An Explanation and Some Clarifying Links

In my most recent post, I alluded to certain restrictions placed upon Mormons while in Israel. I haven't written on this subject (or really any subject for some time, for which I do apologize) because I was hesitant about bringing it up. I have expressed my opinion on the subject to close friends and family, but I don't want to publicly air disparaging or cynical opinions while I am a guest (and a very comfortable one at that) of Israel. Especially since my proximity to the situations that exist here in Israel (remember the burning garbage blocking the bus I was on? No? Well, it happened.) has given me a much more nuanced and complicated view of the things that make Israeli society so sensitive to real and perceived threats.

So, this is the situation: in the mid-80s, the LDS Church began construction of the BYU Center on Mount Scopus which looks right down on to the Old City and the Dome of the Rock. This touched off a huge and prolonged protest by the Haredim of Jerusalem (roughly a quarter of the city's population) who demonstrated outside the construction site, at the mayor's office and at the hotel where the BYU President was staying. Death threats were called in and the construction site itself was attacked twice in attempts to halt construction. Along with this, many community leaders called for BYU to scrap its plans and to find another place to build. Eventually, Senator Orrin Hatch (whose most recent foray into Jewish culture included a song for Hanukkah; my review of that song will not be forthcoming) began to ask people in the US to send letters of support for the Church to Israel in order to placate the opposition.

This, however, was not enough. The political risks of allowing the Center to be built were too great for the coalition government of Israel. Thus, the State of Israel requested that the Church sign a document, forswearing any and all preaching or proselytizing activities in Israel by any of its members, which would ease the pressure on the government and allow the building to be finished. The Church relented and since that time, those have been the restrictions upon members of the Church in Israel: even if non-Israeli, non-Jewish people ask questions about the Church, we are under obligation not to answer while we are in Israel. For example, a few weeks ago in one of my classes (where the vast majority of the students are not Israeli), the topic of Mormons came up and there were multiple inquiries into "What do they really believe?" and "They are heretics, right?" and I had to sit quietly, because if I had piped up and said "Hey, we aren't heretics!" the inevitable follow-up questions could not have been answered to anyone's satisfaction, particularly mine.

As it stands, the LDS Church is the only religion under such restrictions in Israel. And I have come to a grudging peace with this fact, since the agreement was signed by the leaders of the Church and, since the Church is under obligation, then I am under obligation as well. If we don't keep our word, what kind of people are we? Multiple people have tried to convince me that going around this obligation would be fine "in an academic setting," but I always have to explain that I cannot dispassionately discuss the tenets of my faith without defending or promoting my beliefs and that would be a violation of the the agreement.

If you want a more detailed read on the situation, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start off. This site is also good, giving a few more specifics and a great quote from President Hinckley, who certainly had a front row seat to this event. Also, Daniel H Olsen and Jeanne Kay Guelke of the University of Waterloo wrote a terrific paper titled "Spatial Transgression and the BYU Jerusalem Center Controversy" which is available for purchase here, but I would recommend going to your local university and reading it there for free (it was printed in The Professional Geographer, Volume 56, Issue 4).


  1. It isn't just Mormons who face those restrictions, though perhaps you adhere to them more strictly because the leaders of your church signed that aggreement. However, while I was serving in Jerusalem, I worked with many missionaries there who were denied religious visas because their churches were determined to be proselytizing and they were not one of the "original" churches there who have been granted an exception. I also worked with many Christians who were turned around at the border because they told the border folks that they wanted to visit the sites where Jesus lived.

    Of course, there was little I could do. I can imagine your frustration.

  2. Thanks for the info Max. Very Interesting.