LDS Church, BYU Jerusalem Center remain neutral amid Israel-Palestine conflict

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Editor’s note: This story pairs with another titled “Fact-checking misconceptions of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

From left: Dome of the Rock (Clay Coleman), Oakland Mormon Temple (Wikimedia Commons) and a Jewish worshiper at the Western Wall (Wikimedia Commons).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remains neutral amidst the chaos and conflict in the Holy Land, despite the fact that with a new U.S. president, politicians and activists continue taking sides and voicing criticism.

On Feb. 15, President Donald Trump held a press conference at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Trump “declared he could endorse a one-nation solution to the long and deep dispute between Palestinians and Israel,” according to the Associated Press.

This declaration was a break from U.S. policy that has long supported a two-state solution.

“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump told reporters. “I can live with either one.”

The LDS Church has not released any official statements citing a particular stance concerning the conflict in recent years. That being said, church leaders have spoken in General Conference as well as other gatherings regarding the topic that shed light on their perspectives.

In October 2016, a delegation of Latter-day Saint leaders and Jewish dignitaries from the United States gathered at a historic site in Jerusalem to mark the 175th anniversary of an early Mormon apostle’s journey to Jerusalem, according to a Mormon Newsroom article. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke of a positive relationship between Mormon and Jewish faiths represented by Orson Hyde’s mission during the gathering.

“Orson Hyde’s 1841 mission to Jerusalem to dedicate this land for the return of the Jews and for Jerusalem to be its capital city was an important moment in the latter-day Jewish return to their homeland,” Elder Holland said. “We believe the work of Elder Orson Hyde has played a key role in God choosing Jerusalem again.”

BYU religion professor and longtime Jerusalem Center faculty member, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, said he observed Elder Holland in the Holy Land and watched him be as equally friendly and inviting to Palestinians as he was to Israelis in the quote above.

“We pray for the preservation of the Jewish people and for their peaceful association with all who dwell in what is truly the Holy Land,” Elder Holland said.

James Kearl, BYU professor of economics and assistant to President Kevin J Worthen for the Jerusalem Center, said while he cannot speak for the church at large, the BYU Jerusalem Center and BYU itself are neutral in the current conflict, openly and explicitly.

“We make it clear to students, faculty, (expatriates) and local staff that the center is both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, and we do things to reinforce our institutional neutrality in the current conflict,” Kearl said.

The university seeks to fairly introduce students to both sides of the issue, according to both Kearl and Chadwick.  Jerusalem Center Students take both a Modern Near East course on the Palestinian perspective taught by a Palestinian professor, as well as a parallel Modern Near East course on the Israeli perspective taught by an Israeli faculty member.

The Jerusalem Center is an active part of the community it is located in, and integrates both Palestinians and Israelis into its various events and outreach programs.

“We have an ongoing and substantial humanitarian program (partnering with LDS Charities for some of the projects),” Kearl said. “The humanitarian projects are mostly into Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, but not exclusively so and we provide humanitarian assistance to selected Israeli groups as well.”

While the church is neutral on the subject, many individual Latter-day Saints have strong feelings about the literal gathering of Israel and the eventual return of Judah to Jerusalem. In the January 1971 Ensign, Editorial Associate Herbert F. Murray discussed the issues that arise as members attempt to take sides on the conflict.

“The obvious difficulty, of course, is in deciding whether the current situation is in direct fulfillment of prophecy or merely part of the early stages,” Murray said.

In the Millennial Messiah, Elder Bruce R. McConkie noted the gathering of Israel takes place when Christ and his gospel are accepted.

“The gathering of Israel … consists, first, of receiving the restored gospel and of joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Elder McConkie said. “Next it consists of assembling to whatever places are appointed for the worship of the Lord and the receipt of the fulness of his blessings.”

Regardless of individual member’s perspectives on doctrine and politics surrounding the conflict, BYU religious professor Richard N. Holzapfel said the church’s goal is to provide humanitarian services and educational opportunities both to Israelis and to Palestinians. 

“The church and BYU want to be friends with everyone,” Holzapfel said. “We want to help both sides and we don’t have a dog in this fight.”

The Jerusalem Center seeks to echo these feelings in the ways it teaches the students attending the study abroad program.

“If you come away from our program against anyone, we have failed,” Chadwick said.

The Jerusalem Center, BYU and the church are bound by a lease agreement with the government of Israel allowing them to have the center on the land it currently occupies, according to Kearl. The lease prohibits proselytizing, requires that the center be used for educational purposes, and limits attendance at worship services to church members only.