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December 19, 2014 | 27th Kislev 5775

Threads

Galilee Diary #336, May 6, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

On a recent trip to watch the migrating birds at the Hula Nature Reserve, we found ourselves paying more attention to the nutria than to the birds. These plump little mammals are eminently photogenic cavorting in the water or grazing on the banks. They were imported to Israel in the hope of developing a domestic fur industry, but in the Middle Eastern climate their coats weren’t thick enough to be useful, so the idea was abandoned; meanwhile, they escaped and found a comfortable habitat here. I guess the first Jewish furrier was Rebecca…

…and she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids.

-Genesis 27:16

Jews have always been in the garment trade – perhaps because of our interest in controlling the contents of our garments…

…you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.

-Leviticus 19:19

Or perhaps because our literacy and international connections suited us for international trade, and textiles have always been an important commodity.

Apparently a mainstay of the economy of Safed in the 16th century was textile manufacture and trade – the Amud stream, below the city, is full of remains of water-powered fulling mills.

In the 1950s, textile factories were established in a number of development towns around Israel, providing employment to a whole generation of immigrants. However, in recent years, globalization has rendered these plants uneconomical, and periodically we see on the evening news the pathetic dramas of factory closings in towns with little other employment. A few years ago, as part of a seminar for local tenth graders on social justice, we took them to visit a high-tech knitting mill in our area. There, amidst the din generated by rows of $100,000 robot knitting machines, young Arab women sat at computerized sewing machines, finishing garments for major American brands, while the front page of the employee newsletter showed smiling executives celebrating the opening of new plants in Jordan and Madagascar, where labor costs are certainly lower than in Israel. I don’t imagine that the local employees felt inclined to smile at this news.

In the course of a generation, textile manufacturing has moved from new immigrant communities to Arab villages. Next stop: Madagascar. And the Bedouins, whose tightly woven goats’ hair tents were a marvel of efficiency, durability, and appropriate local technology, have turned to imported woven polypropylene (looked at from a different angle, this change represents the liberation of Bedouin women – it’s hard to attend college if you’re expected to herd the goats and spin and weave your housing from their wool). Interesting that over the past two hundred years, it is the textile industry that epitomized the industrial revolution – and the rise of organized labor in response; today it is in this same industry that the impact of globalization is felt so acutely.

Just as there is something that feels grounded, wholesome, comforting, in knowing that one is eating locally grown food, so too locally-made clothing spoke to us of our own competence, our self-sufficiency, our connectedness to each other and to the products we made for each other. The “Made in Israel” label represented some kind of Zionist fulfillment. But that was then, and this is now, and the Israeli flags we wave on Yom Ha’atzma’ut are made, of course, in China.

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