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The Mormons on Mount Scopus

BYU’s Jerusalem campus hasn’t unleashed a wave of missionaries. But it hasn’t opened much interfaith dialogue, either.

Yair Rosenberg
May 15, 2015
Morris Thurston
The main assembly hall at Brigham Young University's Jerusalem CenterMorris Thurston
Morris Thurston
The main assembly hall at Brigham Young University's Jerusalem CenterMorris Thurston

In 1986, ultra-Orthodox pop star Mordechai Ben David released a single titled “Jerusalem Is Not for Sale.” From its name and overwrought opening stanzas—“Jerusalem, her holiness crying, defiling her dearest location”—one could be forgiven for thinking it is a religious protest song against dividing the city in a peace deal. But then comes the chorus:

Jerusalem is not for sale!
Voices crying, thundering throughout our cities.
You better run for your life, back to Utah overnight,
Before the mountaintop opens wide to swallow you inside.

Far from an anthem against encroaching Palestinians, the song is actually a call to arms against Mormons. It is a relic of the explosive debate that engulfed Israeli society over the construction of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem campus, which marks its 27th anniversary this week. The incendiary affair brought thousands to protest in the streets of Jerusalem, precipitated a no-confidence motion in the Israeli government, and led hundreds of U.S. Congress members to intervene in the Jewish state’s internal politics.

Today, with the campus long having faded into a benign fixture on the Jerusalem scene, it is hard to imagine the passions it once provoked. But as the anniversary approaches, it is worth recalling this tumultuous history, in recognition of how far Mormon-Jewish relations have come—and how far they have yet to go.


It seems safe to say that when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints decided to build a Jerusalem campus in 1979, it didn’t expect to provoke an intercontinental religious controversy. After all, Brigham Young University, the church’s Utah-based school, had been running semester-abroad programs in Israel since 1968 without incident, moving in and out of kibbutzim and Arab hotels.

The program was led by a soft-spoken LDS scholar named David Galbraith, hardly the sort of person one would expect to find at the heart of a political firestorm. A Canadian native, Galbraith fell in love with Israel after spending time there on an ulpan Hebrew instruction program, where he also met his future wife, an overseas student from the Sorbonne. Galbraith then returned to Utah, finished BYU, and took a job with the Canadian defense department. “I was on the Far East desk, but my interest was the Middle East,” he recalled. He and his wife started their family in North America, but, he said, “we couldn’t get Israel out of our heads.” And so they departed for the holy land, where Galbraith pursued his PhD at Hebrew University in Middle Eastern studies and his wife completed her masters in Jewish studies.

When BYU started sending students to Israel, Galbraith was a natural choice to oversee them. The program quickly grew from a pilot group of 30 students in 1968 to more than 100 in the years following. Soon BYU was looking to find them a permanent home with full academic facilities, from dorms to a library.

For a while, it looked like the transition would be relatively painless. BYU and church officials toured potential sites and picked out one they wanted on Mount Scopus. Though the area was initially closed to building, with the help of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, they convinced the city planners to permit construction. Then, from October 1979 to April 1984, the project was approved at every level of government—including by the Jerusalem City Council and its ultra-Orthodox members, and by the ministers of education and interior, both members of the National Religious Party.

This was what Galbraith expected. “We had been in operation for 10, 12, 14 years, and we were no threat,” he said. “There was no proselytizing going on, even though we’re a Christian institution with a missionary reputation. There were no incidents, we had good relations in the community, and all was well. We didn’t sense there would be opposition to the center.”

Then the first bulldozer broke ground in 1984 and everything fell apart.

As soon as the center became visible, it became controversial. Ultra-Orthodox activists in Jerusalem were horrified to discover that a non-Jewish religious group with a strong proselytizing ethos had been granted prime real estate in Judaism’s holiest city. What happened next spanned years and continents. It is recounted in historian Alan Casper’s unpublished BYU master’s thesis on the opposition to the LDS center, from which translations of several documents cited below are drawn.

