Try teaching democracy in an occupied territory

April 12, 2002

As Bethlehem University recovers from its first Israeli occupation, Kenneth Cardwell dreams of a better future.

It was at 2.30am that Israeli armoured units broke into Bethlehem University's compound near Manger Square and forced their way into the main building.
Four days later, they pulled out, leaving behind 12 neatly stacked boxes of matzoh, four crates of tomatoes, assorted trash and dozens of empty grenade boxes.

Twelve De La Salle brothers, whose religious order has direction of the university, live on campus. We cannot leave our property. From my window I can see the Basilica of the Nativity, but not the soldiers surrounding it. I can see construction activity at Har Homa, a new settlement, and cars in Gilo, an old settlement.

This is the third time the university has closed this academic year - on the second occasion, from March 8 to 16, it suffered material damage. As before, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon will eventually withdraw his military from the Palestinian cities he has re-invaded. But whether he - or a successor - will ever withdraw the settlers from the lands Israel seized in 1967 seems unlikely.

Although faculty, students and staff hope for a Palestinian state, the university serves the Palestinian people, not a particular political vision. It was founded 28 years ago at the urging of Pio Laghi, Apostolic Delegate to the Holy Land. Until then, Palestinians from Bethlehem and its mostly Christian suburbs had to leave home if they wanted post-secondary education: many refused; those who did leave often did not return.

The Catholic university was founded to serve Palestinian Christians - Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholic and Syrian Orthodox - and Muslims. An exclusively Christian university would have hurt relations between Christian and Muslim Arabs. In the past five years the university has maintained admissions standards and enrolments. Our student population is about one-third Christian, two-thirds Muslim.

No one knows whether the university has stemmed the local exodus of Christians. But since its catchment area is shrinking and Christian numbers within it are (probably) decreasing, recruitment of Christian students will become more difficult.

If Israel withdrew from the occupied territories, or if its military allowed students to travel freely, the university might once again enrol as many students from Gaza. Today it enrols none. The 20-minute trip from nearby Hebron to the south can take two hours. Paradoxically, full Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza allowed Palestinians internal freedom of travel; autonomy for pieces of Palestine has created an archipelago of Bantustans.

Travel restrictions wear down the faculty as well. Some have had to resign because of difficulties in reaching the university. The long delays at the Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint, or the risky walk around it, simply tire out faculty and administration. The humiliations and difficulties that attend Palestinians crossing international borders reduce attendance at professional conferences, hinder research projects and blight professional development. On the other hand, the Palestinian National Authority discourages academic collaboration with colleagues in Israel.

However, academic vice-president Brother Neil Kieffe remains optimistic about the university's future. "The university is seeking to educate men and women into personal responsibility, leadership and democracy. If we can succeed, we are helping build the future Palestine and ensuring a long-term future for the university."

Here the university faces its greatest challenge. How does anyone educate students for democracy? Two armoured personnel carriers and two tanks have just charged along Manger Road firing into the air like Texas cowboys on a drunken spree. The long-term future of this university here in the midst of Islam, in the midst of the Arab world, depends most immediately on education for democracy in other parts of the world. In the United States, where there is most power to do good and to prevent this kind of evil, the universities have not done well. Plato thought our situation as regards truth to be like that of men chained, facing shadows on the wall of a cave. Someone has to turn us around. From the cave in Bethlehem, around which violence again asserts itself, came Jesus. He preached the necessity of a turning. The continuing trials of the university and the city may help turn the West toward what Israelis call "facts on the ground": the continuing unwise, illegal and unjust settling of conquerors on the defeated people's land. Everyone's long-term future depends on it.

Kenneth Cardwell is one of 12 De La Salle Christian brothers at Bethlehem University.

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