

For PhD’s granted, I was able to find data for the US, UK, Australia, India, and China, from each country’s ministry of education website. Data for the US goes back to 1900, but for most of the other countries it only goes back to 1999, so I used a linear extrapolation for those countries back to the date when the first PhD’s were granted for that country.[i] The chart shows that the US grew exponentially until 1971 when it started to level off. But in the 80’s, with Deng Xiaoping in office in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, China begins to pick up the slack, such that the overall world production of PhD’s continues to grow exponentially. In 1961, de Solla Price noticed that the number of scientists was doubling roughly every 15 years. My data show that since 1961, this rate has slowed down slightly, with a doubling roughly every 18 years. Still growing pretty freakin’ fast.

Calculating the percentage of scientists currently alive involves some guesswork. If we assume each scientist is 27 years old when they receive their PhD, and 80 years old when they die, then in my model the PhD grantees from 1959-2012 are alive, and those from 1900-1959 are dead (my apologies if I have given you an untimely death). By that measure, exactly 90% of all scientists that ever lived are currently alive. Of course, this ignores scientists that lived before 1900, although I expect that number to be small relative to the millions of scientists alive today. Technically, de Solla Price said it was 80-90%, so within that range of uncertainty, the statistic probably still stands.

[i] This extrapolation shouldn’t affect the results too much because compared to the US, these countries all had relatively few PhD’s being granted in 1999.

As you can tell from a quick glance at the chart, growth in patents has continued to be exponential.[i] If you look closely at these charts, you can see the impact of many historical events. For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Soviet Union brought patent grants to nearly 0 in 1991. Similarly, 1991 cause a huge drop in patent grants in Japan, since that was the year the Japanese economic bubble popped. WWI and WWII both caused drops in global patent issuance. You may notice that the global total seems to drop off a little at the end – this is due entirely to a 20% drop in patents granted in Japan in 2014, which is a time-lag effect of the 2008 financial crisis. The growth rate is similar to that of PhDs, with a doubling roughly every 19 years since 1961.

Papers Published

Analysis of scientific papers published, which was pioneered by de Solla Price, has been well-studied in the academic literature. The most recent, most broad, and most sophisticated analysis I’ve found comes from the paper “Growth rates of modern science: A bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references” by Lutz Bornmann and Rüdiger Mutz. This paper, along with others in the field of scientometrics, confirms the exponential growth of science – it “has become today a generally accepted thesis.” They show that in the second half of the 20th century, the number of papers published annually was doubling every 9 years.[ii]

[i] For patents granted, the data up to 2006 comes from the WIPO Statistics Database, and after that comes from WIPO and individual countries’ patent office websites. The EPO is the European Patent Office, founded in 1977. The data show it has eclipsed national European patent offices in importance, as part of the trend of greater European integration.

[ii] Note that the apparent drop-off at the end of this chart is just an artifact of their estimation technique – they are looking at citations from papers published in 2012 to count papers published in previous years, so the most recent papers haven’t had enough time to be cited yet.

The graph on top shows papers published since 1650.  It closely resembles Derek de Solla Price’s original curve (on the bottom), showing exponential growth in Physics abstracts, 1900-1950.

Possible Objections

You might be willing to accept the data presented above, but still disagree with the conclusion that science is actually advancing exponentially.

Objection: Science is Getting Harder

When Sir Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity in 1665, there weren’t many other scientists around, so there were a lot of low-hanging fruit (get it?). Revolutionary scientific discoveries used to happen quite frequently, but we’re unlikely to get anything as revolutionary as General Relativity in the coming decade. In other words, the recalcitrance or difficulty of making scientific discoveries may be growing exponentially even faster than the number of scientists we’re throwing at the problems.

I think this is true, but there’s a countervailing force to consider. Science builds on itself. Advances in statistics lead to advances in machine learning; the progress of electrical engineering that powers Moore’s Law makes those advances in machine learning practical; and those techniques benefit fields ranging from computational biology to social network theory. So while it’s vastly more difficult for an individual scientist to make significant breakthroughs today, there’s a million-fold multiplier on even small advances from all the scientists worldwide who can build upon that work.

