Except for one day in February, the gate to Bethlehem University has been shut since last October, when the military governor closed the institution. (photo: Gerald Ring)
If the future belongs to the young, the education they receive today builds that future. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the 1.4 million Palestinians often looked overseas to find quality higher education for their young men and women. Many students had to leave their homes to find higher education in other countries in the Arab world, Europe, and North America.
The Palestinian community suffers from a chronic shortage of qualified people to serve its needs. A major reason for this shortage is the lack of training facilities in commerce, social services, education, and nursing in the West Bank and Gaza. To make matters worse, most families have an annual per capita income of $150 to $200, and therefore the local economy struggles to afford higher education for their children.
Knowing that the future grows out of todays actions, local Palestinian leaders wanted an institution of higher learning for Palestinian youth. After their appeal to the Holy See, Pope Paul VI arranged for the De La Salle Brothers, known more popularly as Christian Brothers and the oldest teaching congregation in the Holy Land, to found a university in Bethlehem. Professionals from America and Europe came to serve as educational specialists and consultants. Local educators returned from training abroad to teach. The new university was established October 1973 on the campus of the former College des Freres, located on the highest spot in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem University, although sponsored by the Vatican, is open to students of all faiths. It offers its students four-year degree programs in the arts, sciences, business administration, and nursing, as well as diploma programs in its Institute of Hotel Management and in elementary and pre-school teacher training.
Today, the university enrolls 1600 students. There is a teaching staff of 104 full-time and 38 part-time professionals, plus an administrative staff of 11. In recent years, 37 percent of the universitys graduates went directly into teaching in local schools. Another 37 percent were quickly employed in professional jobs such as nursing and the sciences. Another 17 percent went abroad, including those attending graduate schools in Europe, North America, and the Arab world. Approximately 9 percent remain unemployed, though this figure includes some women graduates who married and established homes.
Bethlehem University provides quality educational and cultural facilities to this impoverished region. It plays a vital role in the development of the West Bank and Gaza. In addition to offering higher education to low-income youth, it trains qualified personnel to meet the needs of the community. As a result, young Palestinians have greater incentive to stay in their homeland and solve their problems constructively. They can face the future with hope based on valuable skills.
For instance, Bethlehem University prepares qualified new teachers. It also lets current teachers improve their skills through in-service courses and refresher courses. In turn, these educators offer better instruction to their pupils.
The university also provides a center for research and creative activities to enrich community culture. Through its facilities, the local community and its schools receive help. Its scholarships give educational opportunities to the young and talented. Palestinian women also find an open door to higher education here, which is not always the case in Arab societies. All the while, the university encourages the continuing Christian presence in the Holy Land and serves the Arab Christian community.
Bethlehem University depends on the assistance of friends and sponsors worldwide to finance its program of service and development. In addition to the support of the Vaticans Congregation for the Eastern Churches, many international relief agencies concerned with the Middle East provide financial help. Since the university opened, Catholic Near East Welfare Association has supported it with an annual subsidy for operational and developmental programs. CNEWA also has given a $3 million endowment to ensure the continued excellence of the university. Bethlehem University also benefits from grants by various governments and national committees.
For all the good it does for the people of the West Bank and Gaza, Bethlehem University has to cope with the tensions indigenous to occupied lands. These tensions have caused confrontations between the Israeli military and students, which resulted in punitive measures to the university. As of this writing, Bethlehem University has been closed for more than five months. Military closures average at least several each year, usually lasting from a few days to a few weeks. As tensions rose in the West Bank last year, military authorities ordered a three-month closing. On February 1, 1988, when the university was scheduled to resume classes, it was closed indefinitely while the current Palestinian uprising continues.
The implications of closures are myriad. Most notably, closures disrupt an entire educational system. Everyone connected with the university suffers students, administrators, teachers, secretarial staff, custodial workers, and other support staff. In addition to the inevitable educational setbacks, there also are economic and social ones for everyone who depends on the university for a livelihood.
Nevertheless, in spite of these difficulties in serving the people for whom it was established 15 years ago, Bethlehem University stands as a constructive path of hope for the future of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in this region racked by wars and upheaval.
Brother Bernard Knezich is Vice President for Development at Bethlehem University.