Yet, as Mormon leadership and lay members alike contemplated the miracle of the State of Israel, the Church more quietly worked throughout the 1950s and 60s to support the Arab Development Society, a charitable organization dedicated to lifting the social, economic and educational standards of Palestinian villages. In 1949, the Society instituted a ranch near Jericho to which boys orphaned in 1948 could go to study agriculture, and in 1958, the LDS Church contributed to the building of a dairy on the ranch, purchasing cows, a bull and modern dairy equipment for the project. Unfortunately, the ranch and the dairy were lost in 1967.
These two parallel histories—that of Mormon enthusiasm for the State of Israel, alongside concern for Palestinian refugees—provides a kind of model for understanding Mormon views of Israel, the conflict, and the residual effects of 1967. In the early 1960s, Brigham Young University (the university affiliated with the Mormon church) began discussing a possible semester abroad program in Israel, with a mandate that “half of the program be in Arab territory and half in Israel.” Its opening disrupted by the Six-Day Way in 1967, the program did not get off the ground until the following year. Yet its policy for neutrality in the region remained fixed.
My own interest in Israel began through this program. In the summer of 2000, I attended a shortened semester abroad program at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (locally known as the “Mormon University”), an outgrowth of the earlier travel study program. Alongside the rich immersion in biblical study, both in class and on site, we spent significant time studying the modern history and political status of Israel and the conflict. We were taught, in equal measure, by both Jewish and Palestinian instructors. I interacted with the local population as much as I could, both Jewish and Palestinian, and I came away sympathetic to both.
A few weeks after I returned, the Second Intifada broke out. I watched the news, read reports of the senseless violence, listened to the angry debates, and I felt as though my dear friends were attacking one another. Yet, my local friends and family could not understand how I felt so torn over conflict. To them, the aggressor was clear, and our Mormon sympathies, historically and in this instance, obviously lay with the Jews.
For those familiar with Mormon historic relations with Jews, this dynamic should not be particularly surprising. Yet Mormon leaders of recent decades have worked to promote a more neutral view of the conflict. In 1979, a Mormon apostle involved in the development of the BYU study abroad program in Israel chided church membership for its “personal prejudices,” insisting, “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.” Some years later, two Mormon residents of Jerusalem and central figures in the developing BYU program offered further commentary. “To the extent that we look with sympathy and understanding at both sides, we can be an influence to help bring about a just and lasting peace.”
In a sense, then, Mormonism’s official stance of neutrality after ’67 reflects the same worldview that compelled its first prophet to send a penniless missionary on a fraught journey to Ottoman Palestine in 1840: the Mormon conviction that their presence there will positively influence history and bless the lives God’s children.
In 1840, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith sent one of his most fervent followers, apostle Orson Hyde, to Jerusalem to dedicate that land for the return of the Jewish people, whom Mormons viewed not only as God’s covenant people, but as fellow brothers and sisters in the House of Israel. Mormons have remained convinced of their own important role in fulfilling ancient and modern prophecy and blessing the people of the earth, and particularly God’s covenant peoples. They watched the growth of Zionism from their own Utah Zion, and many Mormon leaders later hailed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as nothing less than miraculous fulfillment of prophecy—both ancient and modern. Little was said about the meaning of these events for the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.
Amber Taylor is a third-year doctoral student in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department (NEJS) and a Schusterman Fellow for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Her research focuses on American Christian relations with the State of Israel.