To begin with, the protesters rejected BYU’s official distinction between academic activity and missionary activity, arguing that the two were inextricably intertwined for the LDS Church. As evidence of the center’s “true” agenda, activists pointed to Mormon manuals for proselytizing to Jews—which were sometimes less than flattering in their portrayal of them—and brandished Hebrew and Yiddish translations of the Book of Mormon. Though Galbraith and church leaders had repeatedly assured Kollek that the center would be free from proselytizing, this did little to mollify their critics, many of whom had experience combating covert missionary activity by other Christian groups in Israel.

Soon the country’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, along with the religious political parties, were mobilizing against the center’s construction. They even took the remarkable step of joining forces with representatives from eight local Christian denominations who also opposed the project because they did not consider Mormons to be true Christians. (This was perhaps the only time in Jerusalem’s history that Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews held a joint press conference.)

No stone was left unturned in the battle to bury the BYU center: Lists were compiled and publicized of prominent Mormons with ties to Arab states, suggesting ulterior political motives behind the center’s construction; LDS members of Congress, including Harry Reid, were scrutinized over their pro-Israel bona fides, and some were found lacking. (In the arguments of the activists, this overall mixed Mormon voting record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was attributable not to the individual views of Mormon politicians, but to a centralized LDS Church effort to cynically play both sides.)

And it wasn’t just ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who sounded the alarm. A young U.S. Jewish leader named Malcolm Hoenlein—who would soon become the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—voiced ambivalence about the project, affirming the “right” of the LDS Church to build their campus while also expressing discomfort with the prospect.

Brown University’s Jacob Neusner, one of America’s most prolific Judaic studies scholars, was less conflicted. In a letter to the Intermountain Jewish News in 1985, Neusner, who had taught at BYU in Utah, wrote:

Nothing they do is selfless. Everything they do has the single goal of converting everyone they can. Pure and simple. The proposed BYU Center will provide access, not only to Israeli Jewry, but also (and especially) to large numbers of foreign, including American, Jewish youth who study in Jerusalem. … Until the Mormon Church … recognizes the legitimacy of Judaism for Israel, the Jewish people, they can want nothing other than to convert as many of us as they can get their hands on.

In a letter to the Jerusalem Post, Neusner added: “The Jerusalem Municipality misinterprets the character and intent of the Mormon Church in its dealings with the Jewish people, and the Israeli rabbinate accurately understands what is at stake.”

These concerns among American Jews inevitably led to political action. In January 1986, New York’s Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Rep. Benjamin Gilman wrote to Prime Minister Shimon Peres asking him to halt the center’s construction. A few months later, Rep. Stephen Solarz sent a letter to Israel’s ambassador expressing the concern of his constituents over “whether sufficient steps have been undertaken to avoid surreptitious missionary activities from operating out of the center.” These letters were promptly published in the Israeli press.

At the same time, 154 congressmen—including Jewish lawmakers Mel Levine and Tom Lantos (whose wife and children were Mormons), as well as the chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican caucuses—signed a bipartisan missive urging the Israeli government to permit the center’s completion. Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote personally to Peres on BYU’s behalf. Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai Brith, and the modern Orthodox Yeshiva University also sided with the LDS Church.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most vociferous defenders of the center was Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. In a January 1986 interview with a young Wolf Blitzer in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Hatch noted that “when the first synagogue was established in Utah, it is my understanding that the property for that synagogue was given to them by the Mormon Church.” The senator then promised to personally intercede on Israel’s behalf should BYU break its commitments to abstain from missionary activity. “If the need will arise,” he said, “I will turn to the leaders of the Mormon Church on the highest levels, and will make every effort possible to amend the iniquities.”

