March 24, 2017 at the National Press Club, Washington, DC


Tom Hayes

Challenges and Changes in 25 Years Working on

Israel-Palestine Issue and Advice for Independent Filmmakers

Delinda Hanley: I now have the honor of introducing Tom Hayes, the independent filmmaker from Columbus, Ohio whose film “Two Blue Lines” was screened this morning. 

Tom Hayes visited the Washington Report office in the 1990s.  He told my father, Richard Curtiss, about the film “Refugee Road” he made in the 1970s, which focused on a Khmer family living in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border.  That film inspired Americans to give those refugees a hand.  Hayes planned to do the same kind of film focusing on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.  He was certain that selfless Americans would help Palestinians once they saw the film he was to call “Native Sons.”  My dad warned him there is a huge difference between the two when it comes to getting films about the Middle East funded and shown in the U.S.

In superb articles published by AMEU in The Link—available  at their booth—Hayes wrote that he set out to test the hypothesis that there was some kind of too-tight tourniquet on information about the Palestinian experience.  After filming “People and The Land,” his film about the intifada, Hayes noted that many of the Palestinians he had filmed or worked with were arrested and beaten, and four of them were shot.  He had kicked a hornet’s nest, both in the occupied territories and back home in the States.  But harassment didn’t intimidate him.  It motivated him and made him realize that this is as much an American issue as it is a Palestinian issue. 

His latest film, “Two Blue Lines,” filmed over the past 25 years, focuses on Israeli and Jewish voices who tell the truth and speak with human empathy and passion.  And we’re selling it at our bookstore.  My dad wrote in the Washington Report: “Reading his account in The Link will make you furious, sad, and immensely proud to be a member of the same species as Tom Hayes.”  Seeing his latest film will make you applaud the people who helped him break through the information blockade. 

After screening selections from “Two Blue Lines,” Tom Hayes will discuss the challenges and changes in 25 years working on Israel-Palestine issues. 

Screening of Clips for the Documentary, “Two Blue Lines”

Hanna Barag (Blockade Watch):  This is all done on purpose.  Nothing of the occupation happens by chance.  No.  It happens on purpose.  It happens in order to make the Palestinian’s life a hell. 

Anat Hoffman (Women in Black):  We have dehumanized the enemy as we have been dehumanized only a short time ago.  We call them a two-legged animal.  We are re-enacting, without being able to control it, we are re-enacting what happened to us, as if we’ve never learned anything. 

Tom Hayes:  There are Jewish-only roads.  There are Jewish-only communities.  Somebody in, let’s say, Hebron can come up here and buy one of these beautiful houses?

Ardie Geldman (American settler living in the West Bank):  You could absolutely do so—absolutely.  There’s no law on the books preventing a non-Jew from buying a home here.

Jessica Montel (B’Tselem):  Well, no.  Settlements are defined as closed military zones.  Now it’s a funny kind of a closed military zone, because you never know it.  You would walk into a settlement freely without knowing that you’re in a closed military zone-as would I, a citizen of Israel.  It’s a closed military zone that applies to a Palestinian.  So not only can a Palestinian not buy or rent a house in a settlement, he can’t physically enter a settlement without a special permit. 

  There are certain areas defined as danger zones, no-go zones for Palestinians.  The order is given to soldiers, any Palestinian entering those areas can be shot at.  In some cases, the order is, any Palestinian has to be shot at if they enter those danger zones, the areas around settlements and the areas around military bases.  We have many cases of Palestinians injured and in some cases killed simply for approaching those danger zones.

Male Voice:  There are Palestinian houses on the top of this tunnel.  They are not allowed to drive their cars, even to walk in the tunnel under their houses.  It’s only for Israelis.

Jeff Halper (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions):  You’re not allowed to build settlements.  You’re not allowed to build highways that link those settlements into your country.  You’re not allowed to use the resources of an occupied power.  Israel takes a third of its water from the occupied territories, which is illegal looting of the resources of an occupied territory.

Dr. Stephen Langfur (Israeli author):  This segregation most manifests in the summertime, when the Jewish settlers have all this water and the Palestinians turn on the faucet, no water.  No water.  One group is going thirsty, while another group a few yards away is living it up with swimming pools.  It’s incredible. 

