Dispatch

People of the Book

What's behind the strange love affair between Mormons and Israel?

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.

"We're situated on Jerusalem's seam-line, and politically we're also neutral," says the center's executive director, Eran Hayet, who is Israeli (and Jewish). "We teach our students to be listeners -- that you don't have to be anti-Palestinian to be pro-Israeli, and vice versa."

The proselytizing question largely settled, LDS-Jewish relations suffered further strain in 1995 when Jewish groups discovered Mormons had posthumously converted at least 380,000 Holocaust survivors in what the LDS church calls "vicarious baptism." The ensuing outrage led the church to ban the baptism of deceased Jews outright, but in several cases since, enterprising Mormons have taken it upon themselves to perform the rite.

"The church is very clear: Members are not allowed to engage in baptism of the dead for Jews, except for those who might be direct ancestors in their own line," says James Kearl, the Utah-based assistant to the university president for the Jerusalem Center. "Nevertheless, there may have been two or three flare-ups over this by people who, frankly, were behaving mischievously."

This February, an ex-LDS whistle-blower revealed that a church in the Dominican Republic had baptized Anne Frank and that a congregation in Idaho had done the same for Daniel Pearl, the Jewish American reporter kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. That same month, after learning he had been preapproved for baptism, the author and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel pleaded with Romney to knock his own church into order.

And still the bond continues. Many Mormon leaders "are so pro-Jewish that it's almost awkward," wrote Stephen Richer, a Jewish pollster from Utah, in a recent op-ed for Salt Lake City's leading daily. Utah's Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, wears a mezuzah around his neck and once told the New York Times he often feels "sorry" he wasn't born a Jew. "Mormons believe the Jewish people are the chosen people, just like the Old Testament says," he said. "Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do."

Romney's supportive rhetoric on Israel -- so unfaltering it could have been scripted by the Republican Jewish Coalition -- suggest the candidate may be cut from the same white cloth.

At a presidential debate in January, he blamed the failure of Middle East peace talks squarely on the Palestinians: "The Israelis would be happy to have a two-state solution. It's the Palestinians who don't want a two-state solution. They want to eliminate the state of Israel."

In Israel on Sunday, Romney delivered the same unflagging message of support. He pointedly referred to Jerusalem as the country's capital, an implicit swipe at Barack Obama's administration, which drew the ire of conservative commentators when in a routine news release in March it listed Jerusalem and Israel as separate places. Asked to clarify, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused to name Jerusalem -- or any other city -- as the country's capital. "Jerusalem is a permanent-status issue" between Israel and the Palestinians, she said. "It's got to be resolved through negotiations."

Romney wasn't inclined to allow even a ray of daylight between the two nations. "The story of how America … rose up to become the dear friend of the people of Israel is among the finest and most hopeful in our nation's history," Romney said against the backdrop of Mount Zion and the Old City walls. "Israel's achievements are a wonder of the modern world … [and] America's support of Israel should make every American proud."

At a fundraiser on Monday, Romney hinted that Israel's economic success may be a reflection of divine favor. "[As] I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things," he said, citing Israelis' innovation, a Jewish tradition of succeeding despite persecution, and the "hand of providence."

Palestinians were unimpressed. "What is this man doing here?" said veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn't this racism?" Even some Israeli commentators felt the speech disingenuous, a gesture intended more for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than for Israelis themselves.

But Paredes, the Mormon blogger, attributes the LDS-Jewish alliance to a history of shared suffering: "[T]he nearly 14 million members of our church, which has been the most persecuted major religion in American history … do have special feelings for the 13 million members of the most persecuted religion in world history."

Daniels, the Republican strategist, is skeptical. "They've had a tough time; they've had their massacres. But in terms of persecution, you can't really beat us. There's little comparison between what we've been through in 2,000 years and what they've been through in 200," he says.

"What we've experienced as a people is unmatched, nor would we wish it upon anyone." "There is no existential threat against Utah," he says. "As persecuted and troubled as they think they are, it ain't that bad."

LIOR MIZRAHI/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Mitt Meets the Brits

London gets a crash course in the 2012 election.

LONDON — The U.S. presidential contest usually attracts a great deal of interest around the world, especially in Britain. But until this week, that interest had yet to ignite. To be fair, the 2008 race was hard to top as a spectacle value, featuring two potential historic candidates on the Democratic side and the advent of Tea Party dynamo Sarah Palin. But it has still been striking how little interest the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney contest has sparked here in Old Europe. This has changed in a hurry with Romney's arrival in London this week.

The day before Romney's visit, Fleet Street started to take interest. The left-leaning Guardian said Romney is under pressure to define his foreign policy, while the right-of-center Daily Telegraph quoted an anonymous advisor promising Romney would abandon Obama's "coolness" towards London. The unnamed aide also caused a bit of a dust-up by promising to restore the "Anglo-Saxon" relations between the two countries -- a  phrase loaded when discussing a president whose Kenyan family lived under British colonialism. Romney may also have offended his hosts by suggesting that Britain may not be quite up to the task of hosting the Olympics, telling reporters before a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron that reports of strikes and trouble with private security firms were "not something which is encouraging." London's voluble mayor Boris Johnson even took to the streets, telling a London crowd, 'There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!'