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, tensions were rising. In July 1985, the Mormon Center in the consular section of East Jerusalem was vandalized. Veiled death threats were made against Kollek, and pamphlets were distributed in ultra-Orthodox areas of Jerusalem likening him to Hitler and Haman. A program on army radio labeled the Mormons “enemies of Israel, a fifth column, a cancer in the body of the nation.” In the United States, multiple LDS churches and meeting centers received anonymous bomb threats warning them to “get out of Israel.” One congregation in Washington, D.C., received such a call while its 200 members were in the middle of worship. The incidents were swiftly condemned by the ADL and other Jewish leaders. Throughout the controversy, Galbraith received Hebrew phone calls threatening him and his family, some of which he played during an interview on Israeli radio, to the shock of many listeners.

Matters deteriorated so precipitously that the LDS Church hired a PR firm to tell its side of the story. Hebrew, Arabic, and English advertisements were placed in Israeli papers outlining the Church’s history, support for Israel, and longstanding commitment not to missionize in the Jewish state. Alumni of the BYU extension program in Jerusalem from 1968-1985—1,873 of them—signed an open letter dubbing themselves “Israel’s goodwill ambassadors the whole world over.” Galbraith himself told the Israeli media, “I know that it is difficult to convince the ultra-Orthodox circles of the sincerity of our intentions, because of our missionary reputation, but I promise that we shall keep to our commitments.”

The Mormons were not without their Israeli defenders. Despite facing intense pressures from many constituents, Kollek remained unbowed. He was not unsympathetic to the critics’ concerns. “The fear of proselytization is not irrational,” he later wrote. “Our loss of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust makes us deeply conscious of the worth of each and every Jew.” However, he added, “my support of the Mormon right to build their center derived from a deeply rooted belief in freedom of worship, for everyone, everywhere.” Kollek accepted the repeated pledges of Mormon leaders that the center would refrain from missionary activity—including the guarantees of two successive LDS Church presidents who flew to Israel to personally reassure him. In taking them at their word, Kollek observed that “representatives of the Mormon sect have been active in Jerusalem for 16 years and there has not been a single case where they were suspected of missionary activity.”

Likewise, Abba Eban, Israel’s fabled former ambassador to the United States and United Nations, voiced support from his seat in the Knesset, warning, “If the center is halted, a 20-year effort to establish Jerusalem as an open city for all faiths may be ruined.” Writing in the Jerusalem Post in January 1986, he emphasized that “there is no history of Mormon success in converting Jews … it is a verifiable truth, confirmed by every authority whom I have consulted. Authoritative Israeli statistics tell of four conversions of Jews to Mormonism.”

Finally, on Dec. 23, 1985, matters came to a head. The ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party put forward a no-confidence motion against the government on the issue—despite the fact that the party was a member of that government. The ensuing Knesset debate was raucous, and several ultra-Orthodox members were ejected during the proceedings. But though other religious parties registered their discontent with the center, fearing political retribution from inside the governing coalition, they did not ultimately support the motion, ensuring its failure.

Instead, Peres appointed a ministerial cabinet committee to review concerns about the BYU center. Despite an extensive investigation, however, the body found no improprieties on the part of the LDS Church, whether in acquiring the land or engaging in clandestine missionary activity.

While this committee’s deliberations quieted the Knesset, they did not quell the public outcry. On April 28, 1986, an estimated 10,000 Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrated against the center opposite its construction site in Jerusalem. The protesters waved placards proclaiming “Jerusalem is not for sale,” echoing the now-popular anthem, which was performed by Mordechai Ben David at the rally. “Everything they tell us is a lie,” Yitzhak Kolitz, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, told the Associated Press. The Mormons, he said, “have no other purpose except to missionize.”

That August, however, Israel’s deputy attorney general ruled that there was no legal way to halt the construction at such a late stage, and the center’s opponents had to resign themselves to its completion. A week following the ruling, the cabinet unanimously approved the recommendation of the ministerial committee to allow the construction to proceed.

The final nail in the coffin of the once formidable opposition came in May 1988, when the center was already open for students. Recognizing that the campus was there to stay, the Israeli cabinet approved a 49-year renewable lease of the Jerusalem land to its Mormon proprietors, in a contract that included extensive guarantees that the center would not be used for missionary work. The lease passed by a vote of 11-4; the only nonreligious cabinet member to vote against it was Ariel Sharon.


