Sunday, December 24, 2006

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.


At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting essay. One problem I have with people who advocate monocausal explanations for Arab Christian emigration (which you aren't doing) is that this pattern has been going on for more than a century and has persisted through many different regimes and conditions. The emigration of Copts, Palestinian Christians and especially Christian Syrians and Lebanese began during the 19th century and was well under way by the end of the Ottoman period. Even then, there was more than one reason why they emigrated out of proportion to their share of the population: religious discrimination under the Ottomans, WW1-era draft avoidance, greater skill in Western languages and business practices, greater likelihood of being accepted in the New World, etc. And today, Christians are continuing to emigrate even from countries such as Syria where they are well-treated and well-off. Obviously the emigration of Christians from Bethlehem in the 1800s, or for that matter Syrian Christian emigration in the present, can't be blamed on Israel, and I'm not sure that either can fairly be blamed on colonialism.

I am, of course, not denying that Israeli policies have been a contributing cause to Palestinian Christian emigration. They clearly are a cause. So are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and so is the presence of well-established Palestinian Christian communities in Latin America (which makes it easier for Christians who live in Palestine now to get immigrant visas). The bottom line, as you say, is that these communities need support; however, they should be supported against all the things that are pushing them out.

(BTW, I try to buy Israeli and Palestinian goods equally; in addition to the stalls you mention, there are also some good web sites for Palestinian products esp. olive oil.)

At 4:37 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Jonathan: Thanks for the commentary, I totally agree with your broader explanations. What's the old saying? "Where you stand depends on where you sit". I suppose frequently I'm thinking of all the arguments I hear from folks that are monolithic in blaming "PA persecution" or other such things on the exodus of Christians and that a post such as this was mostly in my mind aimed at countering that line of thought. It is of course a broad array of factors lining up to produce such a negative trend. Certainly my Palestinian friends from places like Beit Jala seem to spend as much time worried about how Muslim Khuleilis are "taking over" as they do about the impossibilities of life created by the Israeli occupation. I would argue that a significant portion of the roots of the internal immigration problems in the Palestinian Territories does go right back to Israel's wars and occupations, but of course I can also sit back objectively, imagine a world where there were no Israeli occupation (or as you point out, look to other places such as Syria or other times such as a century ago) and recognize that other equally large forces are also at play. One further example one might add for the general flight of minorities who had achieved success in the Arab world a century ago (Jews and Greeks in Egypt come particularly to mind) would be the wave of Socialism and Nationalizations that stripped so much of the upper and merchant classes of their wealth, ruined the business climate, left many of the best-off to leave and then left diminished communities in a diminished state ripe for emmigration. Israel obviously having exacerbated that for Jewish communities, but the Greeks obviously faced no such pressures and are hardly visible anymore, Iskandariya being exhibit A.

At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the Greeks obviously faced no such pressures and are hardly visible anymore, Iskandariya being exhibit A.

Italians and Armenians too, although more of the latter seem to have stayed in Egypt for lack of anyplace better to go. That's one difference between the Nasserist and Ba'athist strains of pan-Arabism; Ba'ath governments don't go in nearly as much for nationalizations and are a lot nicer to Christians.

I'd add yet another contributing factor, at least for the Palestinians; the fact that, until recently and even to some extent today, members of the Palestinian Christian diaspora often seek marriage partners from their families' hometowns. This keeps the relationships with the homeland very tight, even among families in which the first emigrants headed west a century ago. Every Christian Palestinian I know has first or second-degree relatives in El Salvador or Chile, and since the family relationships are so close, it's very easy for them to move. I'm not familiar enough with Coptic or Lebanese migration patterns to know if the same is true for them, but it doesn't seem to happen as often with the Muslim Palestinians.

If I had to rank causes of Arab Christian emigration today, I'd probably put economics and political stability ahead of the others. Exhibit A to my thesis is the relatively low rate of Christian emigration from Israel. Despite social discrimination, Israeli Christians tend to be urban and middle-class, and there is little if any educational and income gap between them and the Jews. With a First World standard of living and at least some chance to rise in society (there are currently two Christian MKs, one Supreme Court justice and one director-general of a ministry), they seem more likely to find the situation tolerable than Syrian Christians who aren't discriminated against but who have less economic opportunity. The Christians of the West Bank and Gaza are of course at the other end of the scale, with the Israeli occupation, poverty and internal unrest to contend with. It's no wonder so many of them are leaving.

But anyway, my rejection of monocausal explanations of Christian Arab emigration pertains as much to the people who say "it's all the Muslims' fault" as it does to those who say "it's all Israel's fault." I guess where you stand really does depend on where you sit. I notice people like Rowan Williams blaming Christian emigration on Israel and wonder how anyone so intelligent can believe something so simplistic, while you're more likely to notice the ones who blame it on Hamas and to wonder the same thing.


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