Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Should Jews Have a Mormon Problem?

The religious values of presidents seldom satisfactorily explain their attitudes toward the Jews. Franklin Roosevelt's Episcopalian faith could not have reasonably foretold his hard-hearted policies during the Holocaust. Baptists both Harry S Truman and Jimmy Carter went their separate ways with Truman quick to grant Israel diplomatic recognition and Carter conspicuous in his anti-Israelism. Who knows to what extent President Barack Obama's affiliation with the United Church of Christ provides any insight into his administration's erratic often disquieting policies toward Jerusalem?

Still, it is hard to completely disregard the religious and moral values of the leading presidential candidates. The narrowing of the Republican nomination field to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich (with the latter's lead dwindling) has made barely a ripple in Israel. Israel's media dutifully covered Romney's complaint that Obama has been too quick to chasten the Jewish state and his pledge to make Israel his first foreign destination if elected. Likewise the flak Gingrich took for noting that Palestinian Arab identity was a comparatively recent historical phenomenon.

Israeli attitudes toward Obama have fluctuated. Preferences are sure to jell once the Republican nominee is determined. For now, Israelis know little about Gingrich's personal foibles, political baggage or his religious outlook. In any event, his spiritual journey from Lutheranism to Southern Baptist and now Catholicism has little resonance for Israelis. However, should Romney manage to capture the nomination, Israelis – like Americans before them – will probably find themselves getting a crash course on his Mormon faith.

They might begin at the strikingly handsome campus of the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University belonging to Mormons (formerly known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) situated on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Over the Christmas holiday the school is even more sedate than usual. The Sunday evening classical concerts and Thursday night jazz divertimentos that take place in the congenial auditorium -- which offers panoramic Jerusalem views -- are in hiatus until the New Year. Even during the regular semester, the well-bred Mormon students and staff do not draw much attention -- and that is the way everyone likes it.

Mormonism has not been spotlighted in a big way in Israel since 1985 when Brigham Young first sought to establish a presence and drew vociferous hostility from the ultra-Orthodox sector over the Mormons' earlier missionary activities in Israel. Ultimately, the facility, which had the support of the late mayor Teddy Kollek and then-prime minister Shimon Peres, opened to students in 1988 after Church authorities pledged in writing not to engage in missionary activities in Israel. There is every reason to believe that they have honored their commitment to "show Israeli Jews what the Church is about by example rather than by proselytizing."

Within a few decades of its founding by Joseph Smith in New York State, in 1841 the Church dispatched Apostle Orson Hyde to Jerusalem on a fact-finding tour. Only with the city's liberation in 1967, however, did the Church begin to routinely send believers to the Holy Land for religious studies. Nowadays, 160 students can be accommodated at the Jerusalem campus. (The school closed for six years during the second intifada due to safety concerns.)

Mormon theology is philo-Semitic. Metaphorically --if not literally --the faithful consider their Church to be part of the House of Israel and themselves spiritual descendants of the Israelite tribe of Ephraim who escaped Babylonian captivity by migrating (circa. 586 BCE) to North America. The Book of Mormon has them fleeing Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian conquest. Mormons believe their scripture was revealed to Smith by an angel and that it contains the writings of ancient prophets including Lehi whom God commanded to lead those Israelites to America. This civilization disappeared in 400 CE. Smith was assassinated when he was only 39 in 1844 while running a quixotic campaign for U.S. president.

Mormons attribute significance to the Jewish calendar. Not only was their founder born on the eighth day of Hanukkah other spiritual milestones parallel the Jewish festivals. Worship services are conducted according to the local work week. There are also dietary laws; eating meat is restricted; alcohol, tobacco, and coffee are prohibited. The cross does not commonly adorn a Mormon house of worship. And like Christian Zionists they believe that the Jewish return to the Land of Israel is a precursor to the second coming of the Christian messiah. Polygamy has been forbidden since 1890.

Mormonism is emphatically a missionary faith. Indeed, Romney was almost killed while a missionary in France in a bizarre traffic accident that involved a head-on collision with a vehicle driven by a Catholic priest. To this day, Mormons take – what will strike some Israelis as – an unnerving delight in converting American Jews. Moreover, in a rite that looks odd to outsiders and has drawn Jewish ire the Church formerly engaged in virtual baptisms of Jews murdered in the Shoah (to provide their souls with post-mortem salvation). To be fair, "Baptism for the Dead" is not limited to Jews and once Mormons learned of the depth of Jewish objections to this practice they agreed to stop it.

At the same time, to the consternation of Christian fundamentalists, Mormons see themselves as Christians though some of them identify Jesus with the God of the Hebrew Bible and hold a schismatic view of the trinity in which God (the Father), Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are held to be three distinct deities. Unlike Christianity or Judaism, Mormons believe that the canon remains open and that God still communicates directly with the righteous.

Not of this should present a problem for Jews comfortable with their Judaism. Theologically, Jews anyway tend to be libertarian about other faiths while politically, a third of Jewish voters were disposed already by September 2011to vote for Romney over Obama.

What might this mean for the pragmatic Romney? Utah State University historian Philip Barlow has argued that Romney's faith might inform but would not presage his Middle East policies. "His character was in part shaped by Mormonism, but one only needs to compare Romney, Jon Huntsman and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to note that Mormons are not made from cookie cutters."

Regarding Romney's profession of friendship to Israel, Barlow pointed out that, "Mormons' history, popular culture, and theology really do give them a sense of regard for Israel's role in history and world affairs, and a sense of" --from their perspective – "shared identity."

As a former governor Romney has no real foreign policy track record. How does he understand the Islamist threat to Western values? What are his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approach to a two state solution? Does he back President George Bush's 1967-plus approach to Israel's boundaries? This and much more remains to be revealed.

Other presidents have entered the White House with an innate sympathy for Israel only to see their policies towed in an opposite direction. The righteous live by their faith, but a statesman operating in the real world also needs to be guided by a conceptual framework. In the course of the unfolding presidential campaign, Americans – and Israelis observing from afar – may learn more about Romney's politics, values and the way he understands the world.


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