Women in hijab and men in kippot aren’t usually found dining together. Last week these and many others – Jews, Christians and Muslims, some observant and others non-practicing – joined together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their workplace. This is not a coexistence project or an experiment devoted to peacemaking, but simply daily work – the mutual interest of all involved. For 25 years Jews and Arabs have worked together in all realms at The Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University, a branch of the great American university sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). In academics and instruction, in administration, support, security, maintenance and in the kitchen, Arabs and Jews work together. Harmoniously.
Aptly enough, the event was scheduled for Thanksgiving eve on the U.S. calendar in a fine hotel in west Jerusalem (where the dietary needs of all could be addressed). And just to broaden the cultural diversity, mostly American background music was provided by Garo, an Armenian keyboard musician. Of course there were speeches and words of thanks – many of them. And everyone understood as Tawfic Alawi, the center’s Associate Director serving as Master of Ceremonies, translated everything between the evening’s three languages: English, Arabic and Hebrew. For some of us a highlight of the evening was the last speaker Nahum Nuriel, an Israeli Jew whose family hailed from Egypt. Mr. Nuriel commenced his remarks in Arabic and continued in Hebrew and English, as the translator stood idly by the side.
On several occasions speakers referred to the Center’s founding in the 1980 and to the troubles which accompanied its establishment. Veterans of Jerusalem will recall the campaign waged by the self-styled anti-missionary group Yad L’Achim against the center’s founding. (The U.S.Dept. of State continues to monitor this group’s activities but Israelis know only too well that they have been joined by others, such as Lehava: Against Assimilation in the Holy Land, who have appointed themselves guardians of Jewish souls against what they define as spiritual dangers.)
Accusations against the Center’s construction focused on its highly-visible location on the Mt. Scopus – Mt. of Olives horizon, on the Center’s proximity to the campus of the Hebrew University and to the young Israelis studying there who would be vulnerable to the Mormon mission. The specter of proselytization was invoked to encourage objection to the project. One author wrote that it would lead to a “spiritual holocaust.” By the end of 1985, protests at the site as well as a prayer-demonstration of several thousand at the Western Wall led to a no-confidence motion in the Labor government. A ministerial committee was formed to investigate the matter. During the investigation a Knesset committee requested that the LDS Church promise not to engage in proselytization. A signed commitment not to engage in missionary activities in Israel and Jerusalem – and to dismiss anyone involved in the Center who violated of the promise – was provided by the LDS Church. It has been honored.
Full Disclosure: For five years I have had the privilege to teach Jewish and Israel Studies to well over 1,000 BYU students. The word on campus is clear: there is no proselytizing – or even discussion of Mormon beliefs. I teach them Judaism; they do not share LDS doctrine with the local population.
The bottom line is that BYU’s Jerusalem Center has contributed to Jerusalem. The center is open to the public for tours of the tasteful facility as well as for free concerts several times each month which have been enjoyed by thousands of Jerusalemites and visitors.
But the Center’s contribution to Jerusalem has gone beyond that. This Thanksgiving Dinner demonstrated that the words of former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, “the Mormon church’s presence in Jerusalem can do a great deal of work in providing the bridge of understanding between the Arab[s] and Jews,” have proven quite true.