Once again, unfortunate developments in the Middle East appear to be undercutting what has been a very long and elusive search for peace there. As Israelis and Palestinians come to blows once again, they seem poised to begin another episode in one of the world’s deepest and most intractable political conflicts.
Palestine has been of long-standing interest in American politics, and not least of all, it turns out, to Mormon politicians. William King and Elbert Thomas, Democratic Senators from Utah during the 1930s and 40s, were proactive Zionists—advocates for the establishment of a Jewish home state—long before one was actually established in 1947. As the Holocaust unfolded, they also took action to assist endangered Jews . Both fought against anti-immigration forces for a loosening of restrictions that would open the United States to the swelling tide of Jewish refugees, including Jewish children. (These facts came to light again in the most recent flap between Mormons and Jews over proxy baptism.)
More than fifty years after King and Thomas, Mormon Democrats still evidently retain some of the same inclinations. When President Obama made controversial suggestions about parameters for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2011, seeming to suggest concessions toward the Palestinians, he met with unlikely criticism from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid–a Mormon convert–who remained committed to a solution more favorable to Israel.
Since the Reagan administration, support for Israel has become increasingly associated with conservative politics in the U.S., and there Mormon Republicans are among the most invested. Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the strongest proponent of solidarity with Israel, responded to President Obama’s comments by introducing to Congress a formal resolution of disapproval. Hatch is well known for his affection toward Jews; he wears a mezuzah around his neck and keeps a Torah in his Senate office. In 2009 Hatch, an amateur Christian hymnist, wrote his first song commemorating Hanukkah, and told the New York Times that there were times “I feel sorry I’m not Jewish.” “Anything I can do for the Jewish people,” he pledged in the interview, “I will do.”
The same kind of affirmative sentiments appeared during the past election cycle in the staunchly pro-Israel rhetoric of Mitt Romney. Romney sternly critiqued what he characterized as the Obama administration’s neglect of Israel, and the administration’s willingness to create a degree of separation in the American-Israeli alliance. Promising that Israel would be the recipient of his first trip abroad as president, and vowing to stand steadfastly shoulder to shoulder with Israel, with no room for “daylight,” Romney’s enthusiasm appeared to go even beyond his personal friendship with Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister.
Taken together, all of this raises the question: How does one account for what seems to be persistent and exceptional support of Mormon politicians for Jews and for Israel?
That claim isn’t indisputable, and there are a number of possible explanations. But there is no question that Jews and Israel occupy an important place in Mormon theology, and little doubt that Mormons’ faith tends to lead them to a favorable inclination. While the logic and the definitions of the relationship are imprecise, Mormons recognize Jews as a kind of kindred, part of a covenant people with an important role to play in world history. As Senator Hatch put it, “Mormons believe the Jewish people are the chosen people, just like the Old Testament says.”
Unlike other Christians, Mormons not only believe that Judaism once constituted God’s chosen people on the earth; they hold that the modern descendants of ancient Israel, including modern Jews, remain a covenant people, and that the latter-day history of the earth is a collaboration to achieve a kind of Jewish restoration. Book of Mormon scripture, in particular, prophesies of a modern collaboration between righteous “Gentiles” and Israelites to achieve God’s ultimate purposes. Reprising several times Isaiah’s promise to the Hebrews that “kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and…queens thy nursing mothers,” the Book of Mormon reinforces and expands this prophecy, making possible a reading that foretells the Zionist movement and the support of Western powers for a Jewish state. (The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 22; 2 Nephi 6)
Given the Book of Mormon and other Mormon teachings, then, it comes as no surprise that Mormons seem eager to support the interests of what is recognizable as Israel today. In a recent article Mark Paredes—a Mormon blogger who writes frequently about Jews and Mormons—offered as one of “Five things every Jew should know Mormonism” the claim that “Mormons are philo-Semites and pro-Israel.” And indeed, given the teachings and the history, this would seem to be the case. Now that bipartisan support of Israel in the United States appears to be waning, however, and given the contingent of Mormons with liberal politics, it will be interesting to watch for debate about what these peculiar Mormon views should mean, if anything, to foreign policy and to to the vicissitudes of international conflict.