Brother Vincent Malham was studying Spanish and taking a sabbatical in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1995 when he received a call from Rome.
The superior general of the Christian Brothers asked Brother Malham to be seated before proposing he consider an unexpected assignment—moving to the Holy Land to take leadership of Bethlehem University, the Vatican-affiliated institution that has recently found itself caught in the cross fire of the Middle East conflict.
During a May visit to the United States, and more recently through e-mail correspondence, Brother Malham discussed with Register correspondent Tom Tracy the situation in the Middle East, the November reoccupation of Bethlehem by Israeli military, how he administers Bethlehem University and his musical interests.
How is this reoccupation affecting the university, students and academic life?
Bethlehem has been under strict curfew since Nov. 22. The university is closed since no one is permitted out on the streets. We are quite concerned how long this latest occupation will last and how serious the negative impact will be on the functioning of the university, which—until this closing—had been moving in a positive direction. If the occupation continues, as is presently feared, it will have debilitating negative results on academics, finances and on an already demoralized student body and staff still trying to recover from previous invasions, occupations and curfews.
How are the looming war with Iraq and the United States' war on terror affecting your work and the students?
There is strong negative feeling among staff and students about an impending war in Iraq. We believe a war on Iraq will exacerbate an already explosive situation in the region and make much more difficult any positive movement toward peace. I was in Washington, D.C., in October to deliver a letter signed by eight De La Salle Christian Brothers and a Jesuit priest [nine U.S. citizens working at Bethlehem University], which I delivered on Capitol Hill.
We first had a private audience with Sen. Carl Levin [D-Mich.], foreign policy aide Jeremy Hekhuis and then a public briefing on the House side. I discussed how the last two years in particular have been increasingly difficult for students at Bethlehem University due to the incursions and curfews that have been placed on residents of the area by the Israeli military.
How do you look back on your decision to go to Bethlehem?
I accepted the invitation because I believed it was an important ministry for both the Church and our institute, the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and for other reasons.
Although my parents emigrated from Syria-Lebanon, I had not studied Arabic and knew the language would be a challenge. I speak it just a little now, but I tell people my heart and soul are Arabic.
As I often told Brother John Johnston, the superior general who asked me to go there, the experience has literally changed my life—and for the better. It has been the most difficult, challenging and frustrating time of my life on the one hand, but on the other, most satisfying. Our young people need an education and deserve a chance to know a better life for themselves other than the tragic situation they have grown up in.
Tell us about the siege of Bethlehem University earlier this year.
At 2:30 a.m. on April 2, I was in my bedroom sleeping when I got a call to come over to the university because the Israeli army took over our campus. I talked to the commander and said, “We expect you not to trash this place.” I also mentioned that there were eight U.S. citizens living on campus, all De La Salle Christian Brothers.
Another brother and I walked the soldiers around while they searched every room for arms or people with arms. One of our brothers went out to look into a commotion and was shot at. He was extremely lucky not to have been injured or killed. We still have vestiges of the shots inside the entrance to the brothers' residence.
The soldiers stayed on the campus for four days. Our brothers were under house arrest all this time. The soldiers left us on the fifth morning and, in general, had treated us with civility.
What was the result of the university siege?
They were looking for either arms or people with arms and found neither. They came back a second time a couple weeks later and did another search but didn't stay long and didn't find anything.
Our staff was offered to evacuate at that time through the U.S. Consulate and the British Consulate. It was important to us to remain in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Our physical presence and the symbolism of our staying meant a great deal to our university staff and students as well as to the people in Bethlehem.
Has your student population dwindled in light of the intifada? How are the students handling it?
A few have had to drop out. It is hard for them. Some take three or four buses to get to the university each day. Getting through checkpoints is hard for them, and sometimes they can't get past them.
One of the characteristics of the Palestinians is their tenacity. They know they have to get an education to compete, so they are willing to do whatever it takes. The students were bored to death for these 40 days of closure. The first day they came back, they were running up, hugging and kissing everyone, so glad to see each other. They missed each other after being cooped up in their houses for so long.
