Mormons and Israel

Amber Taylor recently received her PhD from Brandeis University. She was a Schusterman Fellow, and her dissertation dealt with American Christian relations with the State of Israel, particularly relating to Christian pilgrimage in the Jewish State. We’re grateful to her for this post!

The recent controversy over Ilhan Omar’s comments on American support of Israel brings up an interesting question for Latter-day Saints. What is the Latter-day Saint stance on Israel and the conflict over the Holy Land? The answer is, of course, it’s complicated.

In the early years of the Church, Latter-day Saints shared, and even expanded upon, early American excitement over the idea of an imminent Jewish restoration to their ancient homeland. The idea occupied much of Joseph Smith’s writing, and in 1841 the apostle Orson Hyde made a now almost mythical journey to Palestine to dedicate the land for Jewish return. This historical and theological foundation has long loomed large in Latter-day Saint memory.

When the State of Israel was born, amidst much conflict and painful population displacement (of both Jews and Palestinians), a few outspoken Church leaders acclaimed the Jewish victory as self-evident fulfillment of prophecy.[1] The June 1967 (Six Day) war, in which Israel seized control of both the West Bank and Gaza, as well as (significantly) East Jerusalem generally seemed to affirm the conviction that Israel was enjoying God’s favor. Like most conservative Christians, they perceived the victory as further evidence of God’s divine approval of Israel’s cause, further stimulated by influential Mormon authors, particularly Cleon Skousen, who spoke in glowing terms of the “miraculous victory.”[2]

Still, a few things complicate the picture. The first is that, from the late 1960s, a few Latter-day Saints questioned this default pro-Israel stance. Among these are James Mayfield and Orin Parker, both of whom spent extensive time the Middle East for professional or educational purposes.[3] As professors at both the University of Utah and BYU, and influential Latter-day Saint voices on the Middle East, their influence is certainly the beginning of a more nuanced view of Israel and the conflict.

Likewise, the development and growth of the BYU travel study program in Jerusalem, now epitomized in the BYU Jerusalem Center, has had a significant impact on Latter-day Saint perceptions of the conflict. From its earliest days, the directors of the program followed the injunction of President David O. McKay to spend equal time in both Jewish and Arab parts of the region. The history of the land and conflict is taught simultaneously by both a Palestinian and a Jewish instructor, and the directors of the program strive to remain neutral. Whether that goal is achieved, certainly observers note that students often come away from the program with a pro-Palestinian bias, even if others complain of a pro-Israel bias.[4]

The Jerusalem Center also likely has an indirect impact on Latter-day Saint perspectives. As part of their effort to maintain good relations with local Palestinians, in whose neighborhood they reside, on land that was owned by Palestinians before 1967 (before being expropriated by the Israeli government), BYU officials instituted a program of scholarships for local Palestinian students to attend BYU. Each year four Palestinian students join the ranks of BYU coeds, giving even members of BYU campus who never make it to Jerusalem a chance to engage a Palestinian perspective on the conflict.

The third element is the Church leadership itself. Chief among the influencers was President Howard W. Hunter, who in 1979 chided Church membership for its “personal prejudices,” insisting that “both the Jews and the Arabs are children of our Father. They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides.”[5] Two years later, Kelly Ogden and David Galbraith, both with strong ties to Jerusalem and the BYU program there, insisted that “to the extent that we look with sympathy and understanding at both sides, we can be an influence to help bring about a just and lasting peace.”[6]

Neutrality and peace have been the official stance of the Church since the 1970s. Aside from that, little else has been publicly stated on the question of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since the 1960s. Although the Church has made few, if any, specific moves to assist in reaching a peaceful end to the conflict, certainly the BYU Jerusalem program and curriculum contribute to a more balanced view. Likewise, some leaders feel that the mere existence of the Jerusalem Center, including the integrated and collaborative dynamic of the local directorship of the Center (the executive director is Jewish Israeli, whereas the assistant director, and head of security for the Center, is Palestinian), offer a kind of “bridge between what we’ve had and where we’re going.”[7]

