The First Documentary Film about the Palestinian Tragedy

In 1950, the documentary Sands of Sorrow was produced to show the plight of the Palestinians, right after the infamous Nakba (the Catastrophe), inflicted upon them in 1948, in which Israel violently took possession of property that had once belonged to Palestinian Arabs (both Christian and Muslim). This was Israel’s first largescale effort to ethnically cleanse the land, in order to facilitate mass Jewish settlement…

Sands of Sorrow is also unique in that it is the very first film which closely documents the difficulty faced by Palestinians transformed into refugees—unwanted inhabitants who must be “managed” and “dealt with” as a problem—an approach that continues to this day, with tragic consequences.

The film was made for a Protestant American audience, which largely supported Israel in 1950, a backing which continues unabated to this day. The “message” of the film was to not only advocate for humanitarian aid, but also to ask the audience to think about why such aid becomes necessary—in that humanitarian crises are all too often the result of the failure of diplomacy. Again, this approach is prescient and remains crucial today.

The film is introduced and concluded by Dorothy Thompson (1893—1961), one of the most famous American woman journalists of her time. She was an early supporter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but after understanding the brutalities being committed by Zionists to establish such a homeland, she wrote openly and was immediately accused of anti-Semitism and lost many who claimed to be her friends and was “canceled” from many of the magazines she wrote for. But this intimidation did not deter her. She continued to write and expose the suffering inflicted upon Palestinians by the Zionists. In a letter she wrote (March 8, 1949) about the Deir Yassin Massacre (April 9, 1948), about which she had first-hand accounts, Thompson compared what took place with the atrocities committed by the Nazis (a comparison that would be made again and again by many others afterward):

“The Irgun-Sternists [Zionist militia] chose to make an example of that village [Deir Yassin]. They took the women and children who were spared into Jerusalem, removed their headdresses and paraded them among hoots and jeers. As a result of this performance one child fainted away and died of fright. The result was to start a wholesale exodus in the face of possible Jewish occupation. The leader of one of these groups—Menachem Begin—was afterward given a great reception in NY attended by the Mayor. He would not have been, had the facts been known. I do not think I exaggerated in calling Deir Yassin a Lidice. Nor is it, according to reports I received, the only one. But I will stick to what I can presently prove.” [Quoted in Lyndsey Stonebridge, “Humanitarianism Was Never Enough: Dorothy Thompson, Sands of Sorrow, and the Arabs of Palestine”]

The tragedy begun in 1948 in Palestine continues to unfold today, because:

“If governments get the idea that they can expropriate their citizens and turn them loose on the kindness of the rest of the world, the business will never end. A precedent will be created; a formula will have been found” (Dorothy Thompson, “Escape in a Frozen World,” Survey Graphic, 1939).

In 1951, Thompson, a devoted Christian, founded the American Friends of the Middle East, an organization whose purpose was to undo the harm caused by American Zionism in that part of the world.