What Does ‘Unity’ Even Mean? Jewish Tradition Has Some Ideas


In his inaugural address, President Biden repeated the word “unity” at least 11 times. “Unity” was the unsurprising theme of his speech, as it was of much of his campaign. After four bruising, polarizing years under Donald Trump, Biden said that restoring the soul and securing the future of America requires “the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity.”

Biden anticipated his critics: “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he acknowledged. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real.”

Which is why I was hoping that his next sentence would recognize that unity is not unanimity. Already the right wing is saying that in undoing a lot of Trump’s policies and putting forth a Democratic agenda, Biden is violating his own pledge to find unity. Fox News’ Peter Doocy asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki if the new president thinks the impeachment process should be dropped in the name of unity. On the morning of the inauguration, Republican Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw said he wants to “hear some action behind all this talk of unity, especially from Biden.” But Crenshaw went on to define unity as leaving much of Trump’s policy agenda in place, from continuing work on the Keystone XL pipeline to keeping the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords.

In other words, “unity” means capitulating to the other side after an election in which Biden won the popular vote and the electoral college.

No one who talks seriously about unity assumes it means agreement on all issues. Unity and the exercise of political power are not contradictory, as long as leaders and followers, the majority and the minority, have faith that they share a common purpose and a sense of mutual obligation.

Jews know this better than others: We’ve long tried to corral our fractious tribes knowing that our internal divisions run deep. Jewish conservatives and liberals, religious and otherwise, are never going to convince one another to come over to the other side.

But we do ask each other for respect, and to unite around a common purpose: for starters, the safety of our people, wherever they live, and societies that promote the free exercise of our beliefs, however we define them. “Kol arevim zeh bazeh” — all Jews are responsible to one another – doesn’t mean we have to agree with one another on anything except our common sense of belonging.

The classic Jewish articulation of this is the “argument for the sake of heaven.”  The Mishnah describes such an argument as one that seeks the truth and not merely victory. In an argument for the sake of truth, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained, “both sides win, for each is willing to listen to the views of its opponents, and is thereby enlarged. In argument as the collaborative pursuit of truth, the participants use reason, logic, shared texts, and shared reverence for texts. They do not use ad hominem arguments, abuse, contempt, or disingenuous appeals to emotion. Each is willing, if refuted, to say, ‘I was wrong.’ There is no triumphalism in victory, no anger or anguish in defeat.”

Biden echoed this conception in his speech. “Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another,” he said. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”

There is another conception vital to unity, and that is compromise.

Politics is, or used to be, the art of compromise. The majority presses its agenda, but in an inevitably divided country should, or must, get there with the help of the minority. Each side gives a little, some more than others, and some less happily than others. If anything, unity means that both sides lose, but most of us win. It may not be the total victory we were seeking, but the needle has moved.

Unity means that both sides lose, but most of us win.

Does compromise have its limits? Of course. On many issues the majority shouldn’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, compromise, especially if it means surrendering on key principles, like social justice, human rights, public health or the scientific consensus. Ed Kilgore, in New York magazine, describes several historical episodes of what he calls “bipartisan myopia,” in which ill-advised compromise sustained slavery, tolerated Jim Crow, excluded immigrants and gave a blank check for misguided wars.

Between total power and capitulation, however, there are many opportunities for finding areas that unite us, or at least most of us. Politics doesn’t mean vanquishing your foe, and unity doesn’t mean surrender. If there is no triumphalism in victory, there is no victory in triumphalism. Unity means clinging to deeply held principles but finding a way to achieve widely held goals. Unity isn’t unanimity. It’s collaboration.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.