Objection: We’ve Lowered our Standards

Sure, we’re producing more people with the letters PhD at the end of their name, and we’re publishing more papers, but it’s become meaningless. Most published research findings are false. Patents get granted for ridiculous things. The rapid growth of China’s PhD programs may have come at the expense of quality.

There may be some truth to this argument, but let’s see what it implies. Suppose that in the glorious scientific past, in the year 1900, 2/3 of published research findings were replicable, and that now it’s only 1/3. We calculated above that the total number of papers published doubles roughly every 15 years, which means we have had 7 doublings in the 21st century. If the quality has been cut in half since then, we would be left with 6 doublings of “quality science.” That’s not enough to break the argument. Besides, we should be careful not to glorify the past. Would Freud’s work pass for respectable sciencetoday?


Science and technology have drastically transformed our lives. This revolution has taken place almost entirely in the past 200 years – one tenth of one percent of our species’ 200,000 year history. Never before have we had so many people whose sole purpose of work is to better understand how the world works. This has far-reaching implications, both good and bad, for the future of humanity. It’s difficult to wrap our minds around the blistering pace of innovation that is about to come.

As Mr. Bean once said, “Brace yourselves.”

Special Thanks to my research assistant Eitan Kling-Levine for helping me gather this data.


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Bornmann, Lutz, and Ruediger Mutz. “Growth Rates of Modern Science: A Bibliometric Analysis Based on the Number of Publications and Cited References.” arXiv:1402.4578 [physics, Stat], February 19, 2014.

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Effective Altruism: The World is One Family

Originally published in The Huffington Post

“अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसाम् | उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् || ”
“Discrimination saying ‘this one is a relative; this other one is a stranger’ is for the mean-minded. For those who’re known as magnanimous, the entire world constitutes but a family.” – The Hindu book Mahōpaniṣad, VI.71.

As an active member of the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, I believe in the idea that we should do the most good for the world that we can given our limited time, energy, and resources. The movement has been gaining momentum with the publication of Doing Good Better, a new Amazon bestseller, and the start of EA Globalthis weekend, a series of conferences featuring luminaries such as Elon Musk andPeter Singer. EA asks us to think critically, strategically, and rationally about issues such as what global causes to prioritize, which careers will enable us to achieve the most social good, and which charities can reduce the most suffering per dollar spent.

It’s a demanding philosophy. For example, if one organization can provide a cataract surgery to prevent or cure blindness for $3,500, and another organization can provide the same surgery for $35, we should donate our charitable dollars to the more cost-effective one. In fact, this is the actual cost difference between cataract surgeries in the US and in India. EA argues that we shouldn’t care about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality when we decide whom to help – so even though I’m American, it doesn’t follow that I should choose to prioritize Americans with my giving.

EA takes this a step further with the principle of cause neutrality. Let’s say I want to promote music education. I search all over the world for the best music education program, with low overhead, competent management, cost-effective programs, and strong evidence that the kids actually learn. EA asks us to go a step further, and not only maximize impact within a cause, but across causes. With over 6 million children dying from preventable diseases every year, is music education really the best cause area to focus on?

Six million is a number of special significance to me. It’s the estimate of how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, which my grandfather survived. His parents were sent to Auschwitz when he was 13, leaving him orphaned. In his memoir, he recounts the story of asking a man he knew for help in finding a place to stay: “The man was not angry but told me in no uncertain terms that I should never come around his business again.” Soon after, he was arrested, and sent to a concentration camp. He suffered through five of them, including Auschwitz.

That one moment could have gone so differently. Consider the story of Jerzy and Irena Krepec, who hid 20 Jews on their farm in Poland, and set up an
underground school for the children. Further abroad, in the Allied countries, there were people who created programs like the Kindertransport, which saved 10,000 Jewish children. On the other hand, there were also those who blocked Jewish immigration, chose not to bomb death camps, or buried news stories about what was happening.