That was then. Twenty-seven years later, the BYU center has upheld its end of the bargain and, in so doing, become an accepted if eccentric part of the Jerusalem landscape. It now hosts three semesters worth of programming to meet student demand. “The Jerusalem [study abroad] program has become more popular than any of the others, maybe more popular than all of them combined,” said Galbraith, who directed the program from 1969 to 1988. “We never had to advertise it. Word of mouth spread that it was an incredible experience and it grew from there.”

The center’s curriculum covers archaeology, Bible, Judaism, Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and trips to nearby Muslim countries. Students choose between Arabic and Hebrew for their language requirement and learn from BYU instructors brought in from Utah, as well as local Jewish and Muslim faculty. Open to all pupils who adhere to the LDS code of conduct—in practice, Mormons—the facility houses 160 students, most from BYU spending a semester abroad.

Upon entering the program, every student is required to sign a contract promising not to missionize. If anything, many have taken the commitment to an extreme. Ophir Yarden, a Jewish scholar who has taught at the campus since 2006, recalled how students were initially afraid to engage him in religious discussion in the classroom, out of fear that they’d be violating their agreement. “The very first semester that I was teaching there, I assigned the students to write a paper,” he recounted, “and one of them wanted to write something comparative, and the question arose: Were they allowed to tell me anything about their beliefs and practices?” The conundrum went all the way to the university’s legal counsel, who ruled that “academic freedom trumped the pact,” said Yarden, “at least on a need-to-know basis.”

In any case, the program’s rigorous workload and regulations do not leave much time for proselytizing—students are not even permitted to babysit off-campus, to the chagrin of the various LDS diplomats who have been stationed at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

In fact, while the center has overcome the initial distrust surrounding its opening, one of Galbraith’s regrets is that its students have not really integrated into their Israeli context, befriending modern Jews and not just studying biblical ones. “We were very anxious that they get out in the community and meet young people,” he recalled, “and we were faced with something of a dilemma in the sense that the Israeli students their age are either in the military or at university and seriously studying their courses.”

As a result, the center has not really been a serious spur for Mormon-Jewish mutual understanding, even as it has given students an appreciation of the State of Israel. “It didn’t work quite as we had hoped,” Galbraith acknowledged. “In the end, every student returned from the experience wishing they’d had more of an opportunity to intermingle with Israeli youth their age.” In small ways, Yarden has worked to change this, securing invitations to Shabbat dinner for some of the center’s advanced students and taking his classes to synagogue once a semester. It’s a start, he said, especially for the majority of students who have never met a Jew before, “but it’s not terribly broad.”


In 1992, at the twilight of his political career, Mayor Kollek invited the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—whose rendition of the Israeli national anthem is legendary—to Jerusalem. It was an occasion to look back at those tumultuous times of tension over the LDS Center. “Of all the struggles during my 25 years as mayor of Jerusalem, the one concerning the BYU-Mount Scopus campus was perhaps the most difficult and certainly among the most important,” he said. “This was not a struggle for the Mormons but rather a struggle for tolerance in a city that should set an example to the world—a city in which everyone may pray to his God in his way without restriction. How could we Jews, who were cut off from our holy places for centuries, refuse the right of others to establish a legitimate educational institution and place of worship in Jerusalem?”

Those early days of suspicion and censure made it hard to envision a positive role for the BYU Jerusalem Center in interfaith relations, even after it opened its doors. But in the end, said Galbraith, Kollek’s stand with the Mormon community has been repaid in kind. “Our students come back to the United States telling everyone what a beautiful experience they had—the land, the people, the classes, the relationship to the Bible,” he said. “So, we’re in a very real way your diplomats.”

“These will be the future leaders of our communities and in the church,” he concluded, and the time they spend in Jerusalem “builds bonds of friendship that will never die.”


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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.