People of the Book

What's behind the strange love affair between Mormons and Israel?

By , a Tel Aviv-based writer and analyst.

TEL AVIV – Mitt Romney dropped by the Western Wall on Sunday, July 29, but one nearby landmark was conspicuously left off his Israel itinerary: the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University (BYU) — or as locals call it with typical directness, "Mormon University."

The presumptive U.S. Republican presidential nominee, in his campaign and throughout his political career, has sought to downplay the significance of his Mormon faith. But though his religion could be a liability for many U.S. evangelicals and other devout Christians (just half of Americans believe Mormons are Christian), it may yet prove a blessing in winning over another high-value constituency: Among all American faith groups, Mormons receive the highest favorability rating from Jews.

"Mormons consider themselves to be latter-day Israelites and inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, so they have a natural affinity for Jews," says Mark Paredes, a Mormon from Michigan who writes the blog Jews and Mormons for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

"Because they’re a small community of outsiders, they’ve generally allied themselves with Jews," adds Jonny Daniels, a Jerusalem-based Republican strategist well-connected in Mormon circles through his friendship with Glenn Beck. "They can relate to us in a way other Christians can’t."

To outsiders, the Book of Mormon can seem a radically revisionist text that has the Garden of Eden situated in Missouri and Jesus bringing the Gospel to Native Americans after his resurrection. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS for short) portrays itself as a "restorationist" creed which, through the agency of Joseph Smith, returns Christianity to its authentic roots, unsullied by Greek philosophy and other profane accretions.

Many of those roots are unambiguously Jewish, even if most Jews don’t know it. The Book of Mormon depicts Native Americans as Hebrews exiled from the Land of Israel around 600 B.C., and Mormons self-identify as descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Menashe. The LDS church has its own version of the Aaronic priesthood (the cohanim who once performed rites in the Jewish Temple), and the iconic Salt Lake Temple houses an inner sanctuary into which only a high priest may enter — a direct analog to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

An LDS holy text called the Word of Wisdom includes dietary restrictions — tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine are verboten — that Mormons view as comparable to the rules for kosher food. On the Mormon Sabbath, believers (or as they’re often known, the House of Israel) are encouraged to spend time in study and avoid exchanging money. Mormons even refer to nonmembers as gentiles — Utah only got its first "gentile" governor in 1917: Simon Bamberger, a Jew.

The Book of Mormon even has Jesus presciently condemning anti-Semitism and "replacement theology" — the Christian doctrine that the divine covenant with the Jews was superseded when they rejected him as Messiah. "Yea, and ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel," the Nazarene tells the Indian-Israelites of America, "[F]or behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn."

"There are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons," Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once told future LDS President Ezra Taft Benson. "We need to know more about the Jews, and the Jews ought to know more about the Mormons," Benson replied.

Mormon leaders espoused Zionist sympathies decades before the Jewish national movement was born. In 1841, Joseph Smith sent his "personal apostle" Orson Hyde to Jerusalem, where on the Mount of Olives he beseeched God to "restore the kingdom unto Israel — raise up Jerusalem as its capital, and continue her people a distinct nation and government." Today, Jerusalem’s very own Orson Hyde Park sits on the spot of that prophecy, just a few steps from BYU’s Jerusalem Center.

Yet Mormon-Jewish relations have at times been uneasy. In the 1980s, as BYU laid the groundwork for its Jerusalem campus, ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel held a 7,000-strong pray-in at the Western Wall, warning of the "spiritual holocaust" that would result from LDS proselytizing. (The Utah-based university is owned and operated by the LDS church, which expects male members to spend two years in missionary work.)

Ultimately a deal was struck between church and state — Mormon and Jewish, respectively — barring students from proselytizing in Israel, a stricture that exists in certain Muslim countries and was once in place in the Soviet Union. The campus opened in 1987, admitting some 170 BYU students for semester-long instruction in the Old and New testaments, Arab and Islamic civilizations, and the region’s history and languages (students can choose Hebrew or Arabic).

The ban on proselytizing has been scrupulously upheld, but the BYU campus’s very location is itself sensitive. Perched on Mount Scopus (an enclave in East Jerusalem controlled by Israel before it unified the city in the 1967 Six-Day War), it overlooks the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock.