Shireen:  Hi. My name is Shireen. I’m from Gaza.

Male News Anchor: The Gaza Strip, a space only 22 miles long and 5 miles wide.

Shireen:  I’m a Palestinian from Gaza, which is considered as a big jail. 

Tom Hayes, as film rolls in Gaza: That’s about the fourth explosion.  All over the city dogs are barking. 

Shireen:  Death is around you, always around you. 

Tom Hayes:  Last night large numbers of people killed.  But now I hear the ambulances running. 

Shireen:  Can you imagine this feeling that I feel always when we are bombed?

Tom Hayes:  Apache helicopters hovering up there.  That’s happening just at bedtime here, at 9:00 at night, just when the kids would go to bed. 

Shireen:  This feeling, exactly this feeling that you are in your room, in your bed and you’re praying.

Tom Hayes:  Here we are again.  The choppers are very close this time.  There’s another bomb which is going to explode. 

Shireen:  You’re praying.  It’s as if only your room will be bombed from the whole building.

Tom Hayes:  Here comes another one fired from a much lower angle right off to my left.  They’re coming right down across the town.  It’s 3:00 a.m. and the killing is going on.  Imagine the United States paying for all of this.

Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Hebrew University):  There is a way leading from humanity through nationality to bestiality. 

Jeff Halper:  I think the American Jewish community has played a very dishonorable role in this whole thing.  You know, Israel claims to speak for them, and they accept that—that Israel was our country in one way or another.  It’s a Jewish country.  It speaks for the Jews, represents the Jews.  So that makes them complicit in all these human rights violations. 

Dr. Stephen Langfur:  There’s an enormous American responsibility for this situation here, so I don’t think Americans can sit back as if they are simply observing the situation from afar and with the kind of lordly distance, as if they have no part in it.  It’s because of that American veto in the Security Council that Israel is able to go on acting the way it has, which I think would lead to its own destruction if it’s allowed to go on like this. 

Female Voice in U.S. Congress Joint Session:  Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister of Israel. 

Jeff Halper:  This occupation is not perceived as an Israeli occupation.  It’s perceived as an American-Israeli occupation.  It is clear that Israel couldn’t maintain this occupation for a month without the political, and military, and financial support that the United States offers. 

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu:  God will give strength to his people.  God will bless his people with peace.  Thank you very much.

[End of video clip]

Delinda Hanley:  This film needs to be in every library in America and to be shown in every church and synagogue.  Please get this film.  Tom Hayes, thank you.  Thank you for your work. [APPLAUSE]

Tom Hayes:  Thank you.  It’s really an honor to be here.  It’s been such a delightful breeze to actually hear a Palestinian voice in North America even for a few moments. [APPLAUSE] I’m grateful to the Washington Report and IRmep and, of course, all of you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

I’m neither Palestinian nor Jewish.  I have no DNA dog in the fight.  I have no ethno-religious dog in the fight.  My route to Palestine was around-about, via the killing fields of Cambodia.  But when I was working on “Refugee Road,” I became sensitized to the refugee experience.  It became real to me.  One morning after I finished that project, kind of by a fluke of information, I connected a report on what American newspapers called an Israeli airstrike on a guerrilla stronghold in southern Lebanon with Rashidieh, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.  Making that connection was like being struck by lightning-having some idea of what that means in a refugee camp.

I’m American.  I’m trained just like everybody else, so “Israel good.”  But I’m also keenly aware—keenly aware—that dropping large bombs into a refugee camp anywhere in the world is a craven act of mass murder.  So I was rocked.  I mean, I was rocked to cognitive dissonance.  I couldn’t feature “Israel good” doing anything so patently evil.  I just couldn’t get my head around it, and I particularly couldn’t get my head around the fact that the papers were reporting it with such blinkered language.  That was my first whiff of the Israel lobby.

So I started researching, meeting people, studying Arabic, fund-raising.  Eighteen months later I was in Rashidieh with a camera on my shoulder.  In those days, 16-millimeter was really the only viable field acquisition format.  So the gear, the film stock, the lab, it was all crazy expensive.  Those capital requirements really served as sort of gates between filmmakers and unpopular topics.  That gate is crumbling even as I speak. 