Learning about this history drove home powerful moral lessons for me. Valuing human lives less due to superficial differences of race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality, is evil, pure and simple. Morality obligates us not only to refrain from harming others, but also to protect and save lives when we have the power to do so. And that rule applies regardless of whether the life you can save is right in front of you, or halfway around the world.

Studying psychology helped me understand why genocides and atrocities happen. Our minds are tribal. Although we now live in a world of great abundance, we evolved in an environment where resources were scarce, and only the strong survived – the ones who could cooperate with their in-group and crush those in their out-group without remorse. We are the descendants of those people. Natural selection left us with a brain bug that orients us toward viewing our own group as good people, and “them” as inhuman objects.

But natural selection also endowed us with a capacity to reason, and a desire to be consistent. With philosophy as our guide, we can probe our moral intuitions and discard them if they contradict our core beliefs. What justifies this treatment of the out-group? How do we even draw the distinction between our in-group and out-group? (Hitler arbitrarily defined a Jew as someone with at least one Jewish grandparent.) Most importantly, if I morally object to how the world stood idly by as my family perished, how can I stand idly by while the families of others perish?

Through this process of moral reasoning and introspection, I try to extend the love I feel for my family to the rest of humanity. I love my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and third cousins, so why stop there? I know that all human beings share a common ancestor. The love I feel for my immediate family is stronger, and a different kind of love than what I feel for those family members I haven’t met yet, but I still call it love because it goes beyond sympathy and compassion. It’s not just that I feel morally obligated to help the poor; I want to help them. I care about them because I’ve learned to see past the meaningless differences that prevented me from caring about them in the first place. Nothing captures this better than the ancient Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — the world is one family.

Once I began to internalize this principle, Effective Altruism started to make more intuitive sense. I love my brother equally regardless of whether he is in India or here with me in Boston – once you care about someone, their location seems irrelevant. From this perspective, cause neutrality makes more sense, too. If one of my children needed deworming pills, and another one needed violin lessons, I know which one I’d help first. How can you say that one worthy cause is better than another? Once you internalize the welfare of the people you’re trying to help by thinking of them as your family, it’s easy.

I believe the world is getting better, but it’s still horribly broken in myriad ways. I wish I didn’t have to make tradeoffs between people I care about, but I recognize the fact that my altruistic time, energy, and resources are limited, and that devoting them to one cause means I can’t pursue another. Luckily, love is unlimited.

“For true love is inexhaustible; the more you give, the more you have. And if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant is its flow.” –Antoine de Saint Exupery

So let yourself care about the world and its inhabitants, love your neighbor as yourself, your brother, your sister. Sense the urgency, yet remain undaunted. Rather than self-sacrifice, help because you care. Do something, but not just anything –combine heart and head.

You Could Be the Warren Buffett of Social Investing

Originally published in The Harbus

Suppose I told you about an investment that would easily generate a 60x return in a few years with very little risk.  And then I tell you that some of the world’s top economists have looked at the opportunity and agreed with me.

“Impossible,” you might say.  “Surely if there were such an obvious source of alpha, investors would pile in like teenage girls at a Katy Perry concert and the opportunity would be gone faster than you can say FOMO.”

In the stock market, you would be right.  Opportunities for 60x returns do exist but they cannot be obvious – the system should bring the prices of stocks into equilibrium so that their expected risk-adjusted ROI’s are roughly even.  But the investment I’m talking about isn’t in the stock market – it’s nutrition programs in the developing world aimed at preventing stunting, i.e. feeding kids vitamins (think Flintstones or Gummy Bears, your choice).

According to the Copenhagen Consensus, a think tank that does cost-benefit analysis and project prioritization, one dollar invested in these programs generates roughly $60 in NPV.  The problem is that the returns come back to society in the form of children who become more productive citizens later in life, rather than coming back to the investor or philanthropist who funded the program.

This causes two problems.  One concerns incentives.  In philanthropy, since there’s no incentive to maximize returns for ourselves, we are motivated to engage altruistically with the causes we find most emotionally compelling, which may not correlate well with maximizing social ROI.

