In 1841 Orson Hyde, a Christian apostle traveling in the Middle East, knelt in humble prayer on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. At a time when only 10,000 Jews lived in Palestine, the church leader dedicated the land "for the gathering together of Judah's scattered remnants, for the building up of Jerusalem again ... let the land become abundantly fruitful when possessed by its rightful heirs ... raise up Jerusalem as its capital, and constitute her people a distinct nation and government."
Several years later, Jews would constitute a majority of Jerusalemites for the first time since the Roman era. Another apostle and future president of the church, George Albert Smith, rededicated Palestine for the gathering of the Jewish people in 1873, shortly before the "first aliyah" would bring committed European Zionists to the Holy Land.
At a time when Jews, Christians and other friends of Israel unite to celebrate the country's independence on Wednesday night and Thursday, it may come as a surprise to some members of the Jewish community that the church whose leaders took such an interest in the gathering of the Jews more than a century before the establishment of Israel was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Indeed, shortly after the murder of church president Joseph Smith in 1844, the ruling Quorum of Twelve Apostles issued a proclamation to the world that included this unusual exhortation: "The Jews among all nations are commanded ... to prepare to return to Jerusalem in Palestine, and to rebuild that city and temple to the Lord. And also to organize and establish their own political government, under their own rulers, judges, and governors, in that country."
For more than five decades, the church seriously considered establishing a Mormon colony in Palestine, and at least 10 Latter-Day Saint apostles have dedicated the land of Israel for the return of the Jews -- most recently in 1933. A Hebrew-English copy of Orson Hyde's 1841 dedicatory prayer is prominently displayed in the Visitors Center next to our temple in Los Angeles, as is a proclamation from the Israeli Consulate welcoming an exhibit of Dead Sea Scrolls replicas hosted by the center last year.
As someone who has lived in Israel, speaks Hebrew and often lectures to Jewish groups, I am often asked why Mormons are not seen to be as publicly supportive of Israel as their coreligionists in several other denominations. While Latter-Day Saints as individuals are often very pro-Israel and welcome interaction with the Jewish community, there are historical, cultural and doctrinal reasons for our relatively low profile when it comes to political disputes. To begin with, as the most persecuted church in U.S. history, we have traditionally avoided taking sides in domestic or international political conflicts, preferring instead to concentrate on our mission of preaching the gospel and saving souls. While church leaders do occasionally issue statements on political topics, they are invariably ones with a significant moral component (e.g., abortion, gay marriage).
Based on my experience, Latter-Day Saints do not need to hear their leaders tell them that terrorists and suicide bombings are evil. It is impossible to see how anyone who follows the Ten Commandments and/or the Christian gospel could countenance them.
The church's worldwide presence requires us to devote our resources to preaching, not politics. We have organized congregations in more than 160 nations. If our leaders took positions on local, national and international conflicts affecting these countries, our ability to operate and thrive in many of them would be severely limited. Moreover, church members around the world would then expect similar statements to be issued regarding conflicts important to them. Spanish Saints would want guidance on the Basque ETA group, Irish members on the IRA, etc.
Our political neutrality also means that Jews can be sure that our church will not divest from Israel, regardless of what other denominations decide to do.
For many Latter-day Saints, a significant impediment to joining pro-Israel groups dominated by evangelical Christians is their belief in the need of Jews to convert or face eternal damnation. I, too, am a Christian who frequently speaks out publicly in support of Israel, but, as a Latter-Day Saint, I do not believe that Jews who do not accept Jesus as their savior are going to hell.
I support the efforts of radio hosts Dennis Prager, Michael Medved and other thoughtful Jews who have encouraged Jewish-evangelical alliances. We, too, work enthusiastically with our evangelical friends on issues of common concern, including campaigns to promote morality and family values. However, it is important for Jews to know that Latter-Day Saints support them, as we support all people of goodwill, because they are literally our brothers and sisters, and we love and appreciate them.