Of course, none of this addresses actual perceptions of Church members, in the United States or globally, on Israel and the Middle East. My anecdotal experience indicates that, inside the United States, a pro-Israel stance still reigns supreme among the largely conservative membership, although that has been shifting in recent years and decades. Noted Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss attributes at least part of that to the intense controversy in Jewish Israeli society over the construction of the Jerusalem Center and to a lack of significant evangelization success among Jews in Israel.[8] Likewise, Latter-day Saints outside of the United States, less influenced by a culture of fervent conservative Christian love for Israel, have been much more likely to question Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians more generally. My guess is that, as the Church continues to expand globally and be influenced by non-American voices, and as the impact of the BYU Jerusalem program spreads, with its nuanced approach and location in the heart of (Palestinian) East Jerusalem, we will see an increase in the percentage of Latter-day Saints with ambivalent views on the question of American support for Israel.

 

 

[1] See, for example, LeGrand Richards’ Israel! Do You Know? (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954) and “The Word of God Will Stand.” Conference Report (April 1954), as well as Ezra Taft Benson’s “A Message to Judah from Joseph,” Ensign, December 1976. Both Richards and Benson emphasize the miraculous victory of Israel over her Arab adversaries, but also that the time has arrived for Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah and join His Church.

[2] See W. Cleon Skousen, Fantastic Victory (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967).

[3] See James Mayfield’s critical review of Skousen’s book in “Whose Victory?” Dialogue 3 (Autumn 1968), 135-37. Parker’s refers to Mayfield and offers his view in his letter to the editors of Dialogue, in volume 4, no. 4 (Winter 1969), 4-5.

[4] See Eran Hayet, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, and Ray L. Huntington, “Jerusalem Program Reborn: An Interview with the Executive Director,” Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel 10:1, 137-148.

[5] “All Are Alike unto God,” Ensign (June 1979).

[6] D. Kelly Ogden and David B. Galbraith, “I Have a Question,” Ensign (September 1993).

[7] Hayet, Holzapfel, and Huntington, 146.

[8] See All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 183.

Comments

  1. My anecdotal experience is also that a pro-Israel stance is more common among the general church membership, common enough that growing up as a Mormon with Palestinian heritage was confusing to me. The theology of patriarchal blessings, and, as you say, Christian ideas of what a Jewish return to the Holy Land meant, were particular points of confusion when I was a teenager. I didn’t go to the Jerusalem center while I was at BYU, but I did take something like five Middle Eastern & Arabic Studies classes for my International Relations coursework, and the focus on and care for the Palestinian perspective worked out a lot of cognitive dissonance that had been a source of stress for years. I hope you’re right that a more nuanced perspective is becoming more and more common.

  2. I studied at the BYU Jerusalem Center one summer, and I felt like that experience led me to be open-minded about many issues. But then a few years later I got to know a Palestinian grad student who was in my program at BYU. She was understandably quite bitter about how the Palestinians had been treated, and I guess you could say that she converted me to be more pro-Palestinian.

  3. Thank you for all the good information on our history concerning Israel.

    Whenever I think of modern Israel, I’m struck by how there doesn’t seem to be any good solution, nor any objective sources one the continuing conflicts. The dichotomy of “God’s chosen people” and “Israel must be wiped from the Earth” just makes it more fraught. Add to it Christians who think there isn’t enough conflict, since we need to have two Prophets dead in the streets for Jesus to come (much like some attitudes toward climate change), and it seems there are very few who actually want peace there.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    I remember being told as a youth (in the early 1990s) that the then-new BYU Jerusalem Center was designed with the ability to be rapidly converted into a temple, and could even be dedicated and fully operational with only a few hours notice. A few years later, a seminary teacher told the young men in the class that we would likely be called back from our missions to be drafted into the military to fight in Armageddon. I’m a bit disappointed that neither of these things happened. Growing up Mormon in the 90s was crazy.

  5. Jack Hughes says:

    Good point, Frank. Also consider Church members often justifying various American military adventures in the Middle East as being part of “hastening the work”.

