I first saw Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. It was a cinematic event, panoramic in scope and intellectually engaging. The central character, T. E. Lawrence, a brave and psychologically complex British lieutenant, was not a conventional movie hero and the story was complicated. I remember being impressed by the dramatic visuals, but I was not touched emotionally by the narrative.
The film begins with Lawrence dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935. At his funeral, mourners debate his greatness, and the viewer is taken back to his early years as an intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916 to observe the arc of his military career.
Because of his knowledge of Arab ways, he is sent to assess the efficacy of the Arab revolt against the Turks, who are allied with the Germans in World War I. Once in the desert, he does not follow his orders to simply obtain information. Instead, he decides to organize an army among the many disparate Arab tribes that will harass the Turks with raids, train explosions, and camel attacks. Indeed, Lawrence and his cohorts have military success and help the British destroy the Ottoman Empire.
Throughout his exploits, Lawrence is a conflicted man. At times he sees himself as a demi-god, at other times a mere mortal at the whim of fate. His sense of personal destiny enables him to accomplish the near impossible. It is his goal to give the Arabs freedom from the Turks and an opportunity to determine their own destiny.
Regrettably, the Arabs have no experience with setting up the rudiments of a conventional government. They cannot unify their often adversarial points of view; and, in the end, the Arabs surrender the cities they have conquered to the British. In spite of Lawrence’s military success, his dream of Arab unity is never realized.
Jewish tradition stresses the importance of unity whenever there is an important mission to be achieved. At the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Jews were of one heart and mind. Their unity is based on the notion that people should genuinely love one another and care for each other. The implication of that unity is that any action by one Jew affects another Jew. When one Jew does something good, it benefits the entire people; when a Jew does something bad, he hurts the body politic of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Noach Weinberg provides an unusual description of unity from the biological realm, but which has implications for relationships between humans as well: “If you are slicing a carrot and accidentally cut your finger, do you respond by taking the knife and deliberately slicing into your other hand in revenge? Of course not. Because your other hand is a part of you, too. Humanity is one unit. If we’re united, the Almighty’s with us. If we’re divided, we’re on our own.”
As I watched this cinema classic from the 1960s, before the Six Day War, I began to think about why the Arab population of the Middle East has not been able to move forward to establish a state. They are still functioning as tribal communities, unable to see beyond the present and unable to develop a cohesive world view that triumphs over sectarian interests.
Lawrence of Arabia may deal with a specific incident of the past, but it demonstrates the disastrous consequences of being unable to unify peoples who still hold tribal loyalties as more important than national goals. When people are enmeshed in their own personal worlds, they do not consider the negative results that mitigate against the greater good.