“Our work is not done”: Collective Commitment to Furthering Human Rights at Bethlehem University

By: Katherine Woodard (SFS'22)

July 20, 2022

This virtual research explores the impact of human rights education at Bethlehem University in the West Bank. Interviews with university students, faculty, and administrators reveal the ways in which the university celebrates the nuance of their community and asserts the inherent dignity of their community members.

Bethlehem Skyline at Sunset

When I see Ahmad’s smiling face pop up on my Zoom screen, a wave of relief washes over my body. In the weeks leading up to our interview, it’s been difficult to get in touch with Ahmad, like all my other contacts in the West Bank, Palestine. Less than a week before our conversation, 12-year-old Muhammad al-Alami was fatally shot by the Israeli police less than 10 miles from Ahmad’s home in Hebron. Al-Alami’s death has reinvigorated the ongoing spring 2021 protests against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and Ahmad’s hometown of Hebron has experienced an increased presence of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in light of the civil unrest. “Hi, How are you?” feels like a loaded way to begin an interview, given the circumstances. 

Instead, I begin by asking Ahmad to tell me about life in Palestine broadly, hoping to gain insight into the cultural landscape I am researching as a part of my Education and Social Justice Project fellowship through the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service. Ahmad is currently a student at Bethlehem University (BU), and his university’s administration has asked me to investigate the efficacy of their human rights courses.

The photo depicts a large cream building with a round-roof clock tower at the front of the Bethlehem University campus. Trees are scattered through the foreground of the image in front of the building. Several flags, including the official flag of the Palestinian Territories, wave in the wind along the paved pathway beside the building. (Source: Bethlehem University)

As sociopolitical tensions in the region are rising, the university’s administrators are deeply concerned with their students’ well-being beyond campus walls. BU originally developed a human rights-centered curriculum out of a commitment to ensuring that their educational programming would be applicable to the everyday lives of Palestinians. Going into my interview with Ahmad, my primary research goal is to determine to what degree these human rights courses provide a meaningful, long-standing impact on the students who take part in them.

A map titled “West Bank” discerns the areas of the Palestinian Territories using various colors. (Source: Shutterstock)
A map titled “West Bank” discerns the areas of the Palestinian Territories using various colors. (Source: Shutterstock)

Since Ahmad is one of the first students I have interviewed over Zoom this summer, I’m hoping his perspective will help me parse out how regional differences in Palestinian culture inform BU students’ opinions. When I ask Ahmad about his classmates, he politely smiles and warns me against the Western tendency of viewing Palestine as a cultural monolith. “There’s a real separation of societies here between the regions,” he says, “with places like Bethlehem and Ramallah being more liberal, and Hebron more conservative… But at [Bethlehem University], there are all types of people” (interview, Ahmad, Bethlehem University student, July 2, 2021).

Bethlehem University students hail from several of the “societies” of which Ahmad speaks, with 50% of the student body from Bethlehem, 41% from neighboring Jerusalem, 8% from Hebron, and 1% from other regions of Palestine. On top of these regional distinctions, Bethlehem’s student body is divided amongst faith traditions, with 79% of students identifying as Muslim and 21% as Christian. Although the university is now home to a predominately Muslim student body, BU has its origins within the Catholic tradition.

Pie chart of the regional homes of Bethlehem University student body. The large blue portion of the pie shows that as of fall 2021, 1,675 students are from Bethlehem. The slightly smaller red pie of the graph shows that 1,365 are from Jerusalem; a very small green sliver of the pie shows that 277 are from Hebron. The smallest, purple portion shows that 42 are from other Palestinian cities. (Source: Bethlehem University)

Pie chart of the religious affiliations of Bethlehem University student body. The pie chart is predominately orange to show that 2,651 students identify as Muslim. The smaller, remaining sliver of the pie is green, and it shows that 708 students identify as Christian. (Source: Bethlehem University)

Now, almost 50 years after the university’s founding, many BU graduates work as professors and administrators at the university. In my research, I had the opportunity to interview a few of these graduates-turned-teachers, and I wanted to understand why they chose to remain at the institution that trained them. In the words of one BU administrator, “I stay because I feel that my work is not done… We have to prepare students for the risks they face every day” (interview, Bethlehem University administrator, August 2, 2021). There are so many risks associated with pursuing higher education in Palestine, and throughout my virtual interview process, each individual expressed unique issues they confronted outside the classroom. After hearing these faculty members voice their concerns, I expanded my initial research question to include identifying primary barriers to students’ ability to participate in their education at Bethlehem University.

