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Will it ever be possible to end the longstanding, transgenerational conflict between Palestinians and Israelis? Simon Fraser University (SFU) scholar Nawal Musleh-Motut is exploring how problematic master narratives and collective memories of the Holocaust and the Nakba—which continue to sustain the conflict—can be challenged, complicated and disrupted.

Musleh-Motut is the Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Justice and Decolonization with Transforming Inquiry into Learning and Teaching (TILT). Her research interests include decolonial theory and praxis; critical intersectional social justice; critical race/anti-racism theory and praxis; critical and imaginative ethnography; and solidarity and the creation of decolonial futurities between Indigenous, Palestinian and Black communities globally. She is a lecturer in the School of Communication, an SFU alumnus (PhD, 2019; MA, 2006; BA, 2004) and settler of Palestinian descent.

Her book, Connecting the Holocaust and the Nakba Through Photograph-based Storytelling: Willing the Impossible, features Palestinians and Israelis living in their respective Canadian diasporas who narrated and then exchanged their own counter-narratives and counter-memories of these tragedies through vernacular photographs. (For full access, sign in to the link above with SFU ID).

For this project, Musleh-Motut developed a unique photograph-based storytelling method, which enabled Palestinians and Israelis to begin willing the impossible, which requires connecting rather than comparing the Holocaust and the Nakba, taking moral, ethical and political responsibility for one another, and imagining new forms of cohabitation grounded in justice and equitable rights for all.

We spoke with Musleh-Motut about her research.

Tell us about your book and what inspired you to pursue this project.

For most of my life I was confused about the relationship between the Holocaust and the Nakba. On the one hand, I was born, raised, and educated in Canada so I was taught about the horrors of the Holocaust and have deep respect and empathy for Jewish suffering. On the other hand, I am Palestinian so mine and my family’s lives have been greatly impacted by the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the resulting displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians, and their occupation and oppression by the Israeli state since 1967.

Like many Palestinians, I had a hard time reconciling the fact that a people so oppressed and brutalized could then oppress and brutalize another people. That is why I chose to make these two tragedies the focus of my doctoral research. But I didn’t want to just intellectually explore their connection, which I came to realize was very organic. Instead, I chose to bring Palestinians and Israelis into conversation about the Holocaust and the Nakba, as they sit at the very heart of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, including the horrific events we are currently witnessing in Gaza and Israel.

How do the Holocaust and the Nakba continue to reverberate through diasporic communities?

The Palestinians and Israelis who participated in this study were all born and raised in the occupied West Bank or Israel, so the Holocaust and the Nakba, as well as the continuing conflict, are very real and ever-present in their lives, even in diaspora. As a result, clear and largely consistent themes emerged from the counter-narratives, counter-memories and photographs shared by both communities.

For Palestinians, these included scattered memories of displacement and dispossession passed down through multiple generations, nostalgia for pre-1948 Palestine, recognition of the link between the Holocaust and the Nakba and the belief that the latter continues today via Israeli settler occupation and apartheid. For the Israelis, these included a direct connection between the Holocaust and their mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), feeling they had no choice but to defend Israel, critiques of the militarization of Israeli society and efforts to re-educate themselves about the events of 1948.

Your book offers perspectives on the current situation as well as pathways for ‘willing the impossible.’ What gives you hope for future reconciliation and peace? 

It is very important to note that the Holocaust and the Nakba feature prominently in the violence currently transpiring in the region. For Palestinians, the ethnic cleansing and genocide being perpetrated against those in Gaza, as well as the increase in violence in the West Bank, are a devasting escalation of the ongoing Nakba, and for Israelis the terrorist attacks committed by Hamas mark the largest number of Jewish civilian deaths since the Holocaust.

Both Palestinian and Israeli leadership have shown little regard for civilian lives, so it is crucial that everyday Palestinians and Israelis be courageous enough to try and affect change in solidarity outside of and in opposition to those who seek to divide and control them. Thankfully, you can see this happening globally. These individuals represent a small portion of the population, but their numbers are ever-increasing, which is incredibly inspiring. These people, much like the participants I worked with, are able to connect rather than compare their histories of suffering and exile, take responsibility for one another, and imagine new forms of coexistence that would end the occupation and ensure a just and generative life for all.

Were you surprised by any of the findings in your research?

The thing that surprised me the most was the level of commitment and generosity the participants showed to me and the project. I never could have anticipated it. I had originally planned to have participants share in pairs—one Palestinian and one Israeli—but it quickly became clear that participants wanted to engage with all of the other participants’ stories, memories, and photographs, even those from their own community.

Obviously, this complicated and lengthened my research, plus I had to work with a much smaller group of individuals than I had planned for, but it was absolutely worth it. Not only did it increase the value of the research for the participants themselves, but it also brought a depth and richness to the book that’s tremendously powerful. My hope is that other Palestinians and Israelis – whether inside or outside academia – will be inspired to take up and adapt my method within a multiplicity of communities and settings in an effort to continue willing the impossible. As I say in the book, and this is even more evident in the current moment, it is because this task seems so impossible that it is all the more necessary.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently in the third year of my Postdoctoral Fellowship in Social Justice and Decolonization with TILT, which focuses on the creation of decolonial and just futurities within postsecondary education. Two major components of this research are the Decolonial Teaching and Learning seminar series and the Decolonizing and Indigenizing STEM project.

However, I am still committed to extending my doctoral research, particularly via the establishment of a community-based, collaborative and globally accessible digital archive, which would showcase my participants’ counter-narratives, counter-memories and photographs related to the Holocaust and the Nakba, plus invite Palestinians and Israelis living in the region and/or diaspora to share and exchange their own. This is a project all of my participants were interested in being a part of, however, COVID shifted everyone’s priorities. Myself and two of the study participants were just discussing the possibility of moving forward with this project when the current escalation in violence began. We have paused again for now, but I remain hopeful this project will become a reality one day soon.

To learn more about Musleh-Motut’s projects, visit her personal web page:

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