Lebanon was a pretty rough shoot, what with the Israeli occupation and the friskiness of the Amal militia.  But I got back intact and set to work on the edit of “Native Sons.”  Martin Sheen wound up narrating it for me.  The film is available free on Vimeo. 

I was in the midst of editing that film when I had my first real encounter with the Israel lobby in its many lurid shades.  The Columbus Dispatch, our local rag, ran a little blurb in the arts section that said that the Gund Foundation was providing a grant of finishing funds to the Community Film Association, which was handling my grants, “for a film by Tom Hayes about three Palestinian refugee families in Lebanon.”  That was it.  No political statement.  No Israel criticism, just “a film about three Palestinian refugee families in Lebanon.”

My life, and my family’s life, changed overnight.  It was a multifaceted experience.  On the one hand, anonymous ADL types or JDL types began threatening to murder me and murder my wife.  I’m talking of phone calls at all hours of the day and night.  Then our windows started coming in, started getting broken out.  Our home wound up looking like a police station in Northern Ireland, with heavy wire and blast tape.  Simultaneous with the “Enthusiasts” campaign, and equally grave, the Columbus Jewish Federation, apparently on the prompting of regional B'nai B'rith took An Interest in the project and me.

The board of the Film Association that was handling my grants began getting calls from the Federation.  They were told that they were using public funds for propaganda and that their personal assets, like their homes, would be seized because of it.  The upshot was, I got a letter from the Film Association saying that it was going to forfeit the grants I already had on tap because I was (allegedly) engaging in propaganda.

I had borrowed heavily against my home (without informing my wife) on a large grant from the Ohio Arts Council, that, due to this forfeiture, was not going to pay out.  So I had to tell her, it looks like we’re going to be eating take-out Chinese in the gutter because of this film “about three Palestinian refugee families in Lebanon.”  The message was pretty clear.  If you speak about Palestinian refugees or assist in speaking about Palestinian refugees, we will try to make you homeless, too. 

Eventually an Arts Council administrator persuaded the Film Association that it was not in their long term interests to make me homeless.  But it was a white-knuckle time for us.  Threats kept coming.  No visible police action.  Eleven days before the premiere, Alex Odeh was blown in half entering his office for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. 

It’s premiere night at the Drexel Theater.  It’s show time, and a bomb threat comes into the theater—which, 11 days after Alex was killed, seemed like a pretty serious thing.  So the building was evacuated.  The bomb squad swept it.  And anyone who was willing to be searched was allowed in to see the film.

Let’s just step back for a second.  When I did a film about Cambodian refugees, nobody threatened to murder me or my family.  Our home wasn’t attacked.  There were no bomb threats at any screenings.  And I think this experience points to some truths about the Israel lobby.  It’s a hood comprised of many discrete threads that is pulled down tight over the eyes and ears and, when necessary, mouths of American people.  It’s not as simple as pointing fingers at the All-in for Defamation League, or AIPAC.  This thing called the Israel-Palestinian conflict is much more than that.  It’s a First Amendment issue.  I mean, the First Amendment is a bedrock part of our Constitution.  My right to free expression was challenged with violence and terrorism.  I mean terrorized we were. 

The spectrum of mendacious mechanisms we encapsulate in the term Israel lobby are, in fact, an attack on the foundations of the United States by a foreign interest.  Its aim is to keep our eyes closed, our mouths shut, and our wallets wide open. {APPLAUSE]

Critical to that aim is the prevention of Palestinian voices reaching American ears.  But by the time “Native Sons” was done I was thoroughly engaged, so I’d raise money, go over, film, come home, dig out of debt, raise money, repeat.  That’s been pretty much my adult life.  I’ve been driven by the conviction that someone has to keep a record of the monstrous abuse of the Palestinian people.  That record may not change the situation right now, or even in my lifetime, but it’s going to be critical in future war crimes trials and in reparations trials. [APPLAUSE]