In expanding the scope of my research to include barriers to students’ educational success, I began to investigate the university’s efforts to mitigate concerns students expressed. As a result, my final series of guiding questions began to solidify: What concerns or barriers affect students’ ability to engage in the classroom? How does the curriculum of Bethlehem’s human rights courses reflect the needs and desires of its students? What additional programs or initiatives at BU support students’ understanding of human rights?

Bethlehem University, Beacon of Hope. Administrators from Bethlehem University discuss the importance of the institution’s status as the only Catholic university within the West Bank. The video emphasizes the university's role in contributing to the betterment of Palestine, citing the success of BU’s graduates gaining acceptance to international master’s and Ph.D. degree programs. (Source: Official YouTube Channel of Bethlehem University)

Barriers to Student Education

​Crossing Checkpoints

Time, not physical distance, is the primary concern for most students traveling to Bethlehem University. For the 1,356 currently enrolled students traveling from Bethlehem’s neighboring city of Jerusalem, only 9.5 kilometers (6 miles) separate home from school. The 227 students from Hebron are expected to travel slightly further, trekking about 21.56 kilometers (13.4 miles) on average to reach the university’s gates. One former student told me that if I were to drive from her house in the center of Jerusalem straight to BU, it’d take me about 15 minutes on a good day. But I am an American citizen, carrying a U.S. passport. For Palestinian students, the short journey often takes significantly longer:

“Living near [the university], that’s a blessing… because students from other cities actually have to spend hours just to get to campus, especially if you have to cross a check[point]. Yeah. That’s miserable to do. Sometimes students miss classes just because of the checkpoints. Sometimes we have flying checkpoints. When there is a flying checkpoint, there is no defined checkpoint, but the soldiers just decide that they want to have a check right here. So they just prepare their Jeep, and they put it here, and then they get out of their car. They stop everyone. They check everyone. It’s crazy. Jerusalem is only ten minutes away, but because of the checkpoints, it can actually turn into a one-hour trip” (interview, former BU student, August 17, 2021).

Anonymity Concerns

Less than a minute into Ahmad’s interview, he tells me that he continues to fear going through checkpoints every day. “Yeah, I’m still afraid,” he shares, “Because every time [I travel], I have to go through multiple checkpoints. They’re checking all my IDs, my physical documentation. I have to be aware of everything because I may get shot, and no one cares. They [the soldiers] can think that you have a gun or are threatening to do something. And that’s it. So in every aspect... they’re coming at us... from the way we look, to how much we look them in their eyes. Students… I think they have trauma; they are really afraid of the soldiers,” Ahmad shares.

Many students stressed that safety comes directly from anonymity: If Israeli soldiers lack a way to identify that the person passing through a checkpoint is a student at a Palestinian institution, then the individual is less likely to be stopped for more extensive questioning.

K-12 Education Inequity

As conversations about checkpoints and fears outside of BU’s walls began to dominate my early interviews, I became curious about the barriers to education that existed within the institution. From the interviews I’ve conducted with my Arabic translator, Kate, I know that she is keenly aware of how regional differences inform students’ opinions of historical and modern Palestine. However, it is only in interviewing Kate that I realize how recently she has acquired this historical grounding. “I have learned more things about Palestine from this university than I have from anywhere else,” Kate says, “In my [secondary] school, I didn’t learn much about the Palestinian cause because of my school’s curriculum…the Israeli authority has a hand in it. They control everything, even the curriculum we study” (interview, August 22, 2021).

Many students I interviewed expressed sentiments similar to Kate’s. Those who attended state-run primary and secondary schools within the Palestinian Territories often learned about Palestinian history primarily outside of the classroom, given the Israeli oversight of the public schools’ curriculum. Without a comprehensive record of Palestine’s past addressed at school, these students relied heavily on independent investigation and communal/familial experiences to inform their opinion about Palestine’s place within the world.