The second problem is information.  Philanthropists don’t get a portfolio statement at the end of the year outlining the impact they achieved. They get letters from the charities they support outlining what the charity did during the year, but usually not describing how those activities translate into life outcomes, and hardly ever measuring the difference between the actual outcome and what would have happened without the philanthropic investment (the counterfactual/causal impact).

This is why the non-profit sector lacks the equilibrium and rigor of public markets.  Not enough people are hunting for altruistic bargains the way we hunt for high ROI investments.  In fact, according to a 2010 Hope Consulting survey, two thirds of donors do no research at all, and only three percent research the relative performance of different charities.  No wonder the non-profit sector has a reputation for lacking efficiency – we, their investors, haven’t been imposing it upon them the same way we do for our for-profit investments.

Luckily, there is a huge bright side to this problem.  The fact that others are investing suboptimally means that there are massive opportunities to do good in the world that are hiding in plain sight.  When Warren Buffett started his investing career in 1950, the stock market was much less sophisticated than it is now, and I argue that the current non-profit sector is even less sophisticated than the stock market of 1950.  This means that you could easily be the Warren Buffett of social investing!

Where to start?  First, you’ll need to consult the research of the best analysts.  GiveWell, a charity evaluator, has researched hundreds of charities and evaluates them on evidence of impact, cost-effectiveness, room for more funding, and transparency.  Their top charity, Against Malaria Foundation(founded by HBS alum Rob Mather), delivers insecticide-treated bednets in sub-Saharan Africa to prevent Malaria, at an estimated cost of roughly $3,000 per life saved.  Their other top-rated charities offer similarly amazing bargains for improving the human condition.

Next, we need our CAPM for social investing—a framework for thinking about do-goodery in a rigorous and analytical way.  Effective Altruism is a growing body of thought on how we can accomplish the most good for the world given our limited time, energy, resources, and money.  It applies the philosophy of ethics and epistemology to real-world questions such as which careers do the most good or where we should donate.

Just as behavioral investing techniques look to the work of behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman to guard against our built-in emotional biases and to act more rationally, so too does Effective Altruism seek to incorporate those lessons, especially since altruism is a much more emotional activity to begin with.  There are a growing number of organizations, blogs and forums approaching the world’s problems from this perspective; I recommend getting on the email lists of organizations such as GiveWell, Giving What We Can, and The Life You Can Save as an easy way to learn more.

Finally, we need a community.  To that end, I’ve co-founded the Harvard University Effective Altruism Student Group (HUEA) to engage grad students from across the University in active dialogue about these ideas.  This semester, we’re planning on hosting talks from HLS professor Cass Sunstein and world-renowned ethicist Derek Parfit.  We also have the Social Enterprise Club Effective Philanthropy interest group here at HBS.  Our undergrad friends at Harvard College Effective Altruism (HCEA) also organize great events.

Please reach out to me ( if you’d like to learn more, get added to our mailing list, or ask any questions.  Even if you think this is the worst idea you’ve ever heard, I want to hear your thoughts – these kinds of debates don’t happen enough on campus.  And regardless of what you think of the Effective Altruism approach, I hope you’ll agree that there are massive opportunities for us to do good for the world – and you could be the one who finds them.

杉原 千畝 – Chiune Sugihara

This is a speech I gave to my Japanese class at Keio University about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Chiune Sugihara













このドイツ人の部分を現すのは子供の時代に暗記した詩です。それはシラーの「Die Bürgschaft」という詩です。長いですが、そらで言えるばかりでなく、くくーっとパフォーマンスをします。祖父がこの言葉を言うとき、かつての勢いが見える。

Arab-Israel Conflict: Symmetries and Asymmetries

This was my final paper for the Brown University course “JUDS 0980 P: The Arab-Israel Conflict”

The Arab-Israel-Palestine conflict can be characterized by both symmetries and asymmetries, and I think it would be an oversimplification to classify the entire conflict as being “symmetrical” or “asymmetrical.”  It is important to look at each aspect or accusation, whether it be historical, ideological, or related to the current situation, and analyze it to see what the equivalent on the other side is.  Some aspects, such as the two nationalisms and competing claims to the land, are clearly symmetrical, whereas others, such as the power imbalance, are clearly asymmetrical.  Using this lens as an analytical tool can help clarify the nature of the conflict, and reveal its moral ambiguities.

