Betty Dagher Majaj (b. 1926 in Lebanon) is a woman who married a Jerusalemite and moved to the city at a pivotal point in its history, right on the eve of the Nakba. She became deeply involved in health care in the city, working for decades and through two wars to tend to the sick, wounded, and disabled, and helping to build major health care institutions.
Betty Dagher Majaj
Childhood and Education
Betty Dagher Majaj was born on December 4, 1926, in Lebanon to Angele Cesar Nahhas and Yousef As‘ad Dagher, a noted bibliographer. She had two brothers and one sister. She grew up in the village of Majdalouna, northeast of Sidon, and was raised Catholic.
As a child, Betty Dagher first went to the Sidon American Girls’ Boarding School, and then moved to Beirut where she attended the Ahliyyah National School. At the age of 17, she knew she wanted to study nursing—a career choice that was not encouraged at the time. She graduated from Junior College (later renamed Beirut University College), and then went to Nursing School at the American University of Beirut (AUB), which is where she met the man who would become her husband, Amin Majaj.
From Beirut to Jerusalem
While she was working at the Pediatric Department of the American University Hospital, Betty Dagher met Amin Majaj, an intern. The couple got married on June 25, 1947, at the Presbyterian Church in Beirut, and moved to Jerusalem soon thereafter.
Dagher Majaj knew of Jerusalem from her father’s stories of studying at St. Anne’s Monastery in the early 1920s. His stories “seemed like fantasy lands in the imagination of us children. He would paint Jerusalem like the golden city and tell stories from when he was studying at St. Anne’s Convent.”1 With that said, she recognized that she was moving to a city in turmoil.
Perseverance in the Face of Two Wars
As a new nurse and a newly married woman, Dagher Majaj took on an overwhelming mission. Shortly after she moved to Jerusalem with her husband, the 1948 War began, and with it the Palestinian displacement (Nakba). The couple worked day and night to attend to the needs of the sick and injured under the threats of attacks and bombs during the war.
Together with her husband, Dagher Majaj had a key role in turning a convent in al-‘Izariyya (Bethany), located on the main road between Jericho and Jerusalem, into an emergency hospital (newly accredited by the Red Cross). Amin Majaj was also the one to turn the Lutheran hospice for pilgrims into the Augusta Victoria Hospital; he headed the first Palestinian Pediatric Unit.
Seven years after moving to Jerusalem, Dr. Tawfiq Canaan, the medical director of Augusta Victoria Hospital, offered Dagher Majaj the position of assistant matron at the Nursing Department; she soon thereafter was promoted to matron. In 1956, she had a pivotal role in acquiring accreditation of the Nursing Association with the International Council of Nurses—England.
Ten years after her marriage, Dagher Majaj gave birth to her first child. Eventually the family included three daughters (Lina, Randa, and Hala), and one son (Saleh).
Twenty years after she moved to Jerusalem, war broke out again. During the 1967 War, people were killed and displaced, and homes were destroyed; even hospitals were bombed. Once again, Palestinian civilians were in urgent need of medical care, and Dagher Majaj would take it upon herself to assist them.
In a 2021 interview, Dagher Majaj (Umm Saleh) recalled the war and described that they were unable to leave their home at all, not even to get groceries. “We lived on water, and some chocolate and fruits we had kept in the pantry room.”2
She went on to add, “The food supply I had bought, together with some supplies I already had, were our salvation and kept us going. A war is an assault on humanity, but a war without chocolate would be unbearable.”3
In June 1967, the new children’s ward at the Augusta Victoria Hospital was completely destroyed. The doctors and nurses did their best to transport and serve the casualties during the war.
A Third War in Lebanon
In addition to having directly witnessed the wars of 1948 and 1967 in Palestine, Dagher Majaj had to watch from a distance as war convulsed Lebanon. She had made it a point to go to Beirut every year to connect with her family, yet there was no way she could have been prepared for what followed. The civil war began in 1975, escalated in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, and did not really end until Israel withdrew in 1990.
Living in West Beirut, Dagher Majaj’s parents had been attacked and robbed three times by rival militias; burglars beat up both of her parents and also raped and tried to strangle her mother. She rushed to Lebanon and found her parents in hospital, “united but understandably devasted . . . Their bodies healed in time, yet their souls never recovered from the sorrow and shame of the events that had befallen their own and other Lebanese families.”4
Having personally seen the cost of three wars made Dagher Majaj aware of the impact of “inhuman cruelty” whether through “the faces of the Israeli soldiers manhandling powerless Palestinians, or the packs of militias in Lebanon.”5
Such intolerable realities may have turned someone else hateful and bitter, but what stands out in Dagher Majaj’s memoir and in the interview is her lack of bitterness. She has retained a sense of tolerance and eschews stereotypes of any group.
