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Preparing Palestinians for a New Millennium

Bethlehem University’s faculty and students look forward to the next millennium.

In response to my inquiries about the history of Bethlehem University, its head and Vice Chancellor, Brother Vincent Malham, F.S.C., reported that the university has had a “stormy history,” and has “persevered through lots of troubles.”

The Israeli military closed the university in 1987, shortly before the beginning of the intifada, a seven-year Palestinian uprising that protested the Israeli occupation. But, Brother Vincent affirmed, the administration and faculty determined that the university’s educational mission had to continue. Thus, classes were surreptitiously held at various off-campus locations – hotel rooms, private homes, even in the back of movie theaters during shows.

Faculty members met with small groups of students, “not more than five or six, so as not to attract attention,” and tutored them through their courses. Students and faculty risked jail if they were caught defying the closure order. The years of underground education, however, paid off: 517 students were ready to graduate once the university was allowed to reopen in October 1990.

Dr. Jeanne Kattan, a Palestinian who has taught at the university for 22 years, explained why the students persevered in their studies despite the difficulties:

“We Palestinians have lost almost everything in the last 60 years, but an education is something that can never be taken away. You can lose your land, you can lose your house, but not your education.”

She told me of mothers selling jewelry from their own dowries to pay their children’s tuition. Other faculty members also spoke of the students’ seriousness and determination.

“They are hard workers,” reported Brother Neil Kieffe, F.S.C., Academic Vice President, “more so than students in the United States.”

Despite the ever-fluctuating prospects for peace, getting a higher education still demands determination and self-sacrifice for many Palestinian students. Israeli denial of permits prevents students from Gaza or the northern portion of the West Bank from commuting to the university. Some come anyway. A Greek Melkite Catholic priest in Bethlehem told me of a student who traveled from Gaza to Cairo to Amman to Jericho to Bethlehem to attend the university. Most of the students, however, must commute daily from their homes.

The university has two residences for women, but was denied permission by Israeli authorities to build a dormitory for men. Consequently the student body in recent years has been drawn heavily from areas near Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Providing Palestinians with a quality higher education is at the heart of the university’s mission. One student, Mohammed, proudly told me, “This is the best Palestinian university…it has the highest standards and uses an American system of teaching.”

When Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land in 1964, he was convinced that opportunities to pursue higher education there would help stem the tide of Christian Palestinian emigration. He asked the De La Salle Christian Brothers to administer what would become Bethlehem University.

The university opened in 1973 with 112 students and 13 faculty, sharing a building erected in 1893 with an elementary and secondary school for boys, along with a novitiate and retirement home for the Christian Brothers.

In 1975, the boys’ school moved to another location and the university began to expand with the construction of a library and a science building. Today there are some 2,000 students enrolled in the university, almost all of them full time. There are 140 faculty members, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian. Eleven brothers serve on the faculty and administration of Bethlehem University; nine are from the United States, one is a Palestinian and one is from Great Britain.

Major funding for the university comes from the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches and from the European Union. CNEWA provided a substantial portion of the university’s initial operating budget and established a permanent endowment to ensure that the high quality of education would endure. CNEWA’s close collaboration with the university continues: Msgr. Robert Stern serves ex officio as a member of its International Board of Regents and presently as its elected Chairman.

Bethlehem University’s curriculum is designed to meet the needs of Palestinian society as well as to prepare its students for jobs. Baccalaureate studies include the arts and sciences, business administration, education and nursing. Forty of the 55 teachers of English in the East Jerusalem public school system are Bethlehem University graduates. A Business Development Center, founded by the university in 1989, helps Palestinian entrepreneurs start their own businesses; many of its instructors are drawn from the business administration faculty. Supplementing the degree programs are diploma programs in such fields as hotel management, midwifery and catechetics.

Tourism is a major source of employment in the Holy Land, and the university’s Institute of Hotel Management and Tourism addresses its needs. Along with programs in hotel and travel agency management, the institute trains pilgrimage guides. Of an estimated 5,000 Israeli-licensed guides, there are presently only about 40 Christians licensed to guide pilgrims in the Holy Land. The university would like the Israeli government to recognize the guides it trains, but Brother Robert Daszkiewicz, F.S.C., the director of the institute, cannot even get permission for West Bank students in the program to visit Nazareth, Capernaum and other holy places in Israel. Consequently, he must rely on videotapes to acquaint students with sites in Israel.

The institute also participates in a Tourism for Peace program run under the umbrella of UNESCO. Classes are taught through satellite teleconferencing with other universities in Israel, France and Morocco. Students are thereby able to interact with teachers and students from other countries, broadening their horizons and preparing them for projects requiring international cooperation.

While speaking with students, I discovered that many of them wanted to go on for graduate study. Laila Abedel-Latef, an English major from Jerusalem, hopes to study in England for a Master of Arts in English with a minor in translating. She hopes to work as a translator. Murad Aziz Issa is a sociology major from Bethlehem who wants to complete a graduate degree in order to become a teacher. Gladys Jasser, a senior English major from Bethlehem, plans to get a job after she graduates and take courses part time toward a Master of Business Administration.

The increasingly tense armistice between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities weighs on the students. The six-building campus provides a panoramic view of Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Looking west one sees Beit Jala, a predominantly Christian Palestinian town, and to the north, Gilo, a new Jewish settlement built on Palestinian land purchased or expropriated from Palestinians by Israel. Looking east, one sees Beit Sahour, another Christian Palestinian town lying in the shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem. At the north end of Beit Sahour is Jabal Abu Gneim, a hill on which Har Homa, a controversial Jewish “settlement,” is under construction.