"We’re situated on Jerusalem’s seam-line, and politically we’re also neutral," says the center’s executive director, Eran Hayet, who is Israeli (and Jewish). "We teach our students to be listeners — that you don’t have to be anti-Palestinian to be pro-Israeli, and vice versa."

The proselytizing question largely settled, LDS-Jewish relations suffered further strain in 1995 when Jewish groups discovered Mormons had posthumously converted at least 380,000 Holocaust survivors in what the LDS church calls "vicarious baptism." The ensuing outrage led the church to ban the baptism of deceased Jews outright, but in several cases since, enterprising Mormons have taken it upon themselves to perform the rite.

"The church is very clear: Members are not allowed to engage in baptism of the dead for Jews, except for those who might be direct ancestors in their own line," says James Kearl, the Utah-based assistant to the university president for the Jerusalem Center. "Nevertheless, there may have been two or three flare-ups over this by people who, frankly, were behaving mischievously."

This February, an ex-LDS whistle-blower revealed that a church in the Dominican Republic had baptized Anne Frank and that a congregation in Idaho had done the same for Daniel Pearl, the Jewish American reporter kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. That same month, after learning he had been preapproved for baptism, the author and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel pleaded with Romney to knock his own church into order.

And still the bond continues. Many Mormon leaders "are so pro-Jewish that it’s almost awkward," wrote Stephen Richer, a Jewish pollster from Utah, in a recent op-ed for Salt Lake City’s leading daily. Utah’s Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, wears a mezuzah around his neck and once told the New York Times he often feels "sorry" he wasn’t born a Jew. "Mormons believe the Jewish people are the chosen people, just like the Old Testament says," he said. "Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do."

Romney’s supportive rhetoric on Israel — so unfaltering it could have been scripted by the Republican Jewish Coalition — suggest the candidate may be cut from the same white cloth.

At a presidential debate in January, he blamed the failure of Middle East peace talks squarely on the Palestinians: "The Israelis would be happy to have a two-state solution. It’s the Palestinians who don’t want a two-state solution. They want to eliminate the state of Israel."

In Israel on Sunday, Romney delivered the same unflagging message of support. He pointedly referred to Jerusalem as the country’s capital, an implicit swipe at Barack Obama’s administration, which drew the ire of conservative commentators when in a routine news release in March it listed Jerusalem and Israel as separate places. Asked to clarify, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused to name Jerusalem — or any other city — as the country’s capital. "Jerusalem is a permanent-status issue" between Israel and the Palestinians, she said. "It’s got to be resolved through negotiations."

Romney wasn’t inclined to allow even a ray of daylight between the two nations. "The story of how America … rose up to become the dear friend of the people of Israel is among the finest and most hopeful in our nation’s history," Romney said against the backdrop of Mount Zion and the Old City walls. "Israel’s achievements are a wonder of the modern world … [and] America’s support of Israel should make every American proud."

At a fundraiser on Monday, Romney hinted that Israel’s economic success may be a reflection of divine favor. "[As] I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things," he said, citing Israelis’ innovation, a Jewish tradition of succeeding despite persecution, and the "hand of providence."

Palestinians were unimpressed. "What is this man doing here?" said veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn’t this racism?" Even some Israeli commentators felt the speech disingenuous, a gesture intended more for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than for Israelis themselves.

But Paredes, the Mormon blogger, attributes the LDS-Jewish alliance to a history of shared suffering: "[T]he nearly 14 million members of our church, which has been the most persecuted major religion in American history … do have special feelings for the 13 million members of the most persecuted religion in world history."

Daniels, the Republican strategist, is skeptical. "They’ve had a tough time; they’ve had their massacres. But in terms of persecution, you can’t really beat us. There’s little comparison between what we’ve been through in 2,000 years and what they’ve been through in 200," he says.

"What we’ve experienced as a people is unmatched, nor would we wish it upon anyone." "There is no existential threat against Utah," he says. "As persecuted and troubled as they think they are, it ain’t that bad."

Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based writer and analyst, and the former deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. His first book, “Fire Before Dawn: The First Palestinian Revolt and the Struggle for the Holy Land,” is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.