Active Roles in Society
Dagher Majaj helped hundreds of people in her capacity as head nurse at the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem. She also served as a vital board member of the Arab Women’s Union in Jerusalem, which supported the Palestinian cause. She assisted its president, Zulaykha al-Shihabi, largely through offering medical aid to the wounded, taking care of orphaned children of slain fighters, and helping displaced families.
She was vice chairperson at the YWCA, and board member of Rawdat el-Zuhur. She also served as member of the congregation at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children
After the Nakba, there was tremendous need for services for displaced persons, a lot of whom had physical disabilities. Moreover, the outbreak of polio added to the need for physiotherapy and rehabilitation services. In April 1966, the Jerusalem Princess Basma Center for Crippled Children opened its doors in a ceremony attended by Princess Basma bint Talal of Jordan. (The facility underwent a name change in 2000, and it is now known as the Jerusalem Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children.)
In 1983, Dagher Majaj was asked to become its director. Taking on this role and managing it so effectively soon turned Dagher Majaj into a well-known community builder. Through charity events and successful fundraising, she succeeded in transforming this center from a modest one into a pioneering hospital in Jerusalem.
The achievements of the Basma Center have been impressive: It pioneered mainstream education for children with physical disabilities. By 1987, the center added an elementary coeducational school through Grade 6. This would become the first inclusive school in Palestine wherein children with physical disabilities were admitted with able-bodied children. The first graduation of the high-school class took place in 2010. Under the leadership of Dagher Majaj, the center added more services and hired specialists for each department.
Dagher Majaj led the Basma Center until she retired at the age of 86 in 2012.
Dagher Majaj wrote and published her book A War without Chocolate: One Woman’s Journey through Two Nations, Three Wars and Four Children at the age of 88. The book provided an account of her life in Jerusalem, during which she had experienced two wars that changed the map and whose consequences continue to reverberate.
About Jerusalem, the city in which she lives, she wrote, “Unlike its ‘City of Peace’ label, Jerusalem is a city that has seen more than its fair share of war and suffering.”6
Meanwhile, when asked about her sense of belonging, she expressed in an interview conducted many years later: “My roots are Lebanese, and my branches are Palestine.”7
To a large extent in the book, Dagher Majaj paid tribute to the dedication of her husband, Amin Majaj, who would become a pediatrician, internationally recognized medical researcher, and mayor. His contributions to nutrition and child health saved thousands of Palestinian children in refugee camps and elsewhere.
Dagher Majaj was awarded “Distinguished Woman of Jerusalem of the Year 2012” at a high-level celebration organized by al-Mortaqa Organization for Women and held on International Women’s Day. The governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Husseini, presented the award on behalf of President Mahmoud Abbas. Dagher Majaj dedicated the award to all the women of Palestine “in appreciation of their efforts to educate following generations who will build the future Palestinian State.”8
Abu ‘Arafa, Juman. “Umm Saleh: A Lebanese Leading Women’s Work in Jerusalem for 70 Years.” [In Arabic.] Al Jazeera. January 24, 2021.
Dagher Majaj, Betty. A War without Chocolate: One Woman’s Journey through Two Nations, Three Wars and Four Children. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
Maan News. “Betty Majaj Chosen as Distinguished Woman of Jerusalem for the Year 2021.” March 8, 2021.
Madsen, Ann Nicholls. Making Their Own Peace: Twelve Women of Jerusalem. New York: Lantern Books, 2003.
Need, Stephen. “A War Without Chocolate.” Review of A War without Chocolate: One Woman’s Journey through Two Nations, Three Wars and Four Children, by Betty Dagher Majaj. The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association (JMECA). Accessed October 22, 2021.
Betty Dagher Majaj, A War without Chocolate: One Woman’s Journey through Two Nations, Three Wars and Four Children (n.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015), 32.
Juman Abu ‘Arafa, “Umm Saleh: A Lebanese Leading Women’s Work in Jerusalem for 70 Years” [in Arabic], Al Jazeera, January 24, 2021.
Dagher Majaj, A War without Chocolate, 176.
Dagher Majaj, A War without Chocolate, 176.
Dagher Majaj, A War without Chocolate, 179.
Dagher Majaj, A War without Chocolate, 79.
Abu ‘Arafa, “Umm Saleh.”
Dagher Majaj, A War without Chocolate, 219.