Joshua Rona is no stranger to terrorism. He was born and raised in Israel, a land where everyday activities such as getting on a bus or shopping in the market carry a certain sense of unease. Just before September 11, 2001, Joshua was called to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His service took him out of Israel for two years, but he could not escape terrorism’s global reach. He was serving in New York when the Twin Towers were hit. When he returned to Israel, the second Palestinian Intifada was well under way. “You get used to it,” he says with a resigned shrug that seems to be the attitude of most Israelis.
I spoke with Joshua on a Saturday evening in Jerusalem, just as the cafés were opening up again after the Sabbath. We strolled around for a while looking for the right spot to talk about his experiences of growing up in Israel. We found a small coffee shop and, as is the norm in Israel, a metal-detecting wand was waved over us as we entered. In perfect Hebrew, Joshua ordered two milkshakes. For a moment, we could have been in any European city, except perhaps for the Uzi-toting soldiers walking around outside. It was a perfect summer’s evening.
Life in Israel can be jarring to foreigners, although Joshua reminded me that a person was more likely to die from violent crime in any large American city than by a suicide bomb in Jerusalem. But things are worse today than they have been in the past. Joshua remembers shopping in Bethlehem (an Arab town) with his mother when he was younger, something he wouldn’t do now. Nor would he venture into the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. “It’s probably OK,” he told me, “but there’s no need to take risks.”
Joshua’s parents immigrated to Israel from the U.S. in 1974. His father, Daniel, is a Jewish convert and until a couple of years ago was busy running popular LDS-themed tours of the Holy Land. Joshua considers himself to be both Jewish and Mormon, although because his mother is not Jewish, technically neither is he. This does not trouble Joshua. “I don’t need a rabbi’s approval to be a Jew,” he says. For him, Judaism and Mormonism are on different paths of the same gospel, the latter the modern fulfillment of the former. Joshua observes the Jewish Sabbath and holidays. He is an Israeli citizen and despite ill health volunteered for clerical service in the Israeli army. He is proud to be from Israel, and although he also holds an American passport, Israel is home.
Return of the Jews
Joshua believes that the Zionist cause and the establishment of the state of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy. “In 1841, Elder Orson Hyde came here to Jerusalem and dedicated this land for the return of the Jews. The existence of Israel is a result of that blessing.”
I ask him the hard question that is always asked of Zionism: Does the return of the Jews to Palestine justify the suffering of the Palestinian people? “Of course not”, he replied, bristling at the suggestion. “I think that the gospel plan allowed for the return of God’s ancient chosen people but that did not give them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Bad things have happened, but that is the nature of men. I think God wanted a peaceful return.” Joshua believes that whilst the excessive zeal of certain Jews has not helped the Palestinians, the Arabs and their governments shoulder much, if not most, of the blame.
I ask him if there is any hope for peace. “One day the Jews will sit down with Jesus and they will accept him. Perhaps not until then.”
Joshua serves as the first counselor in the Tel Aviv branch of the Church. A group of branch members meets every Sabbath at the BYU Jerusalem Center. There are some local members (like Joshua Rona) and a few foreign expatriates and missionary couples. Meetings in Tel Aviv proceed in three languages in order to cater to the different communities represented – English, Russian and Spanish. Every summer, Church membership in Israel doubles with the arrival of various students and professors. During my summer stay in Israel, the Jerusalem group was home to American students studying at the Hebrew University, volunteers at a humanitarian organization in Bethlehem, and BYU professor Jeffrey Chadwick, who was leading an archaeological dig at the ancient Philistine city of Gath.
An Active Presence
Though its numbers are few, the Church maintains an active presence in the Holy Land. Despite being closed to students, the Jerusalem Center organizes LDS charity work among Israelis and Palestinians and its free weekly concerts have become part of the Jerusalem cultural scene. At a jazz concert I attended, one artist remarked that the Center was her favorite place to perform in Israel: “The audience is wonderful and the view is the best in Jerusalem”. These are no mere platitudes, as anyone will attest who has spent an evening listening to good music against the golden backdrop of the Old City. The high regard for the Jerusalem Center is particularly gratifying considering the opposition that accompanied its construction. One unintended niche that the Center has also come to fill is as the photographic backdrop for Palestinian wedding parties. Its perfect view and beautiful gardens mean that every day happy couples arrive to have their pictures taken outside the “Mormon University.”
LDS living in Israel does not come without its challenges. For Joshua Rona his isolation from other young adults in the Church is particularly difficult. For certain East European members, their employment and immigration status make travel to church challenging. Yet one brother, whom no one has met nor been able to visit, faithfully sends his tithing to the District Office every week.
Emblematic of LDS life in the Holy Land is Sahar Qamsiyeh, a young Palestinian woman and member of the Church. I had arranged to meet her in Ramallah in the West Bank, but Sahar made the effort to come to Jerusalem. This was not easy, as all Palestinians require a permit to enter Israel. She lined up early that morning with a letter of recommendation from the district president. The permit allowed her to stay until sundown.
A Palestinian View
Sahar and Joshua are remarkably different people with opposing views of the political situation in Israel. Sahar, a proud Palestinian, strongly disagrees with Joshua’s assessment of Zionism. She believes that God’s plan for the restoration of the Jews is contingent upon their acceptance of Jesus. “This has not happened,” she says. “But I have no problem in sharing the land so long as the Palestinians are treated fairly.” Sahar applauds the Church’s effort to be politically neutral towards the Arab-Israeli problem.
Sahar grew up in a Christian-Arab family near Bethlehem. Despite coming from a good family, she tells a life story full of despair. Her experiences as a Palestinian in the West Bank, including seeing a boy shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, were not conducive to a positive view of Israel or the Israeli people. “There was so much hate,” she admits, “that I even considered becoming a suicide bomber.
Things began to change for Sahar in 1994. She had been offered a generous and prestigious scholarship to study at the American University in Washington D.C., and was all set to go when she saw an advertisement for BYU in the local newspaper. “I had no idea what BYU was, where Utah was or who the Mormons were,” she recalls, “but something told me to apply.” She was accepted but the scholarship was considerably less than that offered by the American University. Logic suggested that she reject BYU’s offer but she could not shake the impression that she should go to Provo. She decided to pray about it: “My prayers had been meaningless up to this point. After this particular prayer, I had this strong feeling in my heart that I could not deny, saying that I should go to BYU.”
After becoming acquainted with the Church at BYU, and despite tremendous opposition from her family, Sahar decided to be baptized. She returned to Palestine and now teaches near Jenin. She finds it difficult to get to church in Jerusalem, but her testimony of the Gospel remains strong. I asked her whether she had considered leaving Palestine and moving to a place where life for her would be easier. “I love this country,” she replied. “I cannot leave it. And the Gospel gives me strength.” Sahar is not optimistic that there will ever be peace in the Holy Land but has managed to find peace within. “I was full of so much hate and despair, even as a Christian, before I joined the Church. There may not be peace in this land, but now there is peace in me.”
Two Stories of Peace
In support of this she recounts two stories. A couple of years ago, on her way to church in Jerusalem, she was going through a checkpoint when she was turned back by an Israeli soldier. Years of pain and hatred welled up within her. “I looked at him and I could not love him,” she said. “After joining the Church, much of my hatred for Israelis – particularly the soldiers – had eased, but I could not love him. Then I remembered a scripture I had read in Matthew where Christ says, ‘love your enemy,’ and it bothered me. ‘He’s a child of God’, I thought. ‘Why can’t I love him?’ So I made it my goal to love these people.”
After a year of fasting and prayer she came to the point where she could honestly say that she felt love for Israeli soldiers. “In that sense being a Mormon has changed the way I look at things.”
In another story she recounts an explosion in Bethlehem that killed a prominent local man. “His funeral had about 10,000 people in it. My town was packed with people. I looked at those angry and sad faces. Each party marched together in the funeral and carried its own slogans. I looked at the Hamas party – they seemed to be the ones who looked so rebellious and angry. Yet their eyes were the saddest! They wore head masks and carried rifles. I looked at those faces and had an amazing love in my heart for them despite their hate. I wanted so much for them to find happiness and to know they could find peace and rise above their hatred, even though the conflict here continues day after day.”
For Sahar, only the power of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ was able to motivate her to love her enemy. At church, she and Joshua Rona, a Palestinian and an Israeli, have become friends. She has even worked for the Ronas. This is a small miracle in a land where Israelis and Palestinians try hard not to mix. Elder Russell M. Nelson has spoken of the peace that can be attained in the Middle East by Abraham’s seed:
Descendants of Abraham – entrusted with great promises of infinite influence – are in a pivotal position to emerge as peacemakers. Chosen by the Almighty, they can direct their powerful potential toward peace. (Russell M. Nelson, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” Ensign, Nov. 2002)
Locked in fraternal struggle, the descendants of Abraham find little hope for peace. But Joshua and Sahar, Jew and Arab, are heirs also to the latter-day promises of Abraham. They are peacemakers in a troubled land and for them, Jesus’ assurance holds true: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)