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Willing the impossible: Reconciling the Holocaust and the Nakba through photograph-based storytelling

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
On May 14, 1948 Israel proclaimed its independence, establishing a national home for the Jewish people following the horrors of the Holocaust. However, for Palestinians this proclamation was tied to the Nakba or catastrophe, a term used to mark their displacement, dispossession, and occupation. This cycle of violence has made ethical dialogue and the witnessing of the other’s trauma difficult. To begin bridging this divide, my dissertation takes up the impossible yet necessary task of “willing the impossible” (Butler, 2012, p. 222), which 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). It does this by bringing Edward Said’s (2000; 1993; 1986) theories of narrative, memory, and photography, Hannah Arendt’s distinction between “fictional” and “real” stories (1998, p. 186), and Arielle Azoulay’s concept of “the civil contract of photography” (2008, p. 85) into praxis through a unique photograph-based storytelling method. First, I conducted interviews with Palestinians and Israelis living in their respective Canadian diasporas who are of the Holocaust and Nakba postmemory generations (Hirsch, 2012). During these interviews participants narrated their stories of how the Holocaust and/or the Nakba have impacted their lives using family photographs. Second, participants exchanged their stories and photographs with fellow participants from both cultures. Finally, I conducted a second round of interviews in which participants reflected on the experience of narrating their stories and photographs, engaging with the other participants’ stories and photographs, and the research process as a whole. Ultimately, my dissertation demonstrates that storytelling and photography enable the “occasions” (Fabian, 1990, p. 7) and “conditions of possibility” (Culhane, 2011, p. 258) necessary for willing the impossible through “civil imagination” (Azoulay, 2012, p. 5). That is, by narrating and exchanging their postmemories of the Holocaust and/or the Nakba through photographs, my participants were able to connect rather than compare their histories of suffering and exile, take moral, ethical, and political responsibility for one another, and imagine a new form of cohabitation grounded in justice and equitable rights for all.
This thesis is embargoed until June 1, 2025.
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Copyright is held by the author.
Scholarly level
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Poyntz, Stuart
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