The Perseverance of Bethlehem University

Despite two intifadas and numerous closings, the university keeps growing

by Paul Wachter

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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.

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Tags: Education Unity Bethlehem University Maher Turjman