First, I will discuss the symmetries.  Both Zionism and Arab local nationalism (al-wataniyya) began in the late 1800s, ideologically inheriting 19th century European romantic nationalism (class notes).  Muhammad Muslih writes that local Arab nationalism “was the product of the impact of Western civilization upon the Arabs of Asia… the more powerful force that shaped the course of Arab politics after the war” (Muslih, 192).  Both were “movements in a hurry,” desperate to reclaim the land that had been controlled by others so long.  The Peel Commission Report of 1937 recognized the legitimacy of the competing claims for the territory, establishing the conflict as one of “right against right”: “Partition offers a possibility of finding a way through [the difficulties], a possibility of obtaining a final solution of the problem which does justice to the rights and aspirations of both the Arabs and the Jews” (Palestine Royal Commission Report, 26).

Unfortunately, there has also been a long symmetric history of delegitimizing each other’s national aspirations.  Even today many Jews and many people in the West think that the concept of “Palestinians” was created as a political ploy to attack Israel, and many Palestinians believe that since Judaism is a religion, it should not have its own nationalism.  Larry Miller, a Jewish political comedian, wrote in the Weekly Standard, “The Palestinians want their own country. There’s just one thing about that: There are no Palestinians. It’s a made up word… As soon as the Jews took over and started growing oranges as big as basketballs, what do you know, say hello to the ‘Palestinians,’ weeping for their deep bond with their lost ‘land’ and ‘nation’” (Miller, The Weekly Standard).  Similarly deplorable is the Palestinian National Covenant, which states, “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong” (Palestinian National Covenant, article 20).  The covenant is supposedly in the process of being redrafted to remove the denials of Israel’s legitimacy. [Edit 10/10/2015: It still hasn’t been changed.]

Another parallel between the Israeli and Palestinian narratives is what I call the “Victimization Olympics.”  By focusing on the wrongs done to them in the past, they try to “out-pity” each other in the fight for international sympathy.  The Jewish narrative tells a story of constant oppression, culminating in the Holocaust.  Dennis Ross writes, “Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jews had been dispersed and without a homeland… Weakness had become a way of life” (Ross, 15).  Even after Israel was created, it was constantly under attack from its Arab neighbors.  Similarly, the Palestinian narrative is one of constant subjugation, from the Ottoman Empire to Israel, Palestinians have never been allowed self-rule, and their Arab brethren have done more to worsen the situation than to help.  Ross writes, “Dispossession became a national symbol and driving force of the Arabs of Palestine” (Ross, 33).  Interestingly, both Jews and Palestinians see their rivals as the stronger party.  I know from the experience of receiving a Jewish education that Jews tend to see Palestinians as part of the greater Arab world, which is numerically and economically superior.  Palestinians, on the other hand, often see the Arab world as working against their interests, as Musa Alami, the fierce Palestinian nationalist, wrote in 1949: “What concerned [the Arab states] most and guided their policy was not to win the war and save Palestine from the enemy, but what would happen after the struggle, who would be predominant in Palestine, or annex it to themselves, and how they could achieve their own ambitions” (Alami, 385).  The Palestinians have their own bad habit of lumping Israel together with America and the West.  In this way, both sides see themselves as David and their rival as Goliath.  They use their history of oppression to justify the wrongs they commit in the present, steeping themselves in conflict over the land of Israel/Palestine.  So, in the Victimization Olympics, everybody gets a gold medal, but nobody truly wins.

