Mormons, Politics, Palestine

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.

  • Last Lemming

    In a 1979 talk to BYU students (specifically as a follow-up to the 1978 revelation–see the June 1979 Ensign) Howard W. Hunter made the following statement:

    As members of the Lord’s church, we need to lift our vision beyond personal prejudices. We need to discover the supreme truth that indeed our Father is no respecter of persons. Sometimes we unduly offend brothers and sisters of other nations by assigning exclusiveness to one nationality of people over another.

    Let me cite, as an example of exclusiveness, the present problem in the Middle East—the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews. We do not need to apologize nor mitigate any of the prophecies concerning the Holy Land. We believe them and declare them to be true. But this does not give us justification to dogmatically pronounce that others of our Father’s children are not children of promise.

    We have members of the Church in the Muslim world. These are wonderful Saints, good members of the Church. They live in Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Sometimes they are offended by members of the Church who give the impression that we favor only the aims of the Jews. The Church has an interest in all of Abraham’s descendants, and we should remember that the history of the Arabs goes back to Abraham through his son Ishmael.

    Imagine a father with many sons, each having different temperaments, aptitudes, and spiritual traits. Does he love one son less than another? Perhaps the son who is least spiritually inclined has the father’s attention, prayers, and pleadings more than the others. Does that mean he loves the others less? Do you imagine our Heavenly Father loving one nationality of his offspring more exclusively than others? As members of the Church, we need to be reminded of Nephi’s challenging question: “Know ye not that there are more nations than one?” (2 Ne. 29:7).

    At the present time we are engaged in a project of beautifying the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem by a garden, in memory of Orson Hyde, an early apostle of the Church, and the dedicatory prayer he offered on that site. It is not because we favor one people over another. Jerusalem is sacred to the Jews, but it is also sacred to the Arabs.

    A cabinet minister of Egypt once told me that if a bridge is ever built between Christianity and Islam it must be built by the Mormon Church. In making inquiry as to the reason for his statement I was impressed by his recitation of the similarities and the common bonds of brotherhood.

    Both the Jews and the Arabs are children of our Father. They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides. We have love for and an interest in each. The purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to bring about love, unity, and brotherhood of the highest order. Like Nephi of old, may we be able to say, “I have charity for the Jew. … I also have charity for the Gentiles.” (2 Ne. 33:8–9.)

    President Hunter repeated those sentiments several times thereafter and it was the first time I heard of Mormons being something other than rabidly pro-Israel. I also recommend the article by Jim Mayfield on Ishmael in the same issue.

  • Ardis E. Parshall

    I think a piece like this would benefit from the inclusion of the view of Mormons like me whose theology recognizes the covenant status of Jews and the future role of an Israelite nation, but whose political views do not extend to an attitude of “Israel, right or wrong.” We want the continued existence of a Jewish state and the protection of its people, but we vacillate between unease and revulsion at the actions of Israel toward Palestinian innocents, and are disgusted by American politicians’ refusal to hold Israel accountable for its anti-humanitarian excesses while playing the role of fairy godmother in supplying Israel with whatever weapons and aid it calls for.

  • Ray

    In the process of becoming unquestioning supporters of Israel, we seem to have relegated the Palestinians to a status of something less than human, a people who don’t belong in the land they have lived on for a thousand years, a people with no legitimate grievances and no legitimate aspirations. With some notable exceptions, there seems to be less diversity of opinion on this issue among Mormons than among Israelis themselves. And we wonder why people think we’re provincial.

  • Dan Sharp

    This is a very simplistic view of a very complex theological and political issue. Yes, Mormons do have beliefs in a “Gathering of Israel” (Israel being God’s ancient covenant people). This does not necessarily translate into a political support for the current nation that bears the same name. It also seems to me that citing the political views of several Republicans (who happen to be Mormon) as being very part-line Republican is unsurprising. If you did the same thing with Catholic or Protestant Republican politicians you’d probably get the same result. Yes, Harry Reid is Mormon and a Democrat, put even among the Democratic party a support of Israel is quite common. This doesn’t seem like real news, but rather a continuation of the desire to make news out of Mormonism and politics.

  • austin

    Amen to what Last Lemming, Ardis and Ray said.

  • Sheilan

    I appreciate your article and comments. I grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City then left Mormonism, after college, when I moved to NYC and married a Jew. There I studied meditation and Eastern philosophy. As I have grown more awake, I have been interested in looking at the Mormon religion thru different eyes and my own soul’s relationship to this religion. Last Lemming’s comment, from a statement made by Howard W. Hunter, is the first time I have heard anything remotely enlightened coming from the Mormon Church. Thou I believe Hunter’s statement is a rare perspective, it gives me hope. Thank you.

  • Andrew H.

    I remember taking an International Relations class with Ray C. Hillam at BYU in 1986. He used the Hunter quote to launch into a discussion of how Mormonism was not inherently on the side of Israel. He also brought in the Palestinian Mormon Omar Kadar to talk to the class about the Palestinian positions. It was very eye-opening. I know many in the class were surprised.