Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Religion and Society

Resolving the Mormon Issue

Daniel J. Elazar

The Facts of the Case:

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) have been present in Israel for a long time. Because of their belief that Jews would return to their land as a "sign of the time" of the second coming, the Mormon missionary Orson Hyde was sent to Jerusalem by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church in 1841, only ten years after the founding of the Church. Hyde recited a "Zionist prayer" and dedicated the land to the Jews from atop the Mount of Olives.

Today, there is a Latter Day Saints Church in Jerusalem which holds services on Saturdays, and the modern Brigham Young University (BYU) program has been functioning in Israel for seventeen years, operating out of East Jerusalem and Kibbutz Ramat Rachel on the southwest border of city. Over 1850 students have participated in this eight-month program since 1977.

A number of years ago, BYU decided to build a permanent home for the program and brought their request before Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The original request had been for a site on the western side of the city, between the King David Hotel and Hebrew Union College. The Mayor decided that the eastern side of the city would be a better location, probably in the wake of ultra-Orthodox extremist attacks on Christian institutions in the western part of the city, including the burning down of the Baptist Church in Rehavia.

All the parties agreed upon the present site on the slope of Mount Scopus. This site was transferred to the Mormons after their request passed through all the regular channels, including the municipality, the regional building committee, and the appropriate ministries. All of these agencies signed the request without it becoming a public issue.

After construction was underway, a public committee was organized to oppose the building on the grounds that its real purpose was the establishment of a headquarters for Mormon missionizing of Jews. The committee was initially composed solely of Orthodox Jews, though others have been attracted to it, including at least one member of Hashomer Hatzair. The committee has succeeded in mobilizing much of the Orthodox Jewish establishment to oppose the Mormon center, turning it into a serious public issue.

In the meantime, there have been revelations of routine Mormon missionizing here in Israel at least through 1982. In correspondence from 1977, Dr. David Galbraith, the present head of the Brigham Young University program here, wrote to his counterparts in Utah suggesting the need for a substantial building in Jerusalem which would enable missionizing to take place. However, transfer of the Mount Scopus site to the Mormons was based upon a pledge from them that there would be no missionizing in Israel. After some hesitation, this pledge was delivered in writing. Galbraith and his associates say that whatever their plans were in 1977, they respect the laws of the country and the wishes of the inhabitants and they will not missionize here, just as they do not in certain other countries in the world, such as Egypt, Pakistan and the Soviet Union (where, we might add, they would be put to death for missionizing, unlike in Israel).

The Major Problems:

In addition to the issue of Jewish sensibilities towards being missionized, especially in their own land, the major problem with the Mount Scopus site involves its prominent and visible location, in close proximity to the Hebrew University and its position across the valley from the Temple site. The Mormons have a strong reputation as being very devoted missionizers, with over 30,000 missionaries operating around the world (out of a total membership of 5 million). They organize their missionary activities systematically and put great effort into them. Every LDS member must spend two years of his or her life in the service of the Church. These volunteers are spread throughout the world as missionaries. On the other hand, the Mormons have shown strong support for Israel in the past and have revealed a basic friendliness to Jewish aspirations in Israel, an attitude which Israel can scarcely afford to jeopardize.

The question of what constitutes freedom of religion in this case adds another dimension to the issue. Were a local Mormon group seeking to build a house of worship, there could be no complaint; but the project under discussion is proposed by and for "outsiders" who wish to build an edifice of monumental proportions on a most prominent site. Israel has an obligation to protect the freedom of religion of its citizens but need not grant outsiders the same rights. However, if, as Jews claim, Jerusalem is indeed the spiritual center of the world, outsiders must be granted a place here, including those Christians who view proselytizing and missionizing as part of their faith.

Mormon theology is itself an ancillary, though less tangible issue. Mormons see themselves as Jews of the tribe of Ephraim, one of the tribes of Joseph, whereas Jews are thought by them to be of the descendants of Judah. This means that Mormons hold themselves as coequal in status to "other Jews," which is why to them all non-Mormons except Jews are "gentiles." Therefore, in terms of their theology and long-range concerns, their presence on Mount Scopus is far more meaningful for them than a simple university center.

This dilemma is compounded by the fact that the building is going up very rapidly. The opposition is becoming more intense and threats of violence against the building have already been heard. The Mormons now employ fifteen security guards at the construction site.

Other Christian Groups:

The larger issue must also be addressed: Once the Mormons build their Center, other Christian groups will demand a significant presence in Jerusalem as well and will seek equally prominant and visible sites-- presently, over thirty organized Churches operate in Israel. In addition, the tension--even animosity--between the Church of the Latter-day Saints and "mainstream " Christianity must be considered. The establishment of a Mormon presence on the proposed scale will present a challenge to other Christian groups to whom Israel will then be unable to deny equal access as their right. If the Mormons do build, some guarantee against missionizing will have to be made part of the charter agreement if constant battle is to be avoided (although such a guarantee would not necessarily deflect the opposition of groups opposing a substantial Christian presence in Jerusalem as a threat to Jewish survival).

What are the Options?:

  1. Take whatever legal steps are necessary, including legislation on the part of the Knesset, to have construction stopped.

  2. Allow the building to be completed and accept the Mormon's pledge that they will not missionize in Israel.

  3. Make every effort to reach a compromise involving financial compensation and acceptance by the Mormons of an alternative, less prominent, site in Jerusalem.

  4. Seek a comprehensive agreement with all Christian groups, allowing them a presence here on condition that Jerusalem and Israel be declared places of inter-religious dialogue and declared off-limits for missionizing or proselytizing of any kind.


  1. The State of Israel should officially recognize the special role of Jerusalem as a spiritual center and allow legitimate groups to come and build in Jerusalem, provided that they agree not to missionize. To this end we recommend the creation of a "Covenant of Peace" which would pledge all parties to recognize Jerusalem and Israel as a place for dialogue and not for proselytizing. Such a "Covenant of Peace" would not only place people on their honor in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect, but would create a mutual interest in upholding and safeguarding the terms of the covenant in order to insure that all parties remain equally restrained and that no one group achieves an advantage over the others-in short, mutual respect will create mutual vigilance.

  2. An area in Jerusalem should be set aside for the construction of buildings of this nature. One possible area is the area more or less between Tantur and Mar Elias at the southern edges of the city. This is within the city limits, but is not a site which is likely to provoke more than the minimum of anger on the part of those who will reject a solution on any terms.

  3. Persuading the Mormons to transfer their plans to an area of this type to avoid the necessity of protecting their building from potential violence for an indefinite period would be desireable. Of course the Mormons would have to be compensated under such an arrangement. Failing that, it will probably be necessary to allow the Mormons to complete their project, but to take appropriate steps to assure that all future construction by non-Jewish religious institutions would be in a site specially zoned for that purpose. The municipality should be willing to establish what would develop into an esthetically attractive religious park, as well as standard procedures by which legitimate groups could acquire sites there.

Elazar Papers Index / JCPA Home Page / Top of Page