Additionally, mutual hatred is strong on both sides, especially among the more radical elements.  I once met a young Israeli man named Eli, who had fought in the recent war with Lebanon.  Although I barely knew this man, having met him at the mall, when the conversation turned to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he told me and my 14-year-old sister, in all seriousness, “the only good Arab is a dead Arab.”  It is scary for me to think that this is the kind of man the IDF would give a gun to and send into the heart of an Arab country.  Unfortunately, it is not very hard to find Palestinian or Arab anti-Semitism, either.  Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabiya, a Hamas MP, in a mosque in Gaza, said in a statement broadcast on PA television: “O brother believers, the criminals, the terrorists – are the Jews… They are the ones who must be butchered and killed” (Jewish Virtual Library, PA Sermons).  This hatred is as much of a cause of the conflict as it is a result of it.

The asymmetries are also numerous, and they begin with the most obvious one: power.  In the Arab-Israel conflict, Israeli military power rivals that of the Arab world, but in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Israel is clearly the more powerful actor.  I suspect that the reason the Jews were able to become the more powerful party and with the 1948 war is that Jews were more unified than Arabs, and had lived in the more developed Western countries, bringing education and technology with them to the land of Palestine.  One of the consequences of this power imbalance is that Israel commits more injustices against the Palestinians than vice versa.  In the Second Intifada, Israel has killed over 4,500 Palestinians, whereas Palestinians have killed slightly more than 1,000 Israelis (B’Tselem, “Casualties”).  However, one cannot interpret this fact to mean that Israelis are more “evil” than Palestinians; it only shows that Israel is more capable of defending itself from attacks and more capable of carrying them out.  However, with power comes the abuse of power, and there are many instances of this: detentions of Palestinians without evidence or for minor crimes, house demolitions, restriction of movement, and of course, impunity.

There is also a huge socioeconomic gap between Israelis and Palestinians.  Many Palestinians still live in refugee camps, with limited access to basic necessities, whereas Israel has seen economic prosperity and has adopted a middle-class lifestyle.  For example, Israelis use on average 250 liters of water per day, whereas Palestinians use only 60 (class notes).  This gap helps explain the desperation of the Palestinians and their feelings of helplessness, which lead to the use of terrorism as a political tactic.  During the mandate period, when Jews were weak and poor, they also resorted to terrorism, such as retaliatory attacks on Palestinian villages, and political attacks against the British, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel.  I strongly condemn all terrorism, but there is an element of symmetry in this, too.

In addition to these asymmetries that have to do with the current situation, there are ideological asymmetries between the Israelis, and the Palestinians and Arabs.  Perhaps the first of these historically was cultural.  Jews came to Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as idealistic Chalutzim (pioneers), believing in efficiency, change, and Communism/socialism.  The Arabs, however, valued tradition, social order, and lived in a stratified society led by aristocracy (class notes).  This cultural dissonance sowed the seeds of distrust that grew into the conflict as we know it today.

There is currently an asymmetry, I believe, in the way Arabs and Jews educate their children about the conflict.  Speaking from experience, I cannot say that I was ever taught to sympathize with Arabs, to understand their point of view, or to even care about their deaths and injustices they have suffered, but what I can say is that I was always taught that peace was the goal, and that my teachers never demonized Arabs.  I was taught songs of peace, such as “עוֹד יַבוֹא שָׁלוֹם עַלֵינוּ” (“peace will come”) and “שיר לשלום” (“song for peace”).  The earliest memories I have of learning about the conflict are from second grade when my Hebrew teacher criticized Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli far right for being unwilling to exchange land for peace.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Arab or Palestinian schools.  There have been many reports of teaching hatred, from the infamous Hamas “Mickey Mouse,” to songs about the glory of shuhada, to a 9th grade textbook published by the PA which states,  “One must beware of the Jews, for they are treacherous and disloyal” (Marcus and Cook, Palestinian Media Watch).  Although my experience is typical of Jewish education, I must qualify my statement because I am aware that there are less tolerant Jewish schools.  A friend of mine, who went to elementary and middle school at a yeshiva in New York, reports being taught that Palestinians only want to take Israel away from the Jews, and that they do not seriously care about having their own state.  However, even in this extreme case, violence was not glorified, and as I have stated previously, mutual delegitimization is a symmetry.  There is still major asymmetry in how children are educated about the conflict.

