WILLING THE IMPOSSIBLE: RECONCILING THE HOLOCAUST AND THE NAKBA THROUGH PHOTOGRAPH-BASED STORYTELLING

On May 14, 1948 the state of Israel proclaimed its independence, establishing a national home for the Jewish people following the horrors of the Holocaust.  However, for Palestinians this proclamation was fundamentally tied to the Nakba or catastrophe, a term used to mark their displacement, dispossession, and subsequent occupation.  This cycle of violence has bound these nations together in a relation of incommunicability and incommensurability, making ethical dialogue and the witnessing of the other’s trauma difficult.  As Edward Said (1984) wrote, Palestinians and Israelis are tied together in a situation where they cannot be “expected to drop the quest for national identity and go straight to a history-transcending universal rationalism. Each of the two communities, misled though both may be, is interested in its origins, its history of suffering, its need to survive” (47).  Thus, my dissertation takes up the impossible yet necessary task of “willing the impossible” (Butler, 2012, 222) that lies at the very heart of Said’s political vision for Palestine.  This entails thinking the unequal yet bound tragedies of the Holocaust and the Nakba contrapuntally, morally and ethically engaging with alterity, and envisioning a new polity based on coexistence, justice, and equitable rights (Said 2003). 

Building on Said’s theories of narrative, memory, and photography, as well as Hannah Arendt’s (1998) distinction between “fictional” and “real” stories (186) and Arielle Azoulay’s (2008) concept of “the civil contract of photograph” (85), I developed a unique photograph-based storytelling method to assist Palestinians and Israelis currently living in their respective Canadian diasporas to take up this morally, ethically, and politically productive Saidian challenge.  This entailed three research phases.  First, I conducted in-depth photograph-based oral history interviews with participants in which they narrated their stories of how the Holocaust and/or the Nakba have impacted their lives.  Second, I had my participants exchange their stories and associated photographs with fellow participants from both cultures.  Finally, I conducted a second round of in-depth interviews in which I asked participants to reflect on the experience of sharing their stories and photographs, engaging with the other participants’ stories and photographs, and the research process as a whole. Ultimately, my research demonstrates that storytelling and photography enable the “occasions” (Fabian, 1990, 7) and “conditions of possibility” (Culhane, 2011, 258) necessary for willing the impossible through “civil imagination” (Azoulay, 2012, 5). 

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.