  6. Deborah Christensen says:

    I’ve been bothered for years about the issue with Israel/Palestine. Particularly the treatment of the people and my fellow church members who “think there isn’t enough conflict.” (I don’t think Frank thinks we need more conflict, I’ve noted the same feelings and thoughts from other church members). I’ve noted that the scriptures/prophesies do not mention anything about the government that will over see the area. Just that the Jews will return to the land and that it will blossom. I think this is an important distinction to make when discussing or trying to work out a solution for that area. In theory they are both supposed to be living there. If the Jews are controlling the area and the Arabs are disenfranchised then are the prophesies really fulfilled?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Apropos of nothing while looking for something else I recently learned there was a Jewish paramilitary group in the 1940s that went by the name “Lehi,” which was an acronym of Lohamei Herut Israel – Lehi, “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel.”

    When Jared Kushner was appointed to be over Middle East issues I wondered whether he had engaged in any kind of preparation. The history of the conflict is very complicated and if you don’t grasp that history from both sides you basically have no chance of moving the ball in a productive way.

  8. One point that causes difficulty is the failure to make any distinction between the modern nation-state of Israel with its political, economic, military, diplomatic, and other governmental functions, and the ancient and ongoing place of blood and covenant Israel in sacred history. Holding the modern state accountable for its policies in the same way we hold any other state accountable for its actions in the world should not be confused with a repudiation of God’s blessings and promises. I think *we* do that. I think evangelical Christians do that on steroids.

  9. Ardis, you hit the proverbial nail on the head. And I also agree with Kevin – the lack of any real understanding of the history behind the conflict is problematic and a frightening characteristic for someone with such significant and wide-reaching influence.

  10. Thanks for this post, Amber.

  11. The interesting thing, about how Christians, including members of our church, think about Israel, from my perspective, is how so many of us seem to let our not-very-well-defined ideas about prophecy take precedence over just looking at the situation. I think if you were to remove all identifying information and present it as a hypothetical, vs presenting it with the preconceived idea that one side is prophesied to prevail, you’d get different answers.

    What’s so interesting about it to me is that prophecy doesn’t change right and wrong, so whether prophecy allegedly favors one side over the other shouldn’t have any affect on make moral judgments about who is right, or prudent judgments about how to best get to peace. Yet many of us let prophecy guide our opinions on who is right and what’s the best policy.

  12. “recently received her PhD from Brandeis University.” Congrats, fellow MI Seminary participant! May your career begin quickly and last long.

    “students often come away from the program with a pro-Palestinian bias” This was certainly the experience in my group.

    I haven’t heard much either pro or anti-israel rhetoric in my wards, thinking back. I suspect this is something that simply doesn’t have all that much conscious importance for us.

  13. I think that attitudes toward the modern state of Israel are also colored by the memory of the extermination of half of the world’s Jews in 1933-1945. That the most vocal enemies of the Jewish state (Iran, anybody) seem to talk in the same language of the Nazi Party catches one’s attention, as does the easy slide in anti-Jewish rhetoric by politicians from Jeremy Corbin to Ilhan Omar.

    Whether “Yeah, but the Holocaust” (or “Yeah, but ghettos, pogroms, the Inquisition, etc., etc.) is a fair way to tilt the discussion about Israeli-Palestinian relations, it does. And that’s completely outside the question whether the current state bears any relation to the prophesies of the return of Israel to the lands promised Abraham.

  14. Mark, in my experience, most Christians that have strong pro-Israel opinions could care less about anti-Semitism just about any other context, so I find it hard to believe that it’s truly concern for anti-Semitism that motivates their strong pro-Israel opinion rather than their views of prophecy. YMMV.

  15. Very interesting. I had not thought about the BYU travel study program in Jerusalem and the BYU Jerusalem Center in the mix, but I don’t know that I know anybody who has participated in that program. I wonder whether this is also an anecdotal observation depending on who you know? Or is the travel study program really a influencer in the broader culture?

    My current baseline on attitudes about the Jewish state is that the people who identify as Mormon, whether or not current members, are aligned with their national identity first, with an adjustment for a generally right/conservative/U.S. Republican lean, and an adjustment (typically in the opposite direction) for relatively higher acceptance of Muslim or Arab identity.

