TEL AVIV – Mitt Romney dropped by the Western Wall on Sunday, July 29, but one nearby landmark was conspicuously left off his Israel itinerary: the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University (BYU) -- or as locals call it with typical directness, "Mormon University."
The presumptive U.S. Republican presidential nominee, in his campaign and throughout his political career, has sought to downplay the significance of his Mormon faith. But though his religion could be a liability for many U.S. evangelicals and other devout Christians (just half of Americans believe Mormons are Christian), it may yet prove a blessing in winning over another high-value constituency: Among all American faith groups, Mormons receive the highest favorability rating from Jews.
"Mormons consider themselves to be latter-day Israelites and inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, so they have a natural affinity for Jews," says Mark Paredes, a Mormon from Michigan who writes the blog Jews and Mormons for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
"Because they're a small community of outsiders, they've generally allied themselves with Jews," adds Jonny Daniels, a Jerusalem-based Republican strategist well-connected in Mormon circles through his friendship with Glenn Beck. "They can relate to us in a way other Christians can't."
To outsiders, the Book of Mormon can seem a radically revisionist text that has the Garden of Eden situated in Missouri and Jesus bringing the Gospel to Native Americans after his resurrection. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS for short) portrays itself as a "restorationist" creed which, through the agency of Joseph Smith, returns Christianity to its authentic roots, unsullied by Greek philosophy and other profane accretions.
Many of those roots are unambiguously Jewish, even if most Jews don't know it. The Book of Mormon depicts Native Americans as Hebrews exiled from the Land of Israel around 600 B.C., and Mormons self-identify as descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Menashe. The LDS church has its own version of the Aaronic priesthood (the cohanim who once performed rites in the Jewish Temple), and the iconic Salt Lake Temple houses an inner sanctuary into which only a high priest may enter -- a direct analog to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
An LDS holy text called the Word of Wisdom includes dietary restrictions -- tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine are verboten -- that Mormons view as comparable to the rules for kosher food. On the Mormon Sabbath, believers (or as they're often known, the House of Israel) are encouraged to spend time in study and avoid exchanging money. Mormons even refer to nonmembers as gentiles -- Utah only got its first "gentile" governor in 1917: Simon Bamberger, a Jew.
The Book of Mormon even has Jesus presciently condemning anti-Semitism and "replacement theology" -- the Christian doctrine that the divine covenant with the Jews was superseded when they rejected him as Messiah. "Yea, and ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel," the Nazarene tells the Indian-Israelites of America, "[F]or behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn."
"There are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons," Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once told future LDS President Ezra Taft Benson. "We need to know more about the Jews, and the Jews ought to know more about the Mormons," Benson replied.
Mormon leaders espoused Zionist sympathies decades before the Jewish national movement was born. In 1841, Joseph Smith sent his "personal apostle" Orson Hyde to Jerusalem, where on the Mount of Olives he beseeched God to "restore the kingdom unto Israel -- raise up Jerusalem as its capital, and continue her people a distinct nation and government." Today, Jerusalem's very own Orson Hyde Park sits on the spot of that prophecy, just a few steps from BYU's Jerusalem Center.
Yet Mormon-Jewish relations have at times been uneasy. In the 1980s, as BYU laid the groundwork for its Jerusalem campus, ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel held a 7,000-strong pray-in at the Western Wall, warning of the "spiritual holocaust" that would result from LDS proselytizing. (The Utah-based university is owned and operated by the LDS church, which expects male members to spend two years in missionary work.)
Ultimately a deal was struck between church and state -- Mormon and Jewish, respectively -- barring students from proselytizing in Israel, a stricture that exists in certain Muslim countries and was once in place in the Soviet Union. The campus opened in 1987, admitting some 170 BYU students for semester-long instruction in the Old and New testaments, Arab and Islamic civilizations, and the region's history and languages (students can choose Hebrew or Arabic).
The ban on proselytizing has been scrupulously upheld, but the BYU campus's very location is itself sensitive. Perched on Mount Scopus (an enclave in East Jerusalem controlled by Israel before it unified the city in the 1967 Six-Day War), it overlooks the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock.