May 26, 2010

an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel

After speaking to a bright, enthusiastic group of Mormon college students last year in Oslo, Norway, I visited one of the many cafés on Karl Johans Street near the Parliament building. There were few seats available, and before long a trio of comely Oslovians asked if they could sit with me. This was not a terribly hard decision to make. After we placed our orders, I asked them about their lives in Norway. When it was my turn to share, I told them that I worked for a Jewish organization. When they asked which one, I answered “Zionist Organization of America.” Judging from their expressions, you’d have thought that I strangled puppies for a living. One of them moved her chair back a few inches. When I asked her what was wrong, she stammered, “You’re actually a…Zionist?!?!” I said I was, and then asked her what she knew about Zionism. Her answer floored me: “I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know it’s bad.” Drawing on my experience as a press attaché at an Israeli consulate, I led them in a discussion of Zionism, Israel, and the media in Scandinavia. By the time we said our goodbyes, two of them had declared themselves to be Zionists, and the chair-mover had acknowledged that Zionists were not as bad as she had thought. [I try to avoid shameless plugs on this blog, but if the Government of Israel should ever need a PR person to speak to Scandinavian women about Zionism and Israel, I have experience and am willing to sacrifice for the cause].

Of course, Norwegians are not the only ones who ask Mormons about Zionism. Israel is central to Judaism in a way that makes the two inseparable. Sooner or later, Jews will ask their non-Jewish friends what they think about Israel. Regardless of how much you love and appreciate Jewish culture, values, food, delis, music, or liturgy, Jews do not fully understand how you feel about them and their faith until they know how you feel about the Jewish state. Avoiding the question is like answering an expectant son who wants to know what you think of his new fiancée by telling him that she has nice hair, dresses well, has a lovely voice, etc. Until he knows what you think of her as a person, he can’t know how you really feel about her.

Mormons should certainly welcome this question. The modern incarnation of our Church has been on the earth for 180 years; no other church that has been around at least that long has a comparable record of continuous support for the Jewish people. Indeed, Israel is the only country in the world whose creation was officially supported by the LDS Church. From its earliest days, the Church has called on Jews to gather to Palestine and form a state. The first edition of the first Church newspaper announced that it “comes to bring good tidings of great joy to all people, but more especially to the House of Israel scattered abroad, for the Lord hath set His hand again the second time to restore them to the lands of their inheritance.” In response to an article entitled “What Do Mormons Believe?” written by a newspaper editor, an 1834 article in a Church newspaper stated: “We believe that God has set His hand to recover the remnant of His people, Israel; and that the time is near when He will bring them from the four winds and reinstate them upon their own lands which He gave their fathers by covenant.” Orson Hyde, a prominent early apostle, traveled to Europe in 1841 to warn European Jewish leaders to flee to Palestine in order to escape an inevitable catastrophe (unfortunately, they ignored his warnings). He then went to Palestine, which he dedicated for the gathering of the Jews. In his dedicatory prayer (the first of at least 11 recorded apostolic blessings given in the Holy Land), Elder Hyde made the following request of God for the scattered children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: “Let the land become abundantly fruitful when possessed by its rightful heirs.” At the dedication of our first temple in 1836, the President of the Church asked that “the children of Judah may begin to return to the lands which thou didst give to Abraham, their father.” Following the establishment of Israel, the Church purchased thousands of dollars of Israel bonds. Church President David O.McKay clarified that the purchase was made “to show our sympathy with the effort being made to establish the Jews in their homeland.”  The Church has maintained cordial relations with the Government of Israel since 1948, and the Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles regularly meets with Church leaders in Salt Lake City.

When asked about Israel, many Mormons immediately volunteer that their Church is “neutral” when it comes to the Jewish state (and all other countries, for that matter). This answer is half-right.  To be sure, the LDS Church does not take positions on political conflicts anywhere in the world, including the Middle East, and Mormons are free to support or oppose any countries, political parties or candidates they choose. I fully support this policy of neutrality, which I believe to be inspired. However, history unequivocally shows that the LDS Church was NOT neutral on the question of whether there should be a Jewish state in Palestine: it supported what became “Zionism” decades before Theodore Herzl drew his first breath. Any discussion of Israel between Mormons and Jews is incomplete without this acknowledgment.

The active LDS outreach to Muslims worldwide is laudable, and has nothing to do with this discussion. After all, one can love Muslims, respect Islam, support the creation of a Palestinian state, criticize Israel, and still be an ardent Zionist. As every Jew knows, there are many Israelis who do all of those things. Any Mormon who feels uncomfortable describing himself as a Zionist probably does not use the classical, historical, dictionary definition that appears above. He may believe (incorrectly) that Zionists can’t criticize Israel (in which case, there would be no Zionists in Israel!), hate Arabs, want to expel Palestinians from the West Bank, etc. People can define Zionism any way they wish, but I prefer to keep the historical definition, the one that moved Herzl and other European Jewish leaders to embark on an experiment that has changed the world for the better. As Mormon-Jewish friendships continue to blossom, I anticipate that more people will become aware of our Zionist history. As my friends in Oslo would say, that’s not such a bad thing after all.

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