How is the faculty doing?
We are losing a few teachers. Right after the occupation of 40 days, two came in to say they were leaving and that they believed more would also be emigrating because they just could not see light at the end of the tunnel.
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah is very concerned about losing more Christian families. After we reopened I talked to one of our teachers who seemed down. I will never forget her response: She said, “You know, Brother, more and more we are being asked to hope for less and less.”
You must get a lot of visitors from around the world.
We used to, but because of the situation it has curtailed quite a bit. We used to say we don't get out into the world much but the world comes to us. We get counselors, embassy officials, bishops; we've had Knights and Ladies (of the Holy Sepulchre Order) from around the world, American and European groups. For a school so small, we do operate on an international level in many ways.
How is the intifada affecting your financial situation?
We will tighten our belts this next year and show we are willing to make some real sacrifices to help our cause. Bethlehem University is the only university in Palestine that has never missed a monthly payroll, even when we were shut down for three full years during the intifada from 1987-1990. This year, we were shut down for 60 days, the latest being the Bethlehem siege of 40 days, and we still paid salaries.
We lost several hundred thousand dollars from damage to buildings, closures and loss of revenues, and are having to go through extraordinary means to make it through this year. It has been a real struggle financially for us.
For next year, I am suggesting a freeze on salaries with no bonuses, no promotions, no sabbaticals. We haven't made any decisions. Tuition for one student per year is $1,000, but the real cost of educating the student is $3,000. Trying to make up the difference is very, very difficult.
What about the possibility of a Palestinian state?
With recent events, I think maybe that movement has been slowed down. There is a feeling among some Palestinians that there needs to be governmental reform, even among staunch Arafat supporters, and that the Palestinian Authority needs substantial change. It will be helpful for the country, as it tries to grapple with so many problems, to try to introduce some changes in the government. I think this could help us in terms of elections, which are always a big thing on campuses over here.
We are the only Palestinian university where Fatah is the major party and not Hamas. If the country runs a bit more democratically, we hope to help lead our students through elections and other means to more democratic modes of acting. The Mideastern mentality is so different from that of the West.
What about the fate of Arafat?
I really believe Arafat has served his time and should graciously make way for new leadership to help move the country forward. Our students are somewhat frustrated since they haven't been allowed to have elections for two years.
And the status of Jerusalem?
Three years ago the Vatican restated its position at a conference there and stressed the unique, international character of the city. The problem is that for the Israelis, Jerusalem is their city; they always say “eternal and undivided” and aren't open to having the two capitals there. It's a big stumbling block and extremely difficult to be adequately addressed.
Most of the world would like to see it as an international city shared by the three religions. I don't think the Israelis are willing to compromise. Nothing can change until the two sides get back to the negotiating table. Along with the issue of right of return for refugees, the status of Jerusalem, I believe, will be the most difficult to resolve in final status negotiations.
Do you have trouble moving about the region and traveling to and from Israel?
Sometimes at the airport I am given a hard time due to my Arab roots and the fact that I live and work in Bethlehem and my passport shows I have been to the Gulf many times.
Before a recent trip to Florida, security wanted to see the text of my speech. I wouldn't show it to them, since they had no right to see it. I tried to be polite but held my ground on principle. On a previous trip to Germany in the same circumstances, I simply said, “This has nothing to do with your security or mine. This time you have gone too far.” I was punished by being pulled aside and made to wait for about an hour and a half.
Where do you draw your strength from and what do you do to keep your sanity?
I draw my strength from spirituality, and on a personal level I have the piano as a wonderful outlet for me. I try to begin my prayer and social life with the brothers when I leave the school. We have a good community life in the house and are really blessed to have a veteran, experienced group of brothers—men who don't fluster easily, who are able to withstand the difficult circumstances over here and to respond calmly, patiently and in a spirit of faith.
But I must admit that I have gotten on my knees more than ever before in my life because there is so much I don't understand, so many unexpected events to respond to, so much out of my control.
Tom Tracy writes from
West Palm Beach, Florida.