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UW Religion Today: The Tale of Three Cities: Washington, Jerusalem and Bethlehem

January 3, 2018
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By Paul V.M. Flesher

What a nice Christmas present President Trump gave to Israel Dec. 6.

He signed a diplomatic proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital for the first time in modern history. The timing was interesting because, of course, as a Jewish nation, Israel does not celebrate Christmas.

The timing comes from Washington’s (President Trump’s) playing to the American evangelical Christians, who voted for him by more than 80 percent. It is their Christmas present and, among them, this was a highly popular decision.

Apocalyptic belief in the imminent end of the world and the second arrival of Jesus on Earth to bring God’s kingdom is widespread among evangelicals. One common detail of this apocalyptic scenario is that Jews gather in Jerusalem before Jesus’ arrival. So, anything that promotes Jewish presence in Jerusalem, like recognizing it as Israel’s capital, constitutes a positive development in their eyes.

Most American evangelicals seem to be unaware that Jerusalem is already a large Jewish city. With approximately 900,000 residents, Jerusalem comprises the largest city in Israel. Two-thirds of its citizens are Jews. Another million or more Jews live within an hour’s drive. Jews need no additional impetus to move to or near Jerusalem.

Of course, Trump’s move simply recognizes the facts on the ground. Jerusalem is the location of Israel’s government. It is where the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) is located and where the president, the prime minister and other government officials live and work.

The issue of diplomatic recognition comes from the decision at Israel’s founding in 1948 that the problem of the displaced Palestinians needed resolution. That resolution would include a decision by the negotiating parties (Israel and the Palestinians) concerning the final status of Jerusalem, which is claimed as a capital by both Israel and the Palestinians. Pending that supposedly immanent decision, the world’s nations decided to locate their embassies in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem.

Despite decades of diplomatic efforts by European countries and the USA to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis to an agreement, no peace plan has yet been successfully negotiated. So, foreign embassies have remained in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem did not view Trump’s decision as a Christmas present, to say the least. Not only is it a decision against them as Palestinians, but it came just at the moment to turn an economically positive 2017 into a negative one. Although the results are still being tallied, the numbers of arriving pilgrims and tourists in Bethlehem for Christmas celebration and observances were down significantly.

The main reason for the decline has been the publicity of Palestinian protests against the Jerusalem decision and the heightened security that has brought about. After the Israeli government built the border wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the security corridor has made it more difficult to reach Bethlehem. It also has made it easier to slow down and even block movement into Bethlehem, thus affecting the number of people visiting.

And, while yearly economic trends are always up and down, the long-term trajectories are clear. Native Christianity in Bethlehem and other Christian areas of Palestine is decreasing. Less than 50 years ago, 5 percent of West Bank residents were Christian. Now, just 2 percent of them are.

At least there are native Christians in Bethlehem. In Jerusalem, few, if any, remain. Even though Jerusalem is likewise 2 percent Christian, nearly all of those Christians came from outside the country to help maintain the Christian shrines, churches and monasteries, or, to be blunt, to convert the Jews.

By contrast, Palestinian Christians are leaving, generation by generation. Their children see little future in a Palestine under Israel’s control, so they seek a better life in other countries. In the years after 1967, the USA was a favorite destination. But, more recently, Australia and Canada have become more popular.

In their exodus, Christian Palestinians are no different from their Muslim neighbors -- large numbers of whom also have sought to emigrate to countries where they can live freely. The Christians of Bethlehem and its neighboring towns are simply leaving at a slightly faster rate.

Although President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will not have an immediate effect on Palestine’s native Christianity, if it delays peace negotiations for another four years, then yet more Christians will leave. Soon, Bethlehem and nearby areas will have no native Palestinian Christians.

Flesher is a professor in UW’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at To comment on this column, visit

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