An Oasis of Learning

By John Grennan
Photography by Tivadar Domaniczky

A Brothers' College Perseveres in Occupied Palestinian Territory

Click to see more photos.

A color-coded map showing Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods in the West Bank, which has been under Israeli control since the Six-Day War in 1967, looks something like a Jackson Pollock painting. The BBC estimates 450,000 Jewish settlers live in walled-off areas amid 2.5 million Palestinians.

Interaction between the two groups is marked by tension, but there are small islands of relative tranquility, including the Christian Brothers’ Bethlehem University. Since 1973, BU has offered an opportunity for Palestinians to receive a higher education in the hopes of bettering their lives.

While they face daunting challenges pursuing a college degree under Israeli military occupation, BU students are in many ways similar to students at Saint Mary’s. They keep in touch with friends on the social networking website Facebook and watch American TV shows like “Lost.” They even read from the same Norton Anthology of English Literature in classes.

“We do as all students our age do,” says BU sophomore Almuataz Salem. “Go to restaurants, play football (soccer) and go on trips if possible.”

Yet, there are major differences. Bethlehem is within a battle zone that has seen aerial bombardment, house-to-house urban warfare and suicide bombings during the past decade. Israeli security policy in the West Bank over the last 40 years has been premised on separating Palestinian and Israeli populations through increased militarization and the construction of a massive wall throughout the territory.

Separate Lives

“The occupation is involved in every element of our lives,” says Hisham Ahmed, a Palestinian professor who taught at BU in the mid-1990s and now teaches politics at Saint Mary’s. “Sometimes, students and faculty could not get to the school. The checkpoints become chokepoints.”

Half of the West Bank’s Palestinians live in poverty, a third face food shortages and at least one-fifth are unemployed, according to 2008 U.N. figures. More than 4,200 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis died in acts of violence between September 2000 and July 2007. Some are Palestinian combatants and Israeli soldiers, but civilians are often caught in the crossfire.

“Virtually every BU student is from a family where someone has been killed,” says Brother Donald Mansir, an SMC Integral professor who taught at BU from 1989 to 1993 and serves as a Vatican adviser on Palestinian issues.

“At least half of the students have been in prison themselves — certainly someone from their family has been wounded.”

The campus has been closed by the Israeli military twelve times, the longest period lasting from 1989 to 1991.

From Here to There

There are no dorms at BU — Israeli authorities wouldn’t allow them when the college was built — so no rolling out of bed at the last minute and racing to Galileo or Dante Hall. Around 40 percent of the students live outside Bethlehem, including sophomore English major Razan Wazwaz, who travels five miles from Jerusalem each morning.

That may seem like a routine commute to Bay Area residents. Yet checkpoints between Jerusalem and Bethlehem create a time-consuming trek even under the best of circumstances.

“Getting to campus is the hardest part of every day,” Wazwaz explains. “It would take 30 minutes to get (from Jerusalem) to Bethlehem, but because of the checkpoints it takes us more than two hours.”

BU students also face what they call “flying checkpoints.” According to Elias Kattou’a, a junior accounting major from Jerusalem, these are random inspections where “two or three soldiers stop buses and check IDs.”

During the worst periods of violence from 2000 to 2005, there was no telling how long a trip through checkpoints would last.

“A journey that usually took students 45 minutes could take up to six hours,” recalls Brother Myron Collins, who taught chemistry at BU from 1994 to 2004 before returning to Saint Mary’s.

“Some of them had to leave at 2:30 a.m. in order to get to class on time.”

The Brothers in Bethlehem

The Brothers’ presence in the Middle East dates to the late 19th century, when they set up secondary schools in cities with large Christian populations, such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem. During Pope Paul VI’s visit to Bethlehem in 1964, Palestinians asked the Vatican to establish a college.

On Oct. 3, 1973, the Brothers opened the doors to Bethlehem University, the West Bank’s first college. Three days later, war broke out between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, with battles on the Syrian–Israeli border threatening to engulf the entire region. Since then, violence has been an enduring feature of West Bank life.

The Brothers have been tested by the region’s volatility. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein threatened to attack Israel with chemical weapons. He intended to target Jews, but anyone living in the West Bank was potentially at risk.

Brother Anton de Roper, the university’s vice chancellor at the time, asked his fellow Brothers if they wanted to leave. They all stayed.

“Not leaving during the first Gulf War was one of the most important decisions the Brothers made,” says Brother Donald. “Palestinians would have been so offended if we had left. It was a very important decision.”

Their willingness to continue teaching in Bethlehem over the past 35 years has endeared them to more than just the 10,000 students who have received a BU degree.

“The role that the Brothers are playing is momentous, and members of Palestinian society highly appreciate it,” Ahmed says. “They’re involved in a tremendous human sense where it’s badly needed.”

Bethlehem has had a significant impact on the Brothers as well, helping them focus on their core mission of serving the poor and disenfranchised.

