Little help for Palestine at the Mall
Those of you who frequent US malls may have noticed in the past few years in December there have been carts selling Bethlehem Olive Wood, usually presided over by an owner actually from the Bethlehem (Palestine, not Pennsylvania) area. They have multiplied in recent years, and it's not been a random occurrence. Bethlehem has been and remains under an inhumane Israeli semi-starvation siege for over half a decade now. The town is heavily dependent upon tourists for its economic livelihood. Because the Israelis have deliberately choked the tourist flow off almost entirely, the many olive wood vendors from Beit Lahem (Bethlehem), Beit Jala (half of whose land or more was stolen to build the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo), and Beit Sahour (traditional site of the "Shepherd's Field" where the abiders-in-the-field were visited by the angel who told them to visit the new baby Jesus) have turned to both internet sales and annual trips to the US at Christmas to sell their wares in malls. The Christians of the Bethlehem area frequently have relatives living abroad (Israeli wars and sieges over the past 60 years have led many to emmigrate in larger numbers than Muslims because their connections to Christian churches and diaspora communities abroad - especially in Latin America and the US - along with their generally higher levels of wealth gave them greater opportunity to escape Israeli oppression than many Muslims had) including in the US, so they have been able to get visas to go spend some time trying to get at least one month of decent sales every year. They generally show up after Thanksgiving (frequently relatives will rotate coming to the US from year to year) and work at the malls long days from open to close trying to sell a bundle of inventory they've brought.
Those sales are very important to their livelihood, they put food on the plates of entire extended families. If you see one of those carts or kiosks in a mall in the US and think the prices are a bit high, I would just say (1) the level of craftsmanship is high, (2) almost as if you were in the Middle East, you definitely can bargain, (3) the wood is almost always from some of the tens of thousands of olive trees the Israeli militarily has wantonly ripped up in childish but devastating punitive acts [the trees themselves are key sources of family income that take many years to mature and yield fruit - anytime somebody tries to sell you the lie of Israel acting "defensively" or for "security" purposes, ask them why they have deliberately destroyed tens of thousands of olive trees, were they "terrorist olives"?] and so this is at least one final good use a resource that otherwise would have been wasted can go to, (4) in purchasing from them you are helping to support entire extended families, hundreds of poorer workers and craftsman, and (5) you are helping a last dwindling Christian community in the very birthplace of Christ to stay economically alive in the face of Israeli assault.
The last point is I believe vital -- the Middle East just a century, even a half century ago was a much more diverse and vibrant place with a much broader mix of ethnicities and religions. The Jewish, Christian, Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Druze, Sabean, and other minority communities were much stronger, vibrant and involved in the everyday political, social, and economic life of society. While I have no desire to exonerate the corrupt Arab and other Middle Eastern rulers whose responsibility for their decline is huge, Colonialism and Israel's actions have been the key triggers and underlying causes (in Israel's case, generally also a direct cause) of the destruction of many of these communities. The result has been a region that is far more ethnically monolithic and hence far less tolerant of diversity and varied opinions and outlooks on life. There are a few remaining but still reasonably sizeable Christian minorities (other minorities too, but just speaking of Christians here) whose preservation I believe is important for the whole region, including and especially for the vast majority of the populations who are Muslim. As human beings, we need to be reminded that we're not all the same, that we need to respect those who are different. This is a value that Israel's founding ideology has no respect for and which many other Middle Eastern countries have come to have insufficient respect for (and yes, true enough, we are suffering from an increasingly similar malaise in the US). Buy an Olive Wood Nativity set from the Bethlehemite at the mall, help support a poor family suffering under the Israeli occupation, help support the struggling Christian community of Palestine and the religious diversity Palestinians of all faiths have traditionally valued, and you'll be contributing to more good than you know.
Oh, and take a moment to chat with these folks as well. Everyone I've met is very nice and loves to tell you about life for them back home.