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Adam Nieman Sees Miracle in Bethlehem Factory 

  • Rebecca Sheir

Adam Nieman is a grassroots businessman who has an idea for building both peace and prosperity in the Middle East, while protecting the environment and defending workers' rights… all through the power of a T-shirt.

He has a long history of political activism. In 1969, when he was just 12 years old, he was arrested for protesting outside the White House during President Richard Nixon's first inauguration. By age 15, he was interning for Sen. George McGovern, the man who would challenge Nixon as the Democratic nominee in the 1972 presidential election.

Nieman's inspiration came from his mother, who was a union activist before leading the fight to desegregate the school system in the southern U.S. city of Atlanta, Georgia.

Acting on a vision to promote peace

So it wasn't too surprising when in 2001, Nieman sold a successful roofing business, took out a loan against his house, and founded No Sweat Apparel. As the name implies, the clothing and footwear the Boston-based company sells is not made in the low-wage, exploitative workplaces known as sweatshops, but in unionized factories in the United States and developing nations, such as Indonesia, South Africa, Argentina and, most recently, Palestine.

The labels on the Made in Bethlehem T-shirts in No Sweat's stockroom read, "100% union-made, 100% sweatshop free, 100% organic, union-made in Bethlehem, West Bank." The shirts come in a variety of colors, and some are printed with designs.

Nieman shows off one that features the Japanese proverb, "Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare." He notes wryly, "And boy, are we livin' that today, huh?"

Nieman is referring to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - and when he says "we," he means it. Nieman is an American Jew, who believes that one of the ways to end the discord is to improve the Palestinian economy.

"Because young men with guns and without jobs is a recipe for violence," he points out. "And while economic development isn't a substitute for a diplomatic solution, no diplomatic solution can be sustained without a sustainable Palestinian economy."

'Everybody over there has had their hearts broken'


About half of Palestinians are without jobs these days. The once-thriving Palestinian textile business is stagnant. So Nieman was excited when he learned about a factory on Virgin Mary Street in Bethlehem, where the workers belonged to the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions.

"As soon as I heard 'good factory, West Bank, Bethlehem,' I was like, 'I gotta go!'" he recalls. So he did.

It was July 2006, and he was on his way to visit the factory. The war in Lebanon broke out while his plane was in the air. But he landed safely and was whisked past the checkpoints to Arja Textile Company, where he spent a week with the manager and staff.

"When I got back," he reports, "everyone asked how I found the Palestinians. And I said they're just like my family. They're loud. They're argumentative. They're passionate. They're stubborn. They look like my family. There was just one difference: they wouldn't let me pay for anything!"

But they seemed uncertain, he says, about getting involved in the project.

"Part of it is that everybody over there has had their hearts broken so many times, that the idea of getting one's hopes up again for any kind of positive interaction between Jews and Arabs... it's hard for people to put their hearts out again."

Factory reaps benefits by going in new direction

It's also hard to take a business and move it in such a new direction. Arja Textile's been around since the 1960s, primarily doing business with Israelis. Nieman's idea of going organic, and global, was daunting.

Elias Alarja, Arja Textile's general manager, says he was surprised by the proposal when he first met Nieman.

"It was a new idea that we never think about it," Alarja says.

Alarja, a Palestinian Christian, unionized the family-owned company in 2005. Today, his 150 knitters, cutters, dyers and sewers receive above-minimum wage, plus benefits such as paid holidays and health care.

Thanks to the Made in Bethlehem collaboration, his company is receiving benefits, too.

"Since we started working with Adam," he reports, "we are having great work, and they add for our production more than 10 percent to our profit and our work here."

Interfaith cooperation in Bethlehem 'miraculous'

But the Made in Bethlehem collaboration has had a few glitches - like the time the Israeli government confiscated several shipments of fabric dye, thinking they contained materials for making bombs. But overall, the government has voiced its support for the project. In fact, Nieman says almost everyone who has heard about the collaboration has offered praise.

He believes his shirts appeal to consumers who want to do something concrete to ease the strife plaguing the Middle East. But so far, production costs have outpaced sales. He is having trouble finding investors to keep the money flowing.

But Nieman, who describes himself as more of a progressive Jew than an observant one, is keeping the faith.

"What we're doing, most folks consider slightly less risky than betting on peace in the Middle East. But I would say it's a lot less risky!

"I mean, the fact that we've got common ground, for Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists, on Virgin Mary Street, in Bethlehem, it's what most people of faith would consider a miracle."

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