ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Perseverance of Bethlehem University

Closings and instability do not deter this institution of higher learning

Who but the most diligent of students cannot admit to skipping a class to prolong a vacation, sleep in or miss an unwelcome quiz. But rare is the student who risks jail and even physical harm to attend class when he or she has been ordered, by law, not to.

Such, however, was the daily reality for Maher Turjman and his fellow Bethlehem University students during the first Palestinian intifada.

“We took risks to study, meeting in monasteries and convents for classes, sneaking into the university,” says Mr. Turjman, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, of the three years (1987 to 1990) during which Bethlehem University often was shut down by the Israeli Defense Forces.

In its 31 years, Bethlehem University has seen its enrollment grow from 100 students in 1973 to 2,240 today.

Founded by the Holy See and the De La Salle Christian Brothers, the university serves Christians and Muslims alike and offers degrees in such fields as arts and sciences, business administration, nursing, education, social work, hotel management and tourism.

It does so against the tense political backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose flare-ups often have forced the university to suspend operations. While the current intifada has not produced closings on the scale seen from 1987 to 1990, it has had a tremendous impact on the school.

“The past few years have been a struggle,” says Brother Vincent Malham, F.S.C., Bethlehem University’s President and Vice Chancellor since 1997.

“The closures and curfews and checkpoints make it difficult for our students and staff to get here.”

And the devastation of the Palestinian economy has slashed the availability of jobs. “In Bethlehem, once a relatively affluent Palestinian city, unemployment is at least 50 percent,” Brother Vincent says.

Even so, the university continues to grow in numbers and in academic offerings, Brother Vincent adds. As such, Bethlehem University must be seen as one of the great successes of recent Palestinian history.

Bethlehem University’s origins date to Pope Paul VI’s 1964 visit to the Holy Land. He believed Palestinians would be well-served by a university and that such an institution also would help stem Christian Palestinian emigration. The pope asked the De La Salle Christian Brothers to run the project.

It was a natural choice: In 1680, John Baptist de la Salle founded his congregation to educate the poor, who typically did not have access to education. (Today, about 7,000 brothers and their colleagues run schools in more than 80 countries.)

At first, the university occupied a few rooms in a Bethlehem elementary and secondary school for boys.

“We were pioneers, but we had great teachers who were creative,” says Dr. Jacqueline Sfeir, a student in the 1973 inaugural class and now a professor of education at Bethlehem University.

“I studied chemistry and I remember one of our professors using his car battery to explain a direct current.”

The university grew each year. “By the time I graduated, in 1977, the university had the whole building,” Dr. Sfeir says.

Given Palestinian demographics – now under 2 percent of the Palestinian population in Israel and the Occupied Territories is Christian – it was clear from the university’s beginnings that it would also serve Muslims.

“There was never any tension between Christian and Muslim students,” says Mr. Turjman, a 1991 graduate.

“When I was a student, the university was a broad-minded place, and I think this also holds true for today. You had Palestinians from all over – Jerusalem and other cities, refugee camps, the West Bank and Gaza. It serves a mosaic of people.”

The mix makes for a lively political atmosphere, which plays itself out in student elections.

“We have Fatah, PFLP [Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine], the People’s Party, the Democratic Front, Hamas – pretty much every Palestinian political party has its student analog,” says Brother Vincent.

“It’s one of the few venues Palestinians have to participate in real democracy,” says Mr. Turjman.

If it seems odd that a Christian institution should instruct mainly Muslim students, then it is also interesting, given the parochial nature of traditional Arab society, that Bethlehem University enrolls many more women than men. Two-thirds of the student body are women. Brother Vincent attributes this to a variety of factors.

“We don’t offer degrees in engineering, law or medicine, which are traditionally male-dominated professions,” he says. “But there are other reasons as well. Typically, if a family sends a child abroad to study, it’s the male. And as a Christian institution, we’re known as having a safe and traditional environment. All of this draws female students.”

Given the dismal state of the Palestinian economy, the university must ensure that tuition is affordable.

While tuition to attend Bethlehem University is $1,000 a year, most students pay less than half of that. “It actually costs the university over $3,000 per student and we have to raise funds to make up the difference,” Brother Vincent says.

A generous contribution to the university’s budget comes from the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches. CNEWA contributed significantly to the founding of the university and also established a permanent endowment for the school. (CNEWA’s Secretary General, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, serves as chairman of Bethlehem University’s International Board of Regents.)

Tuition fees account for about a quarter of the annual budgetary expenses, Brother Vincent says. “The rest we raise ourselves from all over the world, primarily in the United States, Europe and the Gulf.”

The university continues to expand, upgrade its facilities and admit more students. (This year’s class of 2,240 is the largest in its history.) Bethlehem University boasts a world-recognized biotechnology and genetics lab. Millennium Hall, a five-story classroom and administration building, opened in January 2002.

“Looking at the university now, I can’t help but think that the students are fortunate,” says Mr. Turjman. “Everything looks so much nicer than when I was a student.”

In 1989, the university opened a business development center to work with the local community. Now known as the Institute for Community Partnership, it serves hundreds of local citizens each year in a variety of programs and courses.

Three years ago, the institute added education programs for Bethlehem’s stay-at-home mothers. “We’re always trying to expand outside the university’s walls,” says Dr. Sfeir.

Despite high unemployment, Brother Vincent says Bethlehem University graduates do well in the limited job market.

“Many of our graduates get jobs,” he says. “Our teachers and nurses get hired – you need them no matter the state of the economy. And our accountants get jobs. But our hotel management graduates struggle since the tourist industry has taken such a hit. Many hotels and restaurants have closed.”

Even more troubling for Brother Vincent, though, are the demographic changes at the university as a result of the past few years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We used to be more of a regional university, educating students from Nablus, Jenin and Gaza,” he says. “But now, traveling in and out of Bethlehem has grown more difficult with all the restrictions, road blocks and road closures. So even though our student body is growing, more and more of our students – and our faculty too – are coming from the Bethlehem-Jerusalem area.”

Israel’s construction of a separation wall will only make this problem worse, Brother Vincent says. “With the wall creeping in, more and more of the university students and staff are getting cut off. It’s scary.”

Still, in 31 years the university has established itself as a permanent and invaluable feature of the Palestinian landscape, one that will survive and flourish no matter the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re a unique institution, a Catholic university in the Holy Land, and there will always be a place for us here,” says Dr. Sfeir.

Mr. Turjman agrees. “These students are the future of Palestine. We don’t have oil or natural resources. What we have are human resources, and that’s why this university is so valuable.”

Paul Wachter is Assistant Editor of ONE magazine. Longtime contributor Marilyn Raschka contributed additional reporting.

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