Preparing Palestinians for a New Millennium

As Bethlehem University celebrates its 25th anniversary, its faculty and students reflect on its role in a changing Palestine.

text and photographs by George Martin

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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.

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Tags: Palestine Education Christian-Muslim relations Bethlehem University