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March 3, 2010

Israeli Government Action Interferes with the Academic Life of Bethlehem University

Rachel’s Tomb – An Alien in her Hometown?

Rachel's TombOn Tuesday, 23 February 2010, teaching and learning at Bethlehem University came to a stand-still for the day, as did work in all shops, businesses and schools in Bethlehem and in Hebron.

A general strike impacting universities, schools, and businesses of all kinds in the Bethlehem and Hebron Districts in protest against the announcement made on Sunday, 21 February 2010 by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to include the sites of Rachel’s Tomb / Bilal-Ibn-Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem and the Cave of Machpelah / Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the list of Israeli National Heritage sites.

One of the consequences of the action of the Israeli Prime Minister is that on Tuesday, 23 February, Bethlehem University students and faculty lost not only their opportunity to teach and learn, but they also faced another loss; namely the loss of being able to worship and to be witnesses of their own religious and cultural heritage.

Rachel's TombMembers of the Bethlehem University faculty, Ms. Elise Aghazarian, Mr. Andrea Merli, Ms. Lucia Russo, and Dr. Ingeborg Tiemann along with students Wala Amro, Nanor Arakelian, Asim AbuAisha, Fida Mousa, Hiba Najajrah and Sheima Qabajah recently concluded a 6-month-long research project on Rachel’s Tomb (which is known as Qubbet Rahiil in Arabic and Kever Rachel in Hebrew) which was funded by the Bethlehem University Internal Research Grants and the German Association for Development Cooperation (AGEH). After conducting more than 11 qualitative interviews with people from Bethlehem in which they were investigating their perceptions of Rachel’s Tomb / Bilal-Ibn-Rabah Mosque, the researchers documented vivid memories of the liveliness of the place in the past.

The research also documents some rather pessimistic experiences and perspectives that the people of Bethlehem have concerning the present and the future.  “The past was better than the present, and the present will be better than the future,” says one respondent.  The recent announcement of the Israeli Prime Minister, unfortunately, goes directly towards this point.   

This important landmark of Bethlehem over the centuries, Rachel’s Tomb – Qubbet Rahiil in Arabic, Kever Rachel in Hebrew - is believed to be the place where Rachel, a religious matriarch important to Judaism and Christianity and also highly regarded in Islam, died when giving birth on her way with her husband Jacob to the land of Isaak’s home in Hebron. This very site in the town of Bethlehem comprises a Muslim graveyard where in the “Bilal-Ibn-Rabah Mosque” Islamic rites and prayers for the deceased were performed. Over the centuries this site was of major significance for Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities alike – a place of inter-religious and intercultural encounters and coexistence. Here Jews, Muslims and Christians met, did business together and got to know each other.

Rachel’s Tomb changed its character significantly only within the past few years. Since 2005 the whole site has been cut off from Bethlehem by an Israeli government built 30 foot high Wall which has turned Rachel’s Tomb into a fortress to which no Palestinians from the West Bank have access any more. This process of expropriation of such an important religious and cultural heritage site from Muslims and Christians in Palestine, and in Bethlehem in particular, is now culminated in the unilateral declaration from the Israeli government to include Rachel’s Tomb / Bilal-Ibn-Rabah Mosque, and also the Cave of Machpelah / Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, in the list of Israeli Cultural Heritage sites.

The publication of the Bethlehem University research is expected around mid-April 2010. This book is designed to present the research findings and to be a means by which the cultural heritage and importance of Rachel’s Tomb / Bilal-Ibn-Rabah Mosque for the people of Bethlehem and all Palestinians is preserved and passed along to future generations. The title of the book is “Rachel’s Tomb – An Alien in her Hometown? Perceptions from the Other Side of the Wall.” The book will be soon available with a CD of photos from AphorismA Publisher House, Berlin:  For further information please contact:

More information about this research project conducted by Bethlehem University faculty and students can be found at:

27.2.2010 Ingeborg Tiemann, Lucia Russo


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