Even a cursory review of relations between our two peoples shows cooperation in action. For example, both Jews and Mormons are known for their love of education. The premier Mormon institution of higher learning, Brigham Young University, has sent students to study in Jerusalem since 1968, and dedicated a beautiful study abroad center atop Mt. Scopus in 1987. An amphitheater honoring Hyde, the apostle, was built nearby. In return for a 49-year lease on the property, church leaders promised the government of Israel that we would not proselytize in the country. We have kept this commitment and many Jewish leaders have noted our integrity in this respect.
On a related note, our ubiquitous missionaries do not specifically target Jews (or any other group, for that matter) for conversion. You can rest assured that the Mormon missionaries knocking on your door will subsequently knock on the door of every other house in the neighborhood, regardless of the religious identity of its occupants.
Jews interested in genealogy and family history research have long-known that no one is more interested in helping them succeed than Latter-day Saints. In fact, free classes on Jewish genealogical research are offered every month at Latter-day Saints family history centers, including the one in Los Angeles. What is less well-known is that our passion for genealogy stems from our belief that the prophet Elijah appeared on Passover (as Jews have always said he would) in 1836 at one of our temples to "turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers," as predicted by the prophet Malachi. It is our privilege to use the addictive "spirit of Elijah" to assist our Jewish friends in researching their family trees. In addition, ours is the only church with a priesthood office (that of patriarch) whose sole duty is to give blessings declaring Israelite tribal lineage, if any, to faithful members (for the record, an Ephraimite is penning this essay).
One of our defining beliefs is the acceptance of scripture in addition to the Torah and Christian Bible. However, very few Jews know that the plates containing the Book of Mormon were received by Smith on Rosh Hashanah in the year 1827 (a feast that involves new beginnings), or that two of the three civilizations whose histories are chronicled in the book are descendants of Jews who left Jerusalem during the reign of King Zedekiah (600 BCE).
I confess that the greatest inspiration for my vehement opposition to terrorism is the Book of Mormon, the greatest anti-terrorism volume of scripture in existence. In fact, two of the three civilizations in the book were utterly destroyed by the "secret combinations" of terrorists, who are repeatedly condemned. It is impossible to read of their murders and treachery and not view the world through a different moral prism. Some of their nefarious practices have remained with us: for example, people teach their young that their ancestors have been "wronged" by another people, thereby inculcating an "eternal hatred" toward them that eventually leads to war. A terrorist leader gives an ultimatum to a righteous leader: surrender land and all will be fine, or face an attack. The parallels to modern times are very striking and sobering.
A Jewish leader in Salt Lake City recently told me at a Jewish youth conference that it was refreshing to live among Christians who did not condemn Jews, did not target them for conversion, did not have a history of anti-Semitism and had genuine respect for them. I believe the same could be said by the colleagues of Latter-Day Saints working at the Los Angeles offices of the Israeli Consulate, the Jewish Federation, ORT and other Jewish organizations. Latter-Day Saints are true friends of the Jewish people, and have demonstrated in both word and (especially) deed that they intend to remain so.
An ongoing exhibit at our Visitors Center is Jewish documents that Mormon wagon trains that brought Jewish merchants and their Torah to California as early as 1852; the two communities have promoted a spirit of goodwill and cooperation ever since.
In recent years, our president and prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, has met several times with consuls general of Israel in Los Angeles during their official trips to Utah, and we have every expectation that ties between our two communities will continue to grow. At the local level, we look forward to hosting many of our Jewish friends living in Los Angeles and Orange counties at the upcoming July public open house for our Newport Beach Temple (a tangible tie to the temple-building ancient Israelites).
As Israel celebrates 57 years of independence this year, Jews everywhere should know that many of your Mormon brothers and sisters join you in wishing peace and prosperity to Israel and to those who wish to live in peace with her. May the God of Israel bless our communities to continue to find areas of agreement and cooperation in the future.
To visit the exhibit "Seeking Religious Freedom" at the Los Angeles Temple Visitors Center, call (310) 991-0079 or go to www.latemple.org.
Mark Paredes served as an American diplomat in Tel Aviv, and as the press attaché at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. He will be the MC at the May 15 Independence Day Festival.