“Willing the impossible”: SFU scholar looks to create greater understanding about Israel and Palestine

SFU scholar Nawal Musleh-Motut wants to “will the impossible,” and she’s hoping her recently published academic book, Connecting the Holocaust and Nakba Through Photograph-based Storytelling can help make it a reality. The SFU fellow in Social Justice and Decolonization borrows the phrase from late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, referring to the bridging what often feels like an impossibly deep divide between Israelis and Palestinians.

Musleh-Motut says the book looks to enable solidarity and unity – but, critically, without downplaying the reality of Israel’s oppression and colonization in Gaza. Musleh-Motut says one step in building that unity means allowing Palestinians and Israelis to understand their deeply connected history in a new light.

“[Said] said, for Palestinians and Israelis to move past this and work towards peace and co-existence, the first thing they have to do is connect, not compare, the Holocaust and the Nakba,” says Musleh-Motut. “You have to connect them and understand their connection, and, at the same time, maintain their uniqueness and recognize that.”

A challenging history

Nawal Musleh-Motut.

Musleh-Motut’s book comes from a research project that enabled participating Israelis and Palestinians to share photographs and their stories connected to the photos, which they felt were connected to the Holocaust and the Nakba, respectively.

As a Palestinian-Canadian who grew up learning about the Nakba from her family, and about the Holocaust in the Canadian school system, Musleh-Motut has long been interested in the connection between Palestinians’ and Israelis’ shared histories. With this project, Musleh-Motut hoped to tease out a greater connection between participants to create a greater understanding of that shared history.

“Anyone who knows the history of the [Israel/Palestine] region knows about the influx of European Jews before, during and after the Holocaust, and then we see the Nakba that took place in 1948. So a ‘catastrophe,’ which is what Nakba means for the Palestinians, is the day of independence for the Israelis,” says Musleh-Motut. “Those things are so organically [linked]: to have a Jewish home meant establishing a settler colonial state.”

History and memory

Part of the project was about teasing out what Israel historically and currently represented for Israeli participants and allowing them to express those feelings and share them with Palestinians.

Musleh-Motut says that two of the three Israeli participants shared photographs of their service in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and spoke about the specific connection they saw between the Holocaust and the meaning they found in serving in the IDF, even as conscripts.

“[For Palestinians], it helps them understand the Israeli psyche a little bit more in terms of the fear of annihilation, understanding how much Holocaust plays a role into the psyche and the militarization and all these things,” says Musleh-Motut. “[Israelis are] not at risk like the Palestinians. Their lives are not as in danger or as oppressed. But still, the understanding that you’re part of the oppression, or that your country is oppressing or committing genocide or apartheid or these sorts of things against another people, is no easy thing.”

Meanwhile, Musleh-Motut says Israeli participants were able to reflect more on that reality by hearing Palestinian participants’ stories.

“I think what you see is they’re now sort of having to wrestle with, even though they were more left-leaning – they still were buying into certain narratives, how they still participated in this oppression of Palestinians and how that is tied back to this history of victimhood and this idea of an underdog narrative and so on,” she says. “So then being confronted with the Palestinian stories was very enlightening to them too.”

Overall, Musleh-Motut says that even “willing the impossible” is not enough to end the oppression and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. And while Palestinians have the opportunity to learn and understand Israelis more, Musleh-Motut says it will require much more effort and action on the part of Israelis in doing their own learning and in influencing their government to stop its oppressive campaign.

Furthermore, despite how valuable this kind of dialogue can be, Musleh-Motut also wants people to be mindful of the emotional labour it takes for Palestinians to explain their experiences.

Nonetheless, Musleh-Motut says that creating a greater level of understanding is a crucial first step to enabling unity and solidarity. As such, she hopes that readers can learn how impactful that understanding can be and the role it might play in leading to a more just future.

“You’re seeing each other as individuals, and you’re finding points of connections, and I think this is the way forward,” says Musleh-Motut. “It’s very upsetting. It’s very challenging, very difficult. There were a lot of tears. But, even in that friction, they’re allowing understanding. All of them said that they would continue to participate in projects like this, or they would encourage people from their community to.”