The reality of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation is often ignored in the West. This Christmas – I hope my readers have a safe and happy holiday season, wherever they may be – I’m once again publishing the regular missive from Brother Peter Bray, the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University (his past writings are here). The town suffers under the realities of Israeli rule but Bray is an inspiring figure who works tirelessly for his students and staff.
Here’s Bray’s message:
24 December 2012
Greetings from this holy place of Bethlehem as we prepare to celebrate the coming of God amongst us! It is, indeed, a privilege to be here in Bethlehem and to try to take in that some two thousand years ago God became one of us in Jesus, a helpless little baby, born here in this holy place! It shows God meets us as human being where we are in a lovable little baby. I thank God for that privilege.
From this privileged place I send you God’s blessing and pray that in your own celebrations you will experience something of the peace and joy that comes from God.
This has been an extraordinarily busy year for me, but one that has also been satisfying as we move to find ever better ways to serve the Palestinian people. The challenges have come in all sorts of ways. The continued occupation is impinging on us in a variety of blatant and subtle ways to make the operation of Bethlehem University more difficult. The most obvious one is the restrictions on travel and the adjustments that have to be made as a result of individuals not being able to get permission to go through the Wall. An example today is that we are currently waiting to welcome a group of young Lasallians from the Brothers schools in Amman (Jordan) and Jerusalem. Despite applying several weeks back, here on Christmas eve there is no indication whether the students from Jordan will get permission to join in the celebration tonight in Bethlehem University. Other challenges revolve around the financial restrictions that Israel imposes through withholding money as well as by impeding the flow of goods into and out of Palestine. These have implications for many of our parents and, therefore, for our students.
The recent attack on Gaza did not endanger us here on campus. However, I closed Bethlehem University on the Wednesday before the cease-fire was finalized. On the Tuesday afternoon the Israeli soldiers chased young men right up into Bethlehem using tear gas and some of our staff where caught on the edge of that. I did not want our students to become engaged in such confrontations and because I was unsure how things could escalate on Wednesday, I decided it was wiser to keep students away from such possibilities.
Looking back I think that was a wise decision and we were able to resume classes again on the Thursday and have been able to complete the semester without further disruption. The cease-fire was followed by the application by the Palestinian Authority to the UN and the passage of that recognition. While there was a certain satisfaction among Palestinians at that recognition, there was also a sense of wariness because there have been so many seemingly helpful things in the past that really led nowhere. The fact that the passage of this resolution by the UN was followed by Israel announcing a massive expansion of settlements indicates that the Palestinians were right in being wary about things being better as a result of the recognition they received. It is hard to see how the Palestinians are going to benefit as Israel uses its powerful position here to dominate so many aspects of Palestinian life. This domination has obvious implications for Bethlehem University and the welfare of our students, faculty and staff.
I have mentioned before that in the midst of all that is going on one of our greatest challenges is to keep hope alive. The challenge is when there is so much evidence that things are not getting better, how do we help keep hope alive? I think we have to move past an understanding of hope that rests on optimism. Equating hope with optimism will lead to fear and despair. When I talk to our graduates and have them reflect on what it was that helped them keep hope alive while they were at Bethlehem University they respond by saying it really came back to them knowing deep down that people at Bethlehem University really cared about them. They felt that people were worried about them, were prepared to care for them and go the extra mile to help. In my Christmas message I mention that the suffering of any tragedy can be eased if people know there are others standing with them.
I think this is very true for students, faculty and staff here at Bethlehem University. The challenge then becomes how to create an oasis of peace here at Bethlehem University so that when students come on campus they know they are safe and that people here care for them. There are many aspects to doing that. One is the Lasallian emphasis on building relationships. “Be brothers and sisters to one another and older brothers and sisters to the young people entrusted to you.” (Slight adaptation from Saint John Baptist De La Salle). I think this is one aspect of Bethlehem University which we continue to work on and which so many of our graduates treasure. Having people outside Bethlehem University standing in solidarity with us is a wonderful boost to our students, faculty and staff because it highlights they are not alone in their struggle. Another aspect is providing the best possible programmes. We have been fortunate for the latter part of this semester to have Dr. Shukri Sanber from the Australian Catholic University working pro bono with us to help us continually improve what we are doing. I am deeply grateful to him for his generosity and his willingness to share his expertise.
Another challenge is to provide facilities that will contribute to building such relationships. I think you will be aware that Bethlehem University is in the process of purchasing the Mount David property near the present campus. With this property it will mean Bethlehem University will have five properties and the challenge is to find the best ways to use those for the benefit of the Palestinian people. To help us respond to this I have engaged a group of professionals who are working with us to develop a strategic plan but also to help draw up a comprehensive facilities master plan. Chris Faisandier, a long time friend from my New Plymouth days, is driving this process for us. He is Ahead Associates’ Australian based Associate. He has managed to convince Graham Ormsby, an architect and master planner along with Mr Terry Mahady of Gallagher Jeffs Consulting, who is an independent property adviser, to work with him. These three have agreed to do this work pro bono and Bethlehem University only has to cover costs involved. This is a major contribution to Bethlehem University and I am deeply grateful to these men for their offer and for the demanding work they are putting in.
Negotiating for the purchase of the property and then getting funding for it has taken a great deal of time. The purchase price is around US$13.8 and then we will need something in the vicinity of US$5.7 to get the property to where we want it, making this a US$19.5 project! It is a challenge, but one that will enable Bethlehem University to reach out in a whole variety of ways to the people of Palestine. This project says to the people of Bethlehem that Bethlehem University believes in them, that it is going to be around for a long time, that it is deeply committed to provide the very best opportunities as we educate the future leaders of Palestine. It is wonderful opportunity to take a major step in serving Palestine and is a source of hope for the people, particularly those in Bethlehem.
We are preparing for our wonderful celebration of Christmas at midnight in our beautiful Bethlehem University Chapel. This is a standing room only event by the time everyone arrives. The new Nuncio (who is automatically the Chancellor of Bethlehem University) will preside. He is Archbishop Lazzarotto who was previously the Nuncio in Australia. I am fortunate also to have two Australian brothers staying with us. Brother Denis Loft and Brother Lawrence King are joining us to celebrate Christmas in this holy place.
Both were in New Plymouth with me and it is great to reconnect with them and give them a look at Bethlehem University and something of the Holy Land.
As you celebrate, wherever you happen to be, I assure you we will remember you as we celebrate here in this holy place. Please keep us in your prayers as we seek to live the message Jesus brought and to reach out to the needs of the Palestinian people as they celebrate the coming of God amongst us here where the Prince of Peace was born.
I again wish you God’s peace and joy at this special time from this special place!
Brother Peter Bray