As I See It

Fr. Raymond de Souza

March 7, 2011

I look forward to visiting Bethlehem University when in the Holy Land and, if time permits, introducing pilgrims to the campus and the students. Run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Bethlehem University was the first university in the West Bank, founded in 1973.

Today it has about 3,000 students, two thirds of which are Muslim. Female students comprise 70 per cent of the student body.

It is likely the only Catholic university where the Islamic headscarf is the typical mode of dress. It has very high academic admission standards, and a place at Bethlehem University is highly sought after by Palestinians, who generally put a high priority on education.

Faculty and students are proud of the spirit of fraternity and cooperation that prevails on campus, a notable achievement when attacks by Muslims upon Christians are growing in the Arab world. For Catholics, it should be a point of pride that the Church is doing such good work in difficult circumstances.

On the day I brought a group of pilgrims from Canadian university campuses, the students were on strike. That was a novelty for me, having only read about student strikes in the accounts of the 1960s. In more than 20 years of being on campus as a student, professor and chaplain, I have never actually seen a student strike.

This was a rather minor affair, just a two-hour strike, and the campus had a festive air about it. Aside from not attending class, the strike was observed principally by socializing and loud music. The purpose of the strike was to protest the American veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal.

FAULTY PREMISE

Refusing to attend classes in Bethlehem will not effect a change in American foreign policy, and it is not clear why protesting Israeli policy should mean not attending classes at a university that is unabashed about its Palestinian nationalism. The administration of Bethlehem University is only slightly less anti-Israeli than the Palestinian student body.

Being Christians from the West, they will defend Israel's right to exist in security, and condemn violence if pushed. But on the whole the campus prefers to talk about the oppressive dimensions of the Israeli military presence in the West Bank. As is usually the case throughout Israel and Palestine, a rather one-sided telling of the tale predominates.

Bethlehem University students talk on campus.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARRING

Bethlehem University students talk on campus.

We were shown a promotional video, for example, which referred to the suicide bombing of the second intifada disingenuously as "resistance." Politics dominates everything in Bethlehem. The video begins and ends with political commentary, and gets around to what the university actually does as a kind of secondary matter.

I am sympathetic to the grievances which animate Bethlehem University, suffering as it does under the often arbitrary and punitive measures taken by the Israeli government in terms of checkpoints, permissions and closures. The university has been closed 12 times by Israeli military orders, including for three years during the first intifada in the late 1980s.

That politics intrudes upon everything in Palestine is not a surprise. It intrudes here too — the student strike, the promotional video, the small museum of Palestinian culture which is dominated by more Arab-Israeli politics. The issue is not so much the political positions taken by the student body or the faculty, which are rather conventional in Palestine. Rather it is the primacy given to political questions in the self-identity of the Palestinian people.

Universities are shapers of national identity. Political activism will always have a home on campus. Yet Palestinian universities — especially a Catholic one — ought to resist the temptation to see the development of the Palestinian nation as a matter of politics alone.

The problem for Palestinians has never been not enough politics; they have rather too much. The development of a robust Palestinian civil society — everything from philosophers to engineers to entrepreneurs — is what Palestine needs most. A student strike, even if only symbolic, indicates the triumph of politics over education.

CATHOLIC MISSION

A Catholic university has a special mission here — to bring the light of the Gospel onto the realities lived by Palestinians in the West Bank. The Gospel can never be fit into any political category, as all political categories need illumination and purification by the Gospel. That's the special vocation of Bethlehem University. There are plenty of others to look after politics.

Fr. Raymond de Souza — rjdesouza@sympatico.ca