“Given the social, religious and political milieu of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we all knew that we had to be centered in prayer and spirituality to be effective in our work,” says SMC’s Brother President Ronald Gallagher, who was BU’s vice chancellor from 1993 to 1997.

“It was important that the Brothers work together to model the virtues of patience, tolerance, perseverance and prudence,” adds Brother Donald. “It would be easy to patronize the Palestinians, criticize their political leaders, demonize Islam, and hate the Israelis. The Brothers help each other to learn to walk with charity and be an example to all of those in the BU community.”

Under Siege

The prospect of Iraqi scud missiles raining down on the West Bank in 1991 was definitely unsettling, but Bethlehem University’s most frightening hour came 11 years later during the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation.

In early 2002, Palestinian combatants and Israeli soldiers were exchanging fire in Bethlehem on a regular basis. Saint Mary’s Integral professor Brother Kenneth Cardwell was teaching English composition at BU at the time.

“I became something of a local munitions expert,” he says. “I could tell different machine gun caliber by the sounds they made.”

One morning, he noticed a bullet hole beneath the window of his classroom.

“It was probably that an Israeli sniper had practiced putting a bullet through the window,” he says. “The students looking at (the bullet hole) knew that they’d be in the guy’s sights.”

As the fighting continued (including at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity), soldiers occupied the BU campus in May 2002.

“They came over the walls, blew open the back gate and drove their APCs (armored personnel carriers) onto the basketball courts,” he says.

Israeli authorities closed the campus for three weeks, but the Brothers remained.

“You could hear (Israeli) armored vehicles and troop carriers every day,” says Brother Myron.

At one point, the Israeli military fired missiles into BU’s newest building.

Brother Kenneth notes that the bombardment represented a cruel irony of the cross purposes of U.S. policy in the Israel–Palestine dispute. The main building that was bombed had been funded by a U.S. government grant, while the missiles were from a U.S. factory and, in all likelihood, purchased with U.S. military aid to Israel.

“One of the rocket parts was stamped ‘Made in Akron, Ohio,’” he remembers. “All for the greater glory of capitalism.”

Political Awareness

Life at BU has markedly improved since the 2002 siege, even though instruction is still disrupted by events throughout the West Bank. In mid-March, the university closed for a day of mourning when Israeli Special Forces killed four Palestinians two blocks from the BU campus.

“When tragedy and violence come upon us, we are called to pray for peace, work for justice and to do our best to continue moving forward with life in hope,” says Brother Jack Curran, BU’s vice president for development.

Under these circumstances, BU students demonstrate a sense of political consciousness that goes beyond that of most American college students. Some student groups are affiliated with national parties such as Fatah and Hamas, and political developments off campus, such as the imprisonment or killing of a local party figure, often lead to student rallies.

“It’s a very dynamic political environment and sometimes even gets a bit tense,” Ahmed says.

Saint Mary’s junior Mary Grace Bone, one of six Saint Mary’s students who traveled to Bethlehem during Jan Term, says BU students often asked her about the U.S. presidential elections, and that talk of politics can emanate from unexpected places.

“Even kids in second grade can tell you about the Oslo accords,” between Israel and the Palestinians, she says, adding, “There’s a real long-term memory there. It’s like the Crusades happened yesterday — everyone still has feelings about them.”

BU’s students — 70 percent Muslims, 30 percent Christians — appreciate the privilege of a college education and are remarkably devoted to their studies. They thrive in an academic environment that includes people from different religious traditions.

“They are comfortable expressing themselves — it keeps the campus moderate,” Brother Donald says. “The university remains an oasis of free speech and a place where men and women congregate and talk to each other. It’s a community unlike any other place in Bethlehem.”

“It’s the only place Muslims and Christians could freely associate together in Bethlehem,” Brother Myron adds. “They saw the university as a haven and most of the time there they were focused on studying.”

No Normal Days

Professor Ahmed says improvisation is necessary to deal with outside interruptions.

“In the United States, I prepare a syllabus with a list of readings and topics for discussion for each day,” he says. “At BU, you don’t go by dates and a calendar. You are circumstantially compelled to alter the syllabus to omit any reference to dates.”

While some instruction occurs in English, many classes are in Arabic. American teachers like Brother Myron who have minimal Arabic skills rely on an unconventional set of pedagogical skills — especially when teaching a course like organic chemistry.

“It’s really an art teaching someone whose first language isn’t English,” he says. “You have to keep an eye out for that look of recognition.”

Mindful of the role they can play in Palestinian society, some BU students earn professional degrees in Europe or the United States before returning to the West Bank.

“I would like to pass the CPA exam in America and also take a master’s in business,” says Elias Kattou’a. “BU can sometimes support the honors students with scholarships to continue their studies abroad and then come back to serve the university.”

Even with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict shaping so much of their lives, BU students like Almuataz Salem see the potential for peace and believe that the university can put them in a position to help.

“BU gives me a good chance to become one of the people who search for change,” he says. “Do not believe the (Israeli and Palestinian) governments, because most people from each side want peace and they are ready to live together.”