Har Homa will complete the encirclement of Jerusalem with exclusively Jewish housing, separating Jewish from Palestinian areas. The construction of such Jewish settlements in territory annexed from the West Bank upsets Palestinians, for it preempts negotiations over the status of Jerusalem.

So even as students enjoy the peacefulness of the university common, their gaze is on a wall of Jewish housing being erected across what the students consider their land.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” one student told me. “We hope the future will be better than the past.”

“Palestinians want peace so we can live normal lives,” another student stated.

“If there is real peace, we will get along with Jews. We want to live and we can’t live hating them.”

My visit to Bethlehem University coincided with a renewed U.S. threat of military action against Iraq and there was a student demonstration. Victor Kawwas, the secretary of the student senate, emphasized that “it is a peaceful protest on behalf of the people of Iraq – not for the Iraqi government.”

After a few short speeches a group of students bearing flags and banners marched from the university to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The destination befit a peaceful demonstration. A march in the opposite direction would have taken them to Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish shrine guarded by Israeli soldiers.

Bethlehem University functioned as a laboratory for democracy during the years when Palestinians were not allowed to hold elections. Parties on campus mirrored Palestinian national parties and student senate elections served as a proxy for them. Yasser Arafat even called on election day to check on the results. Now that Palestinians have been able to elect a National Assembly, campus parties have become less tied to the national parties. Still they help prepare the Palestinian leadership of tomorrow, inculcating such democratic virtues as abiding by the results of elections.

Bethlehem University also provides a context in which Christians and Muslims can get to know and understand each other and learn how to live together. Dr. Kattan characterized the university as “a new culture,” mixing together students from diverse economic as well as religious backgrounds.

Muslims make up about 95 percent of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The student body at Bethlehem University is about one-third Christian and two-thirds Muslim; the faculty, numbering about 165, are 85 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim. For many Muslim students – natives of Muslim villages or refugee camps – their first extended encounter with Christians is at the university.

Bethlehem University maintains its Christian identity, with sensitivity to its Muslim student majority. There is a chapel for daily liturgy; one room used for classes is turned into a prayer room for Muslims later in the day. The Muslim day of prayer, Friday, is a school day, but no classes or activities are scheduled during a midday break when Muslims use the auditorium for prayer.

Dr. Bernard Sabella, a Palestinian social science professor with a doctorate from the University of Virginia, has taught at the university since it opened. I asked him what was distinctive about Bethlehem University.

“First, we have been able to maintain very good standards of education despite all the difficulties and to offer programs that provide specific skills needed in Palestinian society,” he replied.

“Second, we have been a place where Christians and Muslims can get to know and respect each other. Down the road there will be peace in this part of the world. The university fosters the tolerance necessary for us to live peacefully among ourselves and with Jews.”

Dr. Jeanne Kattan carried out a sociological study of Muslim and Christian students’ attitudes toward each other at the university. She found that Christian and Muslim students overwhelmingly respected each other and formed friendships. Religious identity, however, was not discarded; less than 25 percent accepted intermarriage between Muslims and Christians. Nonetheless, Muslims and Christians attending Bethlehem University “not only perceive each other favorably but feel that they have a lot in common and that they are bound together by strong ties of friendship.”

Dr. Kattan concluded her study: “If we have succeeded in imbuing tolerance and openness in our youth, then the future definitely looks brighter.”

About equal numbers of men and women apply to enter the university, but for a variety of reasons women make up two-thirds of the student body. For most students, it is their first experience of coeducation, since there are separate schools for boys and girls on the elementary and secondary levels.

Dr. Sabella listed the education of women as another important feature of the university. The role of women in Palestinian society is evolving, with women entering a greater variety of professions.

“The university helps women stand on their own two feet,” Dr. Sabella said. “It gives them the self-confidence to consider new alternatives when choosing a career. That is the challenge of higher education; how to become a new person, how to make choices.”

Dr. Manuel Hassasian, Executive Vice President, reported that about 75 to 80 percent of its graduates are employed in their area of profession and that this situation is an indication that the university is meeting the needs of Palestinian society.

“Our graduates are helping build Palestinian institutions and infrastructure and contributing to the development of a Palestinian economy,” he explained.

The university, Dr. Kattan said “acts as a leaven in Palestinian society.”

Dr. Sabella offered a similar appraisal: “Bethlehem University is a significant institution in the Palestinian landscape and for the Christians of Palestine. It bolsters Palestinian society and helps Christians remain in the Holy Land.”

On 4 October 1998, one of the founders of Bethlehem University, Pio Cardinal Laghi, the former Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem and now the Prefect for the Congregation for Catholic Education, joined by Msgr. Stern, will be at the university to preside at a 25th anniversary Mass. The 1998-1999 school year will be marked by anniversary celebrations – there is lots to celebrate.

The university is looking forward as well as back. Brother Vincent Malham launched a five-year strategic planning process in November 1997. The university is examining its mission and operation in 11 areas. As Brother Vincent expressed it, “The idea is that we as a university community think and plan about where we have come in the past 25 years and where we would like to be five years from now, in order to develop a creative fusion of ’a university for a new Palestine in a new millennium.’”

If the past 25 years are an indication, Bethlehem University will be that university.

George Martin, a frequent visitor to the Holy Land, filed this story from Bethlehem.

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