  16. I went to the BYU Jerusalem Center Intensive Arabic program in 1999. I remember all of the 15 or so Arabic-learners were”pro-Palestinian”, myself included and the rest of the students were split. I now reject the labels “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian.” We should all be both. I fully accept and recognize the existence of Israel and its right to exist as an independent nation-state. I do not want to see its destruction. At the same time, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are oppressed, disenfranchised, and wrongfully discriminated against because of different policies put in place by different administrations. Israel has a responsibility to integrate more Palestinians into the country and give them full rights a Israeli citizens. It needs to stop bombing Gaza and undertaking collective punishment. It should arrest individuals or deems to be suspects in criminal acts and try them before a court of law. Palestinians need to reject radical Islam as well as violent radical nationalism in all its forms, fully accept Israel as a legitimate nation-state, and demand rights to be recognized as Israeli citizens.

    Lastly what frustrates me is how people see criticism of the policies of Netanyahu as anti-Israel. Uh, no. Saying such would be like saying that criticism of Obama’s or Trump’s policies is anti-American.

  17. If one side laid down their weapons of war and submitted to the other, there could be peace tomorrow. If the other side ended all hostilities they would be wiped off the map.

  18. Latamgirl says:

    This is a good book by a BYU acquaintance of mine. I recall being very ignorant about the situation all around and when she said she was from Jerusalem, I said, “Oh, Israel?” “No,” she said. “Palestine.”

    I knew several close friends and roommates at BYU in the early 90s who had attended the study abroad at the Jerusalem Center.

    Combine all the above with long chats with a Muslim work colleague whose family hailed from Palestine, and I feel like I have a fairly neutral, nuanced view.

  19. I studied at the Jerusalem center 8 years ago and loved it, but was continually frustrated by the blatant pro-Israel bias (the Israeli professors were American educated and easy to understand-the Arab professors were not and extremely difficult to follow, we had field trips to worship at Synagogues-but not allowed to attend Friday prayers, celebrated Jewish holidays-completely ignored Eid and Ramadan, etc.) at the center. Even with that bias in the program, I also walked away seeing that the conflict is not an apples to apples issue and working towards a free Palestine is something that I have been passionate about ever since. I would say that 4 out of 5 times that the conflict is brought up in Church (even in extremely liberal wards) there is still some sentiment of the Jewish state of Israel being God’s will. I hope and pray (along with provided facts in these conversations about the history of modern Israel) that this will change someday.

  20. My experience at the Jerusalem Center left me also with a much more nuanced view of politics in the region and far greater sympathy for Palestinians. Fashionschool8, I’m surprised to hear of the shift in bias. Our Palestinian instructor in the 1990s was approachable and reasonable. He pointed out that the Book of Mormon says the Jews will be gathered AFTER they accept the gospel and that has stuck with me all these years. I’ve often shared that (with references) with well intentioned but uninformed members who have one dimensional views on the Middle East. I’ve never understood the religious right’s unilateral support for the political state of Israel but I think Mormons are generally heavily influenced by that rhetoric. I find, however, that church members are open to adjusting their viewpoint when challenged and that is reassuring.

  21. Bob Powelson says:

    I have been, since I was about 9, totally pro Israel. In 1967 during my summer vacation period from law school, the 6 day war erupted, and I contacted a Jewish classmate, on how to volunteer to fight with the IDF (I had spent 5 years in the Canadian Army). I was given a plane ticket to New York and on being met there I was informed the war was over. So much for my heroic efforts.

    In all of the intervening years I have seen or learned nothing that gives me any more sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Starting as early as the 1920’s the Palestinians wanted the Jews out of “their Palestine”. The Palestinians have rejected every offer of a compromise peace. War between to Jews and the Palestinians became endemic. The cry being drive the Jews into the sea or exterminate them. A guerilla war in the 1930s, the Palestinians backed the Nazis in inte 1940s, again in 1948/49, 1967, 1973 and so forth until the present day.

    I might mention that the Palestinian/Arab leader up until the 1950s was Haj Amin al Husseini. He spent WWII helping the Nazis engineer the Holocaust.

    Orson Hyde’s mission and prayer was not “near mythical”, it was a mission given him by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Its purpose was to dedicate the land for the return of the Jews. He did so. It is interesting to not that within 15 years the “First Aliya” of Jews returning commenced.

    All the above does not quite touch the real reason for Palestinian suffering. That reason is the misuse of those poor souls lays at the feet of the leaders. Their suffering is more self-inflicted that anything.

    I am now 79, still active in the church, returned missionary and many years practicing law and then teaching, and I can see no reason to modify my position.