Brother Peter Bray
26 March 2016
Image: Cassie DePecol “Ambassador for Peace” for “Skal International” and “The International Institute For Peace Through Tourism” (IIPT) and Brother Dr. Peter Bray, Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University, 22 March 2016
Greetings from this holy city of Jerusalem at Easter!
It is certainly a privilege to be here in this city as we celebrate the mysteries that occurred here. On Thursday evening I had the chance to walk these streets, visit places like the Garden of Olives, walk down the Kidron Valley and up to Caiaphas’ place where I sat on the steps up which Jesus would have walked after being taken in the garden. Friday we walked the Way of the Cross and engaged in the ceremonies on Friday afternoon in this city where these thing happened. There is something really special and inexpressible about being able to do that. We have the Holy Saturday ceremony tonight starting on the roof of the Ecce Homo building looking out over Jerusalem. I feel so fortunate to be able to be here and to engage in such ceremonies.
Being here in Jerusalem over these few days has given me the chance to reflect back on the past year and particularly the first part of this present semester. It has been a difficult time on many fronts. I was away in Brussels and then in Liverpool last week and was in the airport at Brussels the week before the bombings. It makes me wonder about the concern people have expressed to me about my presence here in Palestine! In all the time I have been here I have never once felt afraid or been concerned about my personal safety, but in a city like Brussels something as random as what happened can kill people. I heard of a man who had survived the bombing at the Boston Marathon where he was injured, and then he happened to be one of the people who was killed in Brussels.
I reflected on that and the series of things that have happened here in the Holy Land over the past few months and I am confronted by the mystery of life in its evil and its goodness. On Holy Thursday there was an incident here where two Palestinians tried to stab an Israeli soldier and were shot. One of them was still alive and was lying bleeding on the ground, being given no attention at all for his wounds. After a while a soldier walked over and shot him in the head. It was caught on video (1,2 ) and has gone viral. There is an uproar about it because there is clear evidence of it happening. However, this is not an isolated incident and there are many reports of Palestinians being killed when they were no longer a threat to anyone, but because there is no indisputable evidence, nothing is done.
There have been other incidents where Palestinians have been shot and then left in the street bleeding to death with the paramedics being refused access to them. The incident where a Palestinian home was firebombed by Israeli settlers in which the parents and one of the children were burnt to death has still not resulted in any Israeli being convicted.
There are many incidents which I have come to think about as evil. To me they emerge from a context of racism, greed, selfishness, jealousy, fear, disgust, thirst for power, domination, and so it goes on. I see the way the Israeli soldiers treat our Palestinian students and Palestinians in general, and I can make sense of it in the light of what I understand the Israeli government is seeking to do and my own experience of myself and other people. Evil in some way is predictable. However, what continually baffles me and causes me to wonder, is the experience of goodness that I see! When people go out of their way to reach out to support others, when, beyond the logic of the situation, they respond out of their goodness to remain human! I see it constantly among the Palestinian people, I hear about it so often that it causes me to wonder and it inspires me.
I recently read about a Jewish woman whose young son was killed by a Palestinian bomb. While grieving the loss of her son she was asked if his heart could be used to save the life of a Palestinian boy. With much anguish she agreed. The Palestinian mother expressed her gratitude and the two mothers met, respecting each other’s grief and courage. Where does such goodness come from? How is it that people can find within themselves the courage to rise above their pain, their prejudices, their thirst for revenge, preserve their humanity and reach out to others in pain?
When I look back over these past few months it is a constant source of wonder to me that so many people preserve their humanity in the midst of what they are suffering. The stabbings that have occurred and the subsequent deaths of alleged attackers have brought heartache to many people. My engagement with Palestinians has led me to see the huge frustration and sense of disillusionment among so many of these Palestinians. All of our students grew up post-Oslo and continually heard about the great expectations that would emerge from this agreement. However, it has become obvious to them, and to many Palestinians, that the agreement has been a disaster. So many of them conclude that the Palestinians are worse off now than they were before the agreement. Our students, now as young adults, are disillusioned and cannot see any way in which things can get better for them. This sense is heightened when they see the extreme positions so many of the settlers take and see the dominant role they have in the politics of Israel. So even more so, keeping hope alive is a major challenge.
We have been faced so far this semester with the death of two of our students, from natural causes and not from violence. Back in February a young man with a heart disease, had a heart attack and died on campus. Last week a twenty two year old woman student who was being treated for a colon problem went into a coma and died. Such events place an extra burden on our students as they seek to deal with the restrictions and contingencies of their lives. In the midst of all that constricts us, however, there is much that is happening that helps keep hope alive among our students and which is enabling Bethlehem University to respond in ever better ways to the needs of the Palestinian people. You may have heard that the renovated library was opened on 24 February 2016 and is providing our students with much better facilities that will enable them to make better use of their time with us. Plans are underway to provide extra classrooms and offices by adding extra floors to the building the Institute of Community Partnership is currently using. It is hoped these will be available before the end of this calendar year. In addition to improved facilities there is an ongoing review of what we are offering in order to find ever better ways to educate our students and help them grow into fully alive, responsive and positive human being.
I have been engaging with people around the world this year and have the opportunity to convey to people the amazing spirit and attitude of our students. During the course of a presentation in Liverpool last week, I was able to use some video clips of students talking about their lives at Bethlehem University. I am always inspired, even though I know these students well. Listening to them makes me aware of the value of what we are doing. These young people are emerging from Bethlehem University as confident, knowledgeable, articulate young people who are the hope of Palestine!
I head to the USA on 1 April to engage with people in Minneapolis-St Paul, then in Washington and finally in Toronto. In each of these places I will have the opportunity to reflect to people the experience of our students and to counter the incorrect information so many of them have about our Palestinian students. In one of the clips I will use, Yousef speaks about his experience of engaging with people from outside Palestine who come to campus. He finds it a great source of hope when such people appreciate what he is saying about his life and go away with a different understanding of Palestinians. He also finds a source of hope in me coming back from various countries to tell students about the people I have met and how I have used what they say to convey to these people a different narrative to the one they usually hear.
Knowing they are not going through their suffering alone and that there are people outside Palestine who are standing in solidarity with them is a source of hope for our students. Recently I came across a quote from Huub Oosterhius:
“Try to live differently with your sorrow: so that it no longer embitters and isolates; and live with your good fortune and well-bring so that you don’t become arrogant and unapproachable to the unfortunate.” I reflect on this when I watch another of the video clips I use. Rozan speaks about the overwhelming impact of the occupation on her life. However, she goes on to say that it is not inside her, she is not dominated by it and she does not accept it, she wants to live as a twenty year old girl who has all sorts of dreams. She is not embittered and isolated, she is a feisty, beautiful young woman determined to live life as fully as she can, given the reality she faces.
Engaging with her is inspiring and a great source of hope to many of us on campus. As I reflect on these things during Easter I am reminded that the whole Easter mystery is about dying and rising. The experience I have of standing in solidarity with people here who are suffering has led me to see things very differently. At this Easter time I reflect on the cross that is carried by so many people around the world, carried here by so many of the people with whom I am engaged, and carried by Jesus. It reminds me, and those here in this city with me, of the need for us to engage in the great mystery of dying and rising, of doing what we see as right against the background of what is dehumanizing.
In the spirit of this Easter season I remember you in this ancient city and wish you God’s blessing and a deepening awareness of the mystery of God’s goodness, particularly as expressed in the fascinating, incomprehensible, and surprising goodness of so many people. He is risen!
Brother Peter Bray FSC,
EdD Vice Chancellor
Bethlehem University, Palestine