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A vision of hope under occupation: Brother Peter Bray, Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University


From: The University of Sydney

By Associate Professor Jake Lynch

14 July, 2015

Palestinians surveying their history over the last few decades have precious little cause for optimism, with the theft and colonisation of their land and denial of their rights under Israeli occupation. But, according to Peter Bray, Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University, in his talk at the University hosted by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (July 9), they can still find hope, if hope is to mean: “realising that ‘I’m not going through this by myself'”.

The global awareness of their struggle for rights and freedoms, and solidarity of supporters, makes a key contribution to enabling hope for the Palestinians.

The first Palestinian university to be established, in 1973, in the West Bank, Bethlehem has no on-campus accommodation, which means many of its students must pass through Israeli army checkpoints, as well as the illegal separation wall Israel began building in 2002 and sundry other barriers, to reach class each day. In the process, they are exposed to dangers from humiliation, to physical threats, but, Bray remarked: “It’s that resilience and courage that I find inspiring, the way students place that emphasis on their education and are prepared to make those sacrifices”.

Bray, who is a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, explained how funding for the University comes partly from the Vatican and partly from student fees, which are kept to a minimum, but he and colleagues must raise 60% of the costs, put at USD$4,000 per student per year, from charitable donations.

The sense of purpose that sustains these efforts comes from the institution’s mission to build the Palestinian nation through education, laying down resources on which it will need to draw deeply, when national rights are finally attained and recognised. One of the most crucial, Br Bray said, will be the relationships nurtured on campus between the university’s Christian and Muslim students. One of its best known graduates, Daoud Nassar, has a farm in the hills southwest of Bethlehem which the Israeli authorities have been attempting to confiscate for many years. He runs educational projects on the property as a “tent of nations” and marks its entrance with a stone on which is inscribed, in several languages, the words: “we refuse to be enemies”.

Nassar was just one of several BU graduates and students who ‘joined’ Br Bray’s presentation in the form of video recordings. One who featured, a 22-year-old undergraduate from Hebron, had “never seen the sea”. While he could stand on high ground in Bethlehem and look down on Jerusalem in the distance, he had never been able to visit it. Unlike westerners, who can generally come and go in the Holy Land as they please, Palestinians are highly restricted in their movements, with the obvious impact on their educational prospects.

In one case, Berlanty Azzam, a fourth-year student from Gaza, was on her way back to Bethlehem from a trip to Ramallah when she was detained by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. Seeing the word, ‘Gaza’ on her ID card, they locked her up for seven hours, then blindfolded and handcuffed her and drove her to the Gaza Strip, where she was dumped in the middle of the night.

Efforts to challenge this in the Israeli courts proved fruitless, so Berlanty was stranded, unable to return to the West Bank for the remaining six weeks of her four-year degree course. An international outcry failed to shame Israel into reversing the injustice, so the University instead deployed some lateral thinking. A tutor was engaged in Gaza so Berlanty could complete her studies there. The Chancellor of BU is, it so happens, the Apostolic Delegate, or Pope’s official representative, in Jerusalem. Making use of his diplomatic credentials, he and Br Bray travelled to Gaza to hold a special graduation ceremony so Berlanty could receive her degree.

Parallels with CPACS

In these and so many other ways, Bethlehem University is “a beacon of hope”, Br Bray said. There are parallels with CPACS’ own sense of mission and purpose, and the centrality to its work of concepts such as solidarity in the face of injustice. In attendance was the Centre’s own current student from Gaza, Shamikh Badra, who arrived in Sydney last year shortly before bombs and shells started raining down on his homeland in Israel’s so-called ‘Operation Protective Edge’.

Shortly before Br Bray’s talk, the United Nations Inquiry into this attack published its report, confirming that it claimed 2,251 lives, including the lives of 551 children, displaced more than half a million people, and destroyed 77 health facilities and 261 schools.

On top of the challenges of studying in English in a foreign country, Shamikh’s first semester in Sydney, for his Master of Peace and Conflict Studies degree, was understandably shadowed by personal trauma and horror at the experience being inflicted on his home, his family and friends, while he was thousands of miles away in Australia.

Despite this, his own dedication shone through, and he recently completed his final unit of study, Nonviolence and Social Change, in the Winter School. Shamikh will return home imbued with fresh hope, knowledge and skills, as well as the solidarity of many new friends and colleagues here, determined to apply what he has learned in studying such subjects as Reconciliation, Conflict Resolution and Peace Journalism, as an ambassador for peace, now credentialed to make professional-level contributions to a more peaceful future.

Shamikh’s course fees – many times those at Bethlehem University! – and expenses were met by the Sydney Peace Foundation and through fund-raising efforts by its founding Director, Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees. As CPACS now enters a phase of planning for the next stage of its development, we are inspired by Shamikh’s own story to reach out for help to bring more students here from Palestine, as well as other conflict-affected communities around the world where hope needs to be activated, and its implications and potentialities explored through education as a force for peace and positive change.

Academic boycott

Br Bray deflected a direct question about the Academic Boycott of Israel, part of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions whose tenth anniversary fell on the day of his speech, by reference to a newly adopted Israeli law making it illegal to advocate for it. But, he noted, his own support for the boycott was a matter of public record, and Bethlehem University had hosted a BDS conference.

CPACS’ own record, as an early adopter of the boycott call (since 2009) is equally well known, and a guest speaker of the Centre’s recent past, Olivia Zamour, now sends us updates from AURDIP, the French-based association for the internationally acknowledged rights of Palestine. In the week of Br Bray’s talk at Sydney, AURDIP released news of a report, by a delegation of eight academics from five European countries representing the European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (EPACBI) who visited seven Palestinian universities and academies in April 2015. Inquiring into the impact of Israeli occupation on universities, the delegation found evidence of a:

"Pattern… of a coherent and multi-faceted policy of Israeli interference with the normal functioning of academic life. This interference inhibits free movement of staff and students; reduces academic effectiveness and productivity by the usurpation of staff time through mobility restrictions and imposed bureaucratic obstacles; prevents effective collaboration and sharing of intellectual resources between Palestinian universities; obstructs international visits to Palestinian universities; substantially prevents the employment of teaching staff from abroad; interrupts the supply of equipment, materials and books; and subjects staff and students to repeated humiliations and indignity."

The delegation argues that universities in the outside world should do all they can to help Palestinian colleagues to lessen the impact, but also that they should join the academic boycott, since Israeli academia has, with a very small number of notable individual exceptions, proved reluctant even to raise the smallest protest over abuses meted out to its Palestinian counterpart.

There is solidarity, including the support for Bethlehem University as well as in the rapidly growing worldwide response to the boycott call; Palestinian academics and students know they are not alone in undergoing these privations, and so there is hope.

Bethlehem University Foundation
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine