Revision 8.8 More opposition to the BYU Jerusalem Center

Revision 8.8 More opposition to the BYU Jerusalem Center December 19, 2020

 

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Posting a photograph of BYU’s completed Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies serves, I suppose, to ruin the suspense: It WAS eventually built, despite the opposition.  (LDS Media Library)

 

Don’t miss this important (and relevant) monument from the history of Israeli popular music:

 

 

As the Center came under attack it was clearly the Church itself that was being assaulted. The Latter-day Saint claim that this was a university building, an academic facility, rather than a mission home or a church, was almost universally brushed aside as a smoke screen. Still, many people in and out of Israel rose to the defense. Mayor Kollek did not back down from his support of the Center, but defended its construction now as a matter of religious freedom, plu­ralism, and human rights. Furthermore, he solicited from David Galbraith a carefully-crafted statement on behalf of the Church promising that students and staff of the Center would engage in nei­ther overt nor covert proselyting. The statement was published in the Jerusalem Post. Leading newspapers throughout Israel pointed to the Latter-day Saints’ excellent record of abstaining from missionary activities during the more than fifteen years that they had been operating programs in Israel. The rabbi of Salt Lake City wrote a let­ter in support of the Center. New York’s Jewish Anti-Defamation League endorsed the Center’s continued construction, as did the Arizona Regional Board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York. Former American president Gerald Ford sent a personal letter of support to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. One hundred and fifty-four mem­bers of the United States Congress signed a letter of endorsement that was distributed to all members of the Knesset, the Israeli par­liament.

Still the attacks on the Church continued. In November 1985, the announcement was made that Brigham Young University had retained a prominent Israeli public relations firm in order to help in presenting a more positive image of the University, the Center, and the Church to the Israeli public. The truth had to be heard above the clamor of voices denouncing the Saints. The firm immedi­ately took out advertisements in a number of leading Israeli news­papers in order to explain the Latter-day Saints and their faith to an audience that knew very little about them and to clarify the pur­pose and projected function of the Jerusalem Center for Near East­ern Studies. Perhaps even more effective was a program, broadcast just after Christmas on Israeli television, that featured the Gal­braith family. At one point in the program, Professor Galbraith played portions of a cassette tape on which he had recorded some of the threatening telephone calls he and his family had received. When the audience heard things like “This is your last warning; we’re bloodthirsty. If you don’t leave Israel we’re going to kill all of you, one by one,” there was an immediate response of outrage and of sympathy for the Galbraiths. More to the point, there was a surge of support for the center itself, and it would probably be fair to describe this television broadcast as a turning point in the story.

Many moderate Israeli and American Jews realized that, in fun­damental ways, the dispute was not really about the Latter-day Saints at all. It was primarily a battle about the nature of Israeli soci­ety and the Israeli state. In a sense, they themselves were the targets of this ultra-Orthodox agitation. Was Israel really to be a Jewish state? What, then, would be the status of non-Jews within it? And what would be the status of nonreligious Jews, or of Jews who did not live according to the strict rules favored by the ultra-Orthodox? Should Judaism be enforced by law? The issues involved are much the same as those faced by many contemporary Muslims.

Judaism, like Islam, finds a major source of its religious author­ity and practice in the past. But modern values like democracy, equal rights, and religious toleration have come into general accep­tance only since the time in which the fundamental documents of the two religions were composed or revealed. Consequently, they do not directly figure in the sacred texts upon which the two faiths are based. How, then, are they to be incorporated into modern Jewish and Islamic practice? Or should they be incorporated at all? Two easy solutions present themselves to the question of how to harmo­nize an ancient heritage with modern insights, values, and ways of thought: Either the ancient heritage can be abandoned and all modern ideas embraced without exception (the secularist solution), or the modern age can be altogether ignored (the fundamentalist solution). The difficult thing is to find a middle ground that preserves the best features of both. Not only is it difficult to find such a middle ground, but even if someone does manage to position himself in the middle, he thereby opens himself to attacks from both extremes. To the fundamentalists, he is an apostate; to the secularists, he is either a fundamentalist himself or a coward, caving in to pressure from reactionaries and fanatics. This was an unmistakable aspect of the struggle over the building of BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Gradually, however, it dawned on even the most die-hard ene­mies of the Center that the building was going to be completed and that the government would not stop its construction. And, gradu­ally, the campaign of harassment, distortion, and vilification against the Latter-day Saints began to wind down. There were still occasional flare-ups. Late in the construction process, for instance, local and general officers of the Church were requested to sign doc­uments promising that neither the Center, nor the University, nor the Church itself would engage in any proselyting of Jews in Israel—ever. This was to be in addition to promises already made by BYU officials and leaders of the Church that the center would not be used for missionary purposes and that Latter-day Saints would not proselyte in Israel so long as such activity was not allowed by the government.

Church leaders refused to sign. As Elder James E. Faust, then of the Council of the Twelve, put it during a visit to Israel in January 1987, “We will never say never.” This most recent demand touched on a matter of fundamental importance, a matter beside which even the expensive and long-dreamed-of building on Mount Scopus was relatively unimportant. Latter-day Saints obey the law. That is a matter of principle and religious belief, enshrined in their Articles of Faith. They are willing to limit their missionary efforts when the law demands it. But they make no secret of another principle of their faith, namely that it is their ultimate goal and duty to take the gospel to all nations of the earth, including the Jews. They cannot renounce this principle and certainly will not do so merely to sat­isfy the excessive demands of any human government. The Church stood firm, and those making the demand backed down.

 

 


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