Another asymmetry exists in the movement for peace.  Israel has Peace Now and Gush Shalom, but there is no Palestinian equivalent (class notes), although there are some joint initiatives.  Although Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, their publics are largely opposed to closer ties with Israel.  Shlomo Avineri writes, “Egyptian professional organizations — of lawyers, doctors, journalists, artists — continue to boycott Israel. Any member of any of these organizations visiting Israel is immediately expelled” (Avineri, International Herald Tribune).  On the other hand, a poll from Israel in 2001 showed that 85% of Israelis supported the peace treaty with Egypt (Ronen, Jerusalem Post).  It is unfortunate that Arabs have not shown the same enthusiasm for peace as members of the Israeli peace camp have, but it is also important to note that part of the reason for this is that their societies and governments are not as tolerant of dissent, and advocating closer ties with Israel often means risking physical safety and societal acceptance.

There is also an asymmetry in how people are targeted in the conflict.  By and large, the IDF targets militants, and Palestinian terrorists target civilians, but this statement will require many qualifications.  Although Israel kills more civilians than the Palestinians do, there is a difference in the ratios: almost half of Palestinians killed by the IDF (for whom it is known whether they were combatants or civilians) were combatants, whereas less than a third of Israelis killed by Palestinians were soldiers (B’Tselem, “Statistics”).*  Additionally, Israel publicly claims to target combatants, whereas Palestinian terror groups openly admit to targeting all Israelis.  Just last week, Ehud Olmert publicly apologized for the death of five innocent Palestinians: “The state of Israel and the government deeply regret that civilians not involved [in the violence] are affected and even more so when it concerns a mother and her four children” (Middle East Times).  However, I do not wish to claim that Israel takes due diligence in preventing Palestinian casualties, and there have been numerous incidents of Israelis intentionally attacking Palestinian civilians.  Still, it is not the policy of the IDF to target civilians, whereas it is the explicit policy of Hamas.

In conclusion, the Arab-Israel-Palestinian conflict is so complex and multifaceted that it would be reductionist to label it as “symmetric” or “asymmetric.”  What I have intended to show is that there are a large number of striking similarities between the parties, and also significant differences between them.  There are many moral ambiguities in this conflict, and although it is not my goal to resolve them here, I believe that analyzing the various symmetries and asymmetries can be a helpful strategy to accomplish that goal.  More important, though, than making judgments, is coming up with solutions to achieve peace, and that will entail dealing with the symmetries of mutual delegitimization and the asymmetries of power and tactics.



Alami, Musa. “The Lesson of Palestine.” Middle East Journal, 3(4), Oct. 1949.

Avineri, Shlomo. “The Arab summit II: Normalization? Israel has seen it, and it doesn’t work.”
International Herald Tribune 27 Mar 2002. Accessed: 5 May 2008

B’Tselem, “Casualties.”  Accessed: 2 May 2008.

Marcus, Itamar, and Cook, Barbara. “PA Schoolbooks.” Palestinian Media Watch. 17 Oct 2004.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 <>.

Middle East Times. “Olmert says Israel ‘deeply’ regrets Palestinian civilian deaths.” 29 Apr 2008.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 < _says_israel_             deeply_regrets_palestinian_civilian_deaths/afp/>.

Miller, Larry. “Whosoever Blesses Them.” The Weekly Standard 22 Apr 2002.  Accessed: 05 May 2008 <>.

Muslih, Muhammad Y. The Origins Of Palestinian Nationalism, 1988.

Palestine National Covenant (1964).

Peel, Earl, et al. Palestine Royal Commission Report (1937).

Ronen, Joshua. “Poll: 58% of Israelis back Oslo process.” The Jerusalem Post 07 Jun 2001.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 <>.

Ross, Dennis. The Missing Peace, 2004.

Stalinsky, Steven. “Palestinian Authority Sermons 2000-2003.” Jewish Virtual Library 26 Dec 2003.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 <>.


*     I use B’Tselem’s statistics intentionally, knowing that they are biased.  Other sources, such as the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, would show a wider gap, but I feel that if the argument can be made with sources that are biased against it, it strengthens the argument.