Along the way I’ve tried to make work that kicks open the windows on the humanity of Palestinians and the craven oppression that they’re enduring.  Yet, every time I go back it’s worse, which kind of impels me further.  Every time I leave Palestine, I swear I’ll never go back.  It’s a disgusting thing to bear witness to.  Israel’s abuse of humanity is a disgusting thing to witness.  But it doesn’t take long back in the States for me to start feeling like I would rather be back in Palestine.  Being in the States is like being dipped in a bath of bullshit. [APPLAUSE]

Everything I read on this topic in the mainstream media, everything I watch, everything I hear on the radio—bullshit. Which brings me to a particular irony of standing in this place, right here-la maison de merde.  The National Press Club is as much a part of the Israel lobby as AIPAC.  I’m not suggesting some dark conspiracy of Zionist control.  No.  It’s simpler than that.  It’s more pathetically banal than that.  The ways that the jaws of the lobby snatch at those who won’t acquiesce in silence to Israel’s war crimes is part of my life’s experience.  Career advancement issues for journalists militate against taking that beast on.  Look at what happened to Helen Thomas.  It’s “uncomfortable.”

Cowardice is easier than courage.  Cowardice is an essential nutrient for the Israel lobby. [APPLAUSE]  This joint and those affiliated with it are nutrient-rich.  Look at the voices we heard from the mainstream media during the last great butchery in Gaza.  We did occasionally get a glimpse of Professor Ashrawi.  But there were virtually no Palestinian voices to be heard.  That’s the National Press Club.

The exclusion of Palestinian voices in American media is racist, and racism is a weakness.  It occurred to me that this racism could be weaponized.  It could be weaponized against itself.  If Palestinians are not acceptable voices to address the situation of Palestinians, if the only credible voices to address the conflict are Jewish voices, then what if I crafted a film in which Jewish Israelis-people who actually have skin in the game—told the truth?  The result is “Two Blue Lines.”  The film feeds the Zionist snake its own little tail. [LAUGHTER]

The best thing that’s happened with “Two Blue Lines” is that I was able to get it on Amazon Video-On-Demand.  If it gets enough hits on Amazon Video-On-Demand, it will go on Amazon Prime Video, where it will be free to a lot of people.  Just so you know.  Anybody who wants to see the film can see it, though, which I love because that’s a tough thing. 

This whole digital technology thing, I think, is going to be key to crushing the Israel lobby, and key in the liberation of Palestine, and maybe key in the liberation of humankind.  Facebook posts, YouTube videos that poured out of Gaza during the last horror could not be stopped by the Israel lobby.  They affected a lot of people all over this planet.  The media-creation environment has changed radically.  The means of production are now in the hands and in the phones of the people.  Cost of media creation has plummeted.  Means of dissemination has exploded.  It’s easier now than ever to document and defend the Palestinian struggle, except in Gaza. 

So if you’re a filmmaker, please screw your courage to the sticking place and get thee to Palestine.  Document, gather testimony, share it with the world.  Cloud technology makes it easy to get it out.  You don’t have to carry it through Ben-Gurion [Airport].  You can just [makes a popping sound toward the sky].  The lid is off on this thing.  The carefully guarded lid is off. 

One cautionary note: there was a time when a Palestinian who was cordial with cameras would wind up taking a beating and draw some prison time—an acceptable risk level in the cause of liberation. But things have changed.  Nowadays, the Israel Destruction Forces require zero pretext to murder Palestinians.  So it’s important to understand the depth of jeopardy that you place Palestinian lives in when you share their faces.  Have a care—you get to leave, every generation of their family doesn’t get to leave.  That said, I think it’s critically important that creative people get their butts over there.  Artists have a role to play in the bitter struggles for human rights and human dignity.  Think Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Davis’ Hearts and Minds. 

I was nine years old when my mother read me Cry, the Beloved Country.  I was 39 when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa.  That book may not have had any more impact than a grain of sand on the struggle against South African apartheid, but a grain of sand on the move can start an avalanche.  If enough of us grains of sand shake our asses loose, we could bury the Israel lobby. [APPLAUSE] We can clear the road to Palestinian freedom and self-determination. 

Thank you so much for this opportunity. [STANDING OVATION] 

Delinda Hanley:  A powerful movie, and a powerful speaker, and a powerful writer.  I hope you’ll grab a Link copy—and we have Grant coming up.

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