​Outcomes of Required Human Rights-Focused Coursework

When I interviewed members of the administrative team at BU, each administrator expressed awareness of and deep familiarity with the barriers to student education mentioned above. Like their students, these administrators are regularly concerned with safety, anonymity, and regional inequality. However, administrators also understand that the university’s preventative measures cannot entirely mitigate the chance of violence. Therefore, the university builds a curriculum that teaches students what to do if and when they enter sensitive situations outside the classroom. The most prominent feature in this curriculum is the university’s human rights education requirement, which only two classes can fulfill: 1) Themes in Political Science or 2) Democracy, Human Rights and International Law. All students seeking a bachelor’s degree from Bethlehem University must take one of the courses, both of which are typically taught in English.

The university intentionally offers these courses in English. Although translations of critical human rights doctrines are easily accessible in Arabic, reading the declarations in English allows students to learn the exact phrasing utilized by English-speaking policymakers. This equips BU students to discuss the Palestinian cause with those outside of the territories. Connections with the outside world, specifically with Americans, serve as a driving force for many students’ enrollment.

​Language as a Tool for Imagining New Outcomes

"With English… you can live many lives outside of Palestine,” one student recounts. “In my future, I see myself working with NGOs here [in Palestine], and English is a key skill” (interview, current Bethlehem University sophomore student, August 17, 2021). This course requirement serves as one of many outlets at BU to practice the language skills necessary for engaging with English speakers. In fact, almost half of the university’s courses within the Faculty of Arts are taught in English, providing students with various disciplines to practice their language skills. However, these two classes in particular present unique opportunities for students to learn about how English-dominated institutions, such as the United Nations, codify human rights. 

Many recent iterations of the Democracy, Human Rights, & International Law course have dedicated a substantive portion of the semester to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which outlines “the inherent right of individual or collective defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” For decades, Article 51 has been a source of contention for Palestinians, given that Palestine is not afforded the same rights and responsibilities as a full-fledged Member Nation. As recently as May 2021, the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine has written to the UN Security Council identifying Israel’s “excessive military force” as beyond what can be “retroactively justified by reference to the right of self-defense.”

Many students expressed feelings of devastation when first presented with a detailed account of Palestine’s historical battle for recognition in the United Nations. “I was shocked to learn that the killing of another human being was considered permissible, even in times of war,” one student said. “Learning about these definitions of human rights changed and shaped me as a person” (interview, Bethlehem University student, July 30, 2021). The student’s initial hopelessness transformed into empowerment as the semester progressed. Learning which specific international treaties codified his rights left the student feeling a sense of confidence in his ability to articulate his rights, especially during his daily interactions with the IDF:

“When I’m in my field, out in the world, there’s always a chance that I might be arrested. But then I remember, there are agreements! If a country wants to oppress someone, they have no right to torture a person who is in prison. And the person has a right to be sent to their own country’s [prison], rather than remaining in the country where they got in trouble” (interview, Bethlehem University student, August 6, 2021).

In this case, the names of the specific extradition treaties that guided the student’s beliefs were not significant–what mattered to the student was that his human rights course taught him that he possesses inherent rights as a human being, even when facing imprisonment. These courses drew from internationally accepted agreements to give students a new vocabulary to articulate their rights. In understanding these rights, students started to imagine a future for Palestine outside of occupation. 

After only completing a few interviews, it was clear that these courses revolutionized conceptions of Palestinian sovereignty for the students who had an advanced understanding of English. I began to wonder if students with less familiarity with the English language benefited from these courses to the same extent their classmates did. 

By the time students like Noor, from predominately Muslim communities without access to highly funded English-speaking academies, enter Bethlehem University, their language skills sometimes lag behind their wealthy Christian counterparts. This deficit motivates Noor to work even harder, seeking to make up for the lost time. “English is the internationally spoken language. English is the language of communication,” Noor tells me in Arabic. 