Romney remains something of an unknown quantity in Britain. Like many U.S. presidential challengers, the former Massachusetts governor is a neophyte on foreign affairs. And his visits to what his advisors are calling three key allies -- Britain, Israel and Poland -- are an attempt to burnish his international credentials with hosts who are guaranteed  not to embarrass him and give him a polite, warm reception. The timing of the London stop has the added benefit of invoking Romney's successful management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. So, as the British public finally begins to tune in to the great race across the pond, what do they see?

With the possible exception of George W. Bush in 2004, presidential incumbents have had a built-in advantage with Britons, as the old maxim "better the devil you know" tends to apply to foreign governments and media. This goes double for Obama: When he came into office three and a half years ago, he had an extraordinarily high approval rating abroad. Most British papers -- even the conservative ones -- greeted his 2008 win as historic. The Guardian fulsomely praised the result, writing at the time, "[T]he American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world."

But Obama's primary advantage back then -- not being Bush -- has lost some of its effectiveness this time around. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, published last month, shows that approval of the president's policies is declining in most of the world. The fall has been most pronounced in China and in Muslim countries, but there have also been significant drops in Europe and Japan, where confidence in him as an individual remains relatively robust. In Britain, opposition to drone strikes against terrorist suspects outweighs support, and approval of the United States generally, though still higher than under Bush, is down from Obama's early days.

For much of the British press, Obama got off to a bumpy start because of his decision to give back -- or not renew the loan of -- the Winston Churchill bust lent to the White House after 9/11. Many commentators chose to interpret this as a sign of anti-British sentiment from the half-Kenyan president, and the Daily Telegraph took to publishing an annual list of Obama's top 10 insults against Britain (if you're wondering, No. 1 so far for 2012 is "Siding with Argentina over the Falklands"). Still, Cameron has been keen to cultivate good relations. When the Obamas came on a state visit last year, for instance, it was all smiles, and they even joined together in hosting a barbecue for British servicemen in the garden of No. 10 Downing St. And on Cameron's return visit to the United States this year, the two men were shown sharing jokes and enjoying each other's company at a basketball game in Ohio.

Obama's personal ratings remain high with the British, but there is a general sense that he is a conventional politician who finds governing a lot more difficult than campaigning. Given the sky-high expectations that accompanied him into office, a return to Earth was probably inevitable.

But what of Romney? When it comes to the Republican candidate, there is no record on which to assess the popularity of his foreign policies, but there has been some coverage of his statements and ideas as well as his team of advisors in the British media.

When Romney unveiled his lineup of national security and foreign policy advisors, it included a number of retreads from the Bush administration, provoking comment that Romney had been captured by unilateralist hawks and neoconservatives. This impression was only reinforced at the beginning of the year when former U.N. ambassador John Bolton joined the Romney campaign.

Many abroad saw this as a sign that the candidate was trying to shore up his support with the Republican right at home. But it also scared the pigeons, especially in more multilateralist Europe. Given Bolton's well-known criticisms of a diplomatic approach to resolving the Iran nuclear dispute, and given that Romney has criticized Obama for failing to support Israel more strongly, there are concerns -- so far expressed informally -- that a Romney presidency could increase the risk of another major conflict in the Middle East.

There have been reports that the British military is making contingency plans supporting a U.S. military operation against Iran, but there is no great enthusiasm in London for such action. Following the NATO intervention in Libya, where Britain and France seemed keener on action than the United States, British officials have been working closely with their U.S. counterparts on Syria and have responded well to Obama's reluctance to go it alone. So if Romney means what he says about reasserting American primacy, he may find that does not go down so well in London.

Romney's identification of Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" also raised eyebrows abroad. At a recent high-level seminar on Russian foreign policy in London, there was some bafflement expressed as to what he was on about. Although Russia is a BRIC, as former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd put it on the BBC, Moscow "is in the lift going down," while the so-called emerging economies are going up. The almost universal consensus in Europe is that China, not Russia, poses the greatest geopolitical challenge to the United States.

The three stops on Romney's foreign tour also suggest a backward-looking vision. London may be a key ally, but is not a rising power. Poland is good place to go to ensure a friendly reception to his message that his opponent has been weak on Russia, but Moscow is not a global challenger to Washington anymore. Israel is both an obvious choice to ensure support from the right in his own party and a safe one, given the strained relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But what of the new powers that have emerged on the global stage since the turn of the century: India, China, Brazil, or even Turkey?

Perhaps a trip to one of these would have been too risky. But many outside the United States are expecting Romney to acknowledge at some point in the campaign that he gets that the world is changing and that America has to work with others to get things done. And while it is true that informed British observers of U.S. presidential campaigns discount much of the foreign-policy rhetoric they hear, they do expect candidates for one of the most powerful posts in global politics to demonstrate that they have answers to the challenges the world faces.

Romney could score points with Europeans, including the British, by reassuring them that the inevitable future U.S. focus on Asia does not mean turning away from Europe. The candidate's London stop may not be off to the smoothest start. But if Romney really regards the relationship with London as "special," as one of his advisors told a British journalist, that will go down well with a people who still attach huge importance to being close to Washington and to being seen by other countries to be so.

DAVID BEBBER/AFP/GettyImages