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Religious vs. Secular : Mormon Issue Splits Israelis Into 2 Camps

February 25, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Moshe Dann, 45, is a newly Orthodox Jew whose return to religion began in his native New York. By the summer of 1982, he had emigrated to Israel, where he married an Israeli-born widow with three children and went to work for Yad LeAchim, a religious youth organization.

"In a world where nothing makes sense, the only thing you have is the Torah," Dann said in a recent interview, referring to the entire body of Jewish religious literature. "I don't know where I am, but I know that the only way out is in those books."

Teddy Kollek, 74, is a decidedly non-religious native of Vienna, who in 1934 came to what was then Palestine and soon allied himself with David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father. For 20 years, Kollek has been mayor of Jerusalem, and he has managed by deft political maneuver and compromise to maintain a remarkable degree of peace in this culturally and religiously fragmented city.

An Unlikely Pair

The Orthodox Jew and the secular Israeli mayor seem an unlikely pair to have become the prime protagonists in a bitter controversy over a $15-million Mormon education center being built on a hill overlooking Jerusalem's walled Old City.

But a year-old argument that at first pitted Jews against Mormons has turned into an argument among Jews--one that involves the very nature of the Jewish state.

"The fight is not over the Mormon Center but over the character of Israel," Kollek said.

In Jerusalem more than in any other place, Kollek said, Israel must show tolerance for other religions. Efforts to stop the center, he said, are based on outdated, ghetto-bred fears that can only harm Israel and the image of Judaism around the world.

But Dann says it is the exaggerated concern that Kollek and others show for the opinions of non-Jews that reflects a ghetto mentality.

'Can't Worry About Congress'

"I don't think we should be concerned with how we're perceived if we're right," Dann said. "If we're doing something for the Jewish people, we can't worry about whether (the U.S.) Congress is going to stop giving us aid or not."

A Cabinet-level government committee appointed in December to investigate the dispute is itself reported to be evenly split on whether construction of the center, already half-complete, should be allowed to proceed. The committee is expected to publish its findings within the next week or two, but whatever it recommends, the deeper debate illuminated by the Mormon Center will undoubtedly continue.

The center's beginnings were remarkably peaceful. Since 1968, the Mormons' Brigham Young University has offered its students a semester of study in Israel, and in 1973 the university began thinking of putting up a building to replace the quarters it rents. The new building would accommodate 200 students.

The university started looking for a suitable site in Jerusalem, and the search went on until 1981, when the city offered to lease a large plot adjacent to the Mount of Olives. It took until May, 1984, for all the necessary government committees and offices to approve the building plans, which also had to be published in the press to invite any outside objection.

Among those who gave their blessings were Mayor Kollek, the Foreign Ministry, the Education Ministry and Yosef Burg, who at the time was interior minister. Burg is head of Israel's National Religious Party in Parliament, and as minister of religious affairs in the present government, he was named chairman of the Cabinet committee that is reviewing the project.

Not Aware of Plans

While all this studying and planning was going on, Dann said, the Orthodox Jews who now oppose the center so actively were not aware of it. They knew nothing about Mormon theology, he said, or about the Mormons' plans for the center.

It was not until last year, he said, that the threat became clear--partly with the help of someone in Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City who supplied documents discussing the center's potential for missionary activity.

Dann refuses to identify the informant but said he was motivated by concern that unless the Jerusalem project was stopped, it would ruin relations between Jews and Mormons around the world.

Jewish sensitivity to missionary activity is based on a history of efforts at forced conversion to Christianity as well as the systematic extinction of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. It runs so deep that Jews discourage conversion even to Judaism.

'Leave Us Alone'

"The central issue for every Jew in the world is 'Please leave us alone,' " Dann said.

So when Yad LeAchim began disseminating information about the Mormons' missionary activity in general and plans for the proposed center in particular, it quickly tapped strong support, particularly among the so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews.

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