Noor shares with me her excitement over hopes of engaging with high-level English primary and secondary sources, such as UN Declarations, within the classroom. Noor recognizes that some of the material will be challenging for her to understand, given that she is just beginning to learn English at the university. Nevertheless, she is excited by the prospect of reading in English while she has the support of her professors and classmates. For students like Noor, who are just beginning their language journey, the human rights education courses are just as beneficial as they are for their classmates more familiar with English; these students simply benefit in different ways.

Moreover, the classroom setting makes room for questions while interrogating the texts in a way that is not possible when solely utilizing online translation tools in isolation. Students learning English are encouraged to seek clarification whenever they do not understand a particular word or concept. If need be, the instructor can always communicate directly with a student in Arabic to explain a specific element of human rights theory. Crucially, students are never penalized for being beginners. Instead, teachers, keenly aware of the difficulties of reading across cultural and linguistic differences, provide their students with a sense of flexibility. This allows students to push themselves towards increased understanding within a highly collaborative, low-risk environment. “When I am more involved in my education, I am more involved in my society,” Noor reflects. “I cannot get that online” (interview, August 17, 2021).

My research indicates that the current courses in human rights satisfy students’ overarching desire to better understand English legal concepts relating to autonomy, human dignity, and state sovereignty. However, asking students about their human rights education at BU revealed that these courses are only one part of BU’s comprehensive plan to connect students’ time on campus with the issues they face in the outside world.

​A Catholic Institution for a Predominately Muslim Student Body

Noor sees Bethlehem University as a place where her classmates bring as much to the table as her professors. At BU, Noor is exposed to perspectives other than the traditional, conservative views the majority of her family holds. She is not alone in her desire to engage with students from different viewpoints. Each of the Muslim students I interviewed identified BU’s Christian identity as a key factor in their choice to attend the university.

“We are Palestine’s first and only Catholic and Christain university,” says BU’s guest relations officer, Amjaad, “but it attracts everybody” (interview, August 17, 2021). Amjaad attributes the university’s widespread success across religious traditions to the university’s specific commitment to the social justice element of Catholicism. 

Catholic social teaching is often identified by its seven themes or focus areas: 1) Life and Dignity of the Human Person; 2) Call to Family, Community, and Participation; 3) Rights and Responsibilities; 4) Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; 5) The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; 6) Solidarity; 7) Care for God’s Creation.

Each of these themes is in alignment with the university’s overarching commitment to “foster[ing] shared values, moral principles, and dedication to serving the common good.” Brother Peter Iorlano, who is in his eighteenth year of service at BU, tells me that the principles of Catholic social teaching undergird much of the school’s decision-making process, especially when determining how to structure educational programs (interview, August 23, 2021).

Principles of human rights are often framed within the language of Catholic social justice in required courses. By merging the realms of human rights doctrine and Catholic social teaching, the university asserts that there is a moral argument to be made for the dignity of each person in addition to a legal one. Required classes like Cultural Religious Studies and Ethics of Life provide the university with an opportunity to use religion as a lens for viewing conflict. Moreover, some Muslim students find the language of Catholic social teaching to be an additional access point for understanding their inalienable value and worthiness of safety. Speaking specifically about the theme of “The Life and Dignity of the Human Person,” one Muslim student shared that her religious education at BU has taught her to ask,

“How can we really know who is Muslim or who is Christian when dealing with each other? [When connecting at the university,] there is no such thing as religion, because we are all human in the first place” (interview, BU junior, August 6, 2021).

​Connections between the Personal and the Historical: BU's Teachings on the Palestinian Cause

While some students found value in exposure to new religious traditions through their coursework, others found the most benefit in using their curriculum to connect to Palestine’s past. Many students, like my translator Kate, attended secondary schools subject to Israeli interference. These students began to see the state of Palestine in a different light once enrolled at Bethlehem University, where Modern History of Palestine is a foundational course. “Bethlehem taught me to be critical of everything… in my first semester [at Bethlehem University] I took a Palestinian history course, and we took criticism from the entire world, not just from [within] our country,” Kate shares. “We are taught to let go of our conceptions and our beliefs and just apply critical theories. They [the professors] reopened our minds” (interview with Kate, BU student, August 22, 2021). 

As their minds were “reopened” by a more in-depth understanding of the history of Palestine’s fight for autonomy, many students began to realize that the ongoing situation in the region was significantly worse than they had grown up understanding it to be. Every student I interviewed had directly experienced or witnessed an act of aggression when going through an IDF checkpoint. However, before their studies at Bethlehem, many students did not contextualize their personal struggles within the broader context of Palestine’s history. 

When speaking of their personal lives, students used the language of trauma and survival. History was an afterthought when their immediate safety was on the line. Within the guarded walls of the university, students could escape the realm of necessity, allowing them time to reflect on how the long history of the occupation informed their families’ hardships. Further, Bethlehem’s professors actively reminded their students that although violence is routine in the West Bank, it is not normal or acceptable. Forcing students to confront the normalization of violence helped bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world. As a result, students began to question their own position within the conflict:

“Before going to university, I felt that I wasn’t politically active at all. Maybe I was talking about it with friends, but not much, right? So I feel that I wasn’t very knowledgeable or very aware… Or maybe it’s because I normalized it at [secondary] school. And that’s a very sad thing. We live in a situation of violence, occupation, and colonialism. It should never be normalized. But when you live in a situation, I think your mind tries to cope with things. When I started going to uni, I began to ask, ‘Is that okay? Should I be more aware of what’s happening?’” (interview, BU senior, August 5, 2021). 

​Exploring New Avenues for Engagement and Activism

Increased understanding of the occupation spurred many students to become politically involved for the first time. “At university, I heard people expressing their feelings about the occupation and about the Palestinian cause for the first time in poetry, in music, and in writing,” one student tells me. “It was the first part of my journey in social justice and human rights” (interview, Bethlehem University student and current administrator, August 17, 2021).

However, political involvement comes at a high price for some students, especially those seeking to speak out against the occupation. One student expressed the risk-reward calculation that goes into deciding whether to be politically involved by stating that “to be politically active is to be able to speak without being afraid of going to jail, or having to avoid being on record… Even if a person is in authority and deserving of respect, they may not be able to go through the checkpoints. So if you’re an activist, you may not be able to leave the West Bank.”

“Do you feel like you’re able to be politically active?”

“Of course not.” 

“Do you know anyone who has the ability to do it?”

“Yeah, people who are willing to exchange their freedom for better rights in Palestine”

(interview, BU junior, August 2, 2021).

​A Wraparound Approach to Student Safety

Bethlehem University seeks to minimize the amount of freedom that must be “exchanged” to pursue higher education. Practically speaking, the university builds in measures for student anonymity wherever possible. From a research recruitment standpoint, these mutually reinforcing layers of security made it incredibly difficult to contact potential participants. The university conducts its communications with students within closed-system Google Groups, barring access to anyone without a university-sponsored email address. In addition, each student affiliated with Bethlehem University receives an email address composed entirely of randomized numbers, making students unidentifiable to those without access to the Google Group. In addition to BU’s digital safety measures, the university implements layers of physical safety when possible. Some professors exclusively utilize “in-class only” copies of texts and library resources so students do not cross through checkpoints with potentially sensitive information. Because of these protective measures, many students view BU as a sanctuary where all associated with the university share the burden of students’ safety.

As students witness heightened conflict erupt along social, political, and religious lines throughout the occupied territories, Bethlehem University courses continue to focus on themes of interfaith understanding, mutual compassion, and gentle disagreement. For students seeking to develop an advanced understanding of Western definitions of human rights, the classroom provides a space to parse out the nuances and vaguery of the English language. Regardless of one’s prior familiarity with English, the BU classroom serves as a buffer zone, allowing students to workshop new ways of articulating themselves within an environment that does not directly threaten their safety. Drawing inspiration from Catholic social teaching, BU faculty members remind students that all who attend the university are bound together by a shared commitment to the betterment of the Palestinian condition. Students are willing to overcome significant barriers to attending BU because they share their professors’ sentiment that collectively their “work is not done.” Bethlehem is only “the first part of [our] journey in social justice and human rights”  (interview, Bethlehem University student and current administrator, August 17, 2021).

The views expressed in this student research are those of the author(s) and not of the Berkley Center or Georgetown University.