Professor Alan Dershowitz was asked to speak to a gathering of different factions within the Jewish student body at Columbia University on the topic of unity. He informed the administration that due to prior scheduling he wasn’t available to on that date, and suggested they try him again in a month. A month later he was contacted and told, “Mr. Dershowitz, we’d still like you to come and address the students but at this point it’s no longer necessary to speak on the topic of unity. A few weeks ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to speak at the university and he brought the entire Jewish student body together…”

Two Models of Unity

Not long ago I had the opportunity to interview Colonel Jacob Z. Goldstein, the head chaplain of ground zero in the months following 9/11.

One of the stories he shared was particularly moving.

“…It was a time when there were no divisions of people, the country itself came together like I never saw before and I’ve never seen since. American flags sprouted all over the country…

What happened to the outpouring of solidarity and the heightened sense of patriotism that reigned strong immediately following 9/11?

“Along the street that leads to ground zero there were thousands of people waving American flags every time a police car or military vehicle passed by, cheering them on like a military parade.

“Perhaps the third or fourth morning [after 9/11] I was driving with my assistant and another sergeant named Duffy. We were driving in a hummer, and all of a sudden my sergeant jumped up and opened the upper hatch usually reserved for a gunner. I instructed him to come down – in that position he could easily be photographed which wouldn’t be good for anybody – but he refused. He simply didn’t listen to me, which was very uncharacteristic of the good soldier I knew he was.

“When we got to our destination, I asked, “Ok, so what happened? Why did you do it?” said he answered, “I’ll tell you what happened. I served in Vietnam and when I came back as a twenty year old kid, I was called a baby killer, people spat at me, I never had a parade, and that was the end of that. But now, when I saw all these people cheering, I felt that this was my parade…”

Ten years have passed since that fateful time and many are asking: where did that spirit of camaraderie go? Instead of a growing sense of unity, the past decade has seen our country become increasingly fragmented and polarized. What happened to the outpouring of solidarity and the heightened sense of patriotism that reigned strong immediately following 9/11?

Unfortunately, there was a flaw inherent in the rampant national unity we experienced then. That shared feeling was largely triggered by feelings of fear, loss, and tragedy, rather than brotherhood, positive association or community.

It was forced not inspired; extrinsically motivated and therefore superficial. It had no chance of enduring once the moment of crisis passed.

We all felt displaced and disoriented and so we reached out to the next person for support and stability, in order to feel reassured rather than reassure. That’s not real unity but self-preservation.

Sadly, forces of evil brought us together rather than the good causes. We were all, in a sense, survivors, and bonded by circumstance, not choice. The usual individual parameters of life’s rat-race were extended to include an entire nation, and to some degree the entire western world, for whom America had taken a gut-wrenching hit.

What we failed to do after that time was to capitalize upon, and internalize, the closeness we felt for the neighbor down the block or the stranger across the country. We had the opportunity to transform a national moment of unity from a negative to a positive.

Here, Jewish history and tradition can help us. When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan after a drawn-out perilous desert trek, they were commanded to offer choice fruit to G‑d as a show of thanks for their homeland and newfound security. Not until fourteen years later, however, did they end up fulfilling the command. It took that long for the land to be conquered and entirely divided.

More than geographical space or the same set of unalienable rights must be shared for a people to feel united.

Now, it’s obvious that before the land was captured, giving thanks was premature. But it would seem fitting for each individual to express gratitude upon receiving his or her personal estate; so why wait until the entire land was allocated?

But here the Torah provides a formula for building a healthy society. In order for a nation to survive times of peace, and not just times of war, they must develop common goals - not just common enemies. They must have more common ground than the free land upon which they tread. They must be more than a nation of individuals; they must become one individual nation through fostering positive associations and working to share in each other’s joys and dreams. More than geographical space or the same set of unalienable rights must be shared for a people to feel united.

It was for this reason that the Israelites waited so long before offering their personal thanks to G‑d. Not until every last member of the people they viewed as family had a home to call their own did they feel fit to offer thanks for their own four walls.

There are two famous idioms that are often lumped together but couldn’t be more diverse in meaning. The first is perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible: Love your fellow like yourself. The second can be found in one variation or another in almost every religious tradition, and has earned itself the exclusive title, The Golden Rule: Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.

A society that lives by the second will be selfish and disjointed. They will unite in times danger but not before or afterwards. As moving as it may be, the famous poem of Reverend Martin Niemoller written in 1945, is a case in point.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

The wise Pastor essentially advocates a society where people help each other with the intention of helping themselves.

A society, however, where people love others as they do themselves, feeling incapable of gratitude until the next person too has what is needed, like the ancient Israelites, will survive the tests of time and thrive in periods of calm.

Our Founding Fathers wisely chose the motto which graces the dollar: E pluribus Unum, Out of many, one.

We would do well to cash it in.