Humanitarianism Was Never Enough: Dorothy Thompson, Sands of Sorrow, and the Arabs of Palestine

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

“Politics,” said Aristotle, “is the art of discerning what is good for mankind.” The problem of the Arab refugee can make or break support for the west in the most critical strategical area, economically and politically, on this globe.

—Dorothy Thompson, Syracuse speech, 1950

In 1950, the American Council for the Relief of Palestinians produced the first international documentary on the Palestinian refugee camps, Sands of Sorrow.1 Directed primarily at Christian churches and charities, the film’s tone was lightly didactic, its images striking and ethnographically attentive. An early example of the then relatively new genre of humanitarian advocacy, Sands of Sorrow invited its audience to focus on the human consequences of the mass displacement of the Palestinian Arabs.

That moral injunction came with some authority. The film was introduced by the journalist Dorothy Thompson, famous in the war years for her political internationalism, anti-Nazi campaigns, and tireless support of Jewish refugees. Expelled from Germany in 1934 for describing Hitler as an inconsequential little thug, Thompson held cosmopolitan sympathies that were rarely less than theatrical. It was Thompson who crashed an American-German Bund hate rally in Madison Square Gardens in 1939, laughed in the faces of the mob, and had to be escorted out under police protection. She wrote the first book on modern refugees, Refugees: Organization or Anarchy? (1938), read and admired by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sigmund Freud, who read it as he was himself about to become a refugee.2 Her reports from Europe are often credited with helping persuade Roosevelt to set up the Evian Conference in 1938, the final, futile effort to do something to help the mainly Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Thompson described Evian’s failure as “the most cataclysmic event of modern history.”3 When, twelve years on, she spoke of the Palestinians as “wretched casualties of political change” in her introduction to Sands of Sorrow, she did so with the voice of one who had some claim